Film Nerd 2.0: 'Mary Poppins' thrills the kids and destroys Dad
"Mary Poppins" is not the film I thought it was.
Growing up, I saw the film many times, and I always enjoyed it. It's hard not to enjoy the film. A passion project for Walt Disney, it was lavished with every bit of tender loving care he could muster, and director Robert Stevenson did a wonderful job of creating this eccentric, artificial version of London and filling it with strange and memorable characters. I loved the songs by the Sherman Brothers, and I thought Mary Poppins herself was, as she says, practically perfect in every way.
Seeing this as a kid, I thought it was a film about two kids who are so bad that they can't keep a nanny, until they finally get a magical nanny, and she turns them into good kids. It's not a film I spent a lot of time watching over the last quarter-century, despite my affection for it, so my misunderstanding of the film became sort of ossified and like many films, my opinions and attitudes about it were shaped at a time when I had a very different perspective on most things than I do now.
In particular, I was not a parent the last time I saw the movie.
When the boys and I were picking out the movies they'd be watching this year, they asked me about "Mary Poppins," intrigued by the images on the front of the disc. I was happy to drop it into the rotation, and after they had such a great experience with "20,000 Leagues Under The Sea," they were curious what other "real" Disney movies were like. And since "Mary Poppins" is "real," they decided they wanted to see this one next.
Seeing the film again, two things occur to me. First, I really want a Blu-ray transfer of this movie, and I want to see it restored. It is a truly beautiful film, stylized and moody, and I think it would greatly benefit from a little time and attention to just make sure it looks as good as it possibly can. The second is that the film is really about Mr. Banks, played by David Tomlinson.
Certainly Jane (Karen Dotrice) and Michael (Matthew Garber) are important to the film. It is, after all, because of them that Mary Poppins drops into the life of the Banks family. Elsa Lanchester shows up as Katie Nana, the nanny whose walk-out spurs the film's plot into motion, and from the way she describes Jane and Michael, I guess that's why I always assumed they were "bad kids." There's none of that in the actual movie, though. In fact, when they read their version of the ad for a new nanny to their parents, it reveals them to be very sweet children. It's a funny ad, but it's also sort of heartbreaking, and it sets up the film's actual theme. What they want, more than anything, is attention. They want to be good kids. They want to spend time with their mother, who is always busy doing work for the suffragette movement, or with their father, who is always busy with his job at the Bank Of England. They don't torture their nannies because they are mean kids or out of any malice, but because they are lonely and want their parents to see them.
The film is, by and large, a joyous thing, especially because of the wonderful mix of animation and live-action. Julie Andrews makes the perfect tour guide through the film, and it's amazing that she almost wasn't the choice for the film. She lost out on playing Eliza Doolittle in the film version of MY FAIR LADY, but that turned out to be a godsend because of just how right she is for this role. She’s so young and so beautiful and has such an amazing crystal clear voice that it’s no wonder Jane and Michael fall for her almost at once. Richard M. and Robert B. Sherman wrote some of their very best songs for this film, and they’ve stuck with me ever since that first viewing all those years ago. As the boys and I watched the film, they applauded each new number. “Sister Suffragette,” “A Spoonful Of Sugar,” “Jolly Holiday,” “Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious”… every one of them seemed to delight the boys. But the moment where they became lifelong fans of the film was during “I Love To Laugh,” which delighted them completely. Allen is the sort of kid who can't stop giggling once he starts, and with "I Love To Laugh," he got caught up in the infectious energy of the song, and then it just spiraled out of control for him and for his brother.
The film has a very strange structure, and I like that there's no villain, no ticking clock, no bad guy they have to defeat. It's a gentle movie, and the set pieces are just different outings the kids have with Mary Poppins and Burt, her jack-of-all-trades friend played by Dick Van Dyke. Some of the best songs in the film are unusual in their approach to storytelling or in what they say. I think "Stay Awake" might be the prettiest song in the entire Disney songbook, an anti-lullaby that is only made more beautiful by the way Andrews sells it. "Feed The Birds" is a remarkable song, an ode to empathy, and it's wrenchingly pretty, making visible to these children the sort of person who their father treats as invisible. It awakens something in Jane and Michael that they didn't realize they were missing, and it leads to Michael's escape from the bank and his refusal to hand over his tuppence to his father for a new account. And, yes, Van Dyke's accent is a thing of majestic horror, but you'd have to be made of stone not to have fun with his performance anyway. He is wildly entertaining, and "Chim Chim Cher-ee,” and “Step In Time” are exuberant numbers, performed with an abandon that is hard to deny. By the time that encounter with the chimney sweeps wraps up, though, the film has shifted into its final act, and with it, there's a major shift in mood and tone.
It's obvious from the reaction that Mr. Banks has when he arrives home in the middle of the chaos of "Step In Time" that he's going fire Mary Poppins and hold her responsible for his humiliation at the bank, and it comes down to a quiet moment between Burt, packing up his sweep tools, and Mr. Banks. And Burt, singing a minor key variation of "A Spoonful Of Sugar," finally lays out the film's true theme:
"You're a man of high position/Esteemed by your peers
And when your little tykes are crying/You haven't time to dry their tears
And see them grateful little faces/Smiling up at you
Because their dad, he always knows/Just what to do
You've got to grind grind grind/At that grindstone
Though childhood slips/Like sand through a sieve
And all too soon/They've up and grown
And then they've flown
And it's too late for you to give"
Tomlinson just passed away recently, and I don't know how other people feel about him as a performer, but I wish I'd had a chance to meet him so I could tell him how deeply his work in the film, and in that scene in particular, affected me. It's almost entirely silent on his part, but it's obvious that Burt's words punch a hole in him, and then he gets summoned to the bank where they're going to fire him.
Instead of begging for his job, it's like Banks has been set free. He doesn't care anymore. He has finally realized that he needs these children who he has been ignoring, and he can't wait to get home to them. His anger at Mary Poppins evaporates because he realizes that you can't let someone else raise your children. It’s one of the most joyous epiphanies I’ve ever seen in a movie.
Watch the closing moments of the film in particular. The kids are upstairs saying a tearful goodbye to Mary Poppins, who knows it’s time to leave, and they’re begging her to stay when their father suddenly comes home, transformed by what he’s learned. As soon as the kids see the change in him, they forget all about Mary Poppins. They don’t even finish their goodbyes. They’re so caught up in this newfound rush of emotion from their father that they just run off with him. This is what they’ve wanted... no, what they’ve needed... all along. “Let’s Go Fly A Kite” is an ode to this sudden unity, the sound of a family coming together for the first time, and I found it to be unspeakably beautiful.
It's strange when the kids are watching the movie and cheering and laughing, and I'm sitting there with them, tears coursing down my cheeks. Allen was the one who noticed first, and he climbed up into my lap and told me, "Daddy, it's a happy ending. See? They're happy." He hugged me and wiped the tears off my cheek. "They've got a good dad now. Like you."
Waterworks. Friggin' waterworks. I struggle with my workload and my schedule and my own needs and my travel and all the other things that conspire to pull us away from our kids in daily life, and I am acutely aware of the things I do not share with them. When I'm at Cannes in a few weeks, Toshi will be having his last baseball game of the season, and I'll miss it. Even if my wife videotapes it, it won't be the same as being there to cheer for him, making sure he sees me in the stands, making sure he can hear me every time he catches a ball or makes a run or gets someone out. I go to every game and every practice that I can, and even so, I feel like it's not enough. When Allen wants me to stop and play Legos with him, I try to make sure to take that time when I can, and when he asks me to help him with a puzzle, I try to make myself available. I try to be there when they go to sleep, and I try to be there when they wake up. When there are tears to dry or nightmares to soothe, I want it to be me that they turn to. And when my sons tell me they love me, when they tell me that they are happy, and when I see them growing and becoming people I can be proud of, I relax just a little bit. Never completely, though, because I am aware how brief this time is, and how soon they won't need me in the same way. I didn't need "Mary Poppins" to tell me to hold these days precious, but I can honestly say that there are few films that have ever delivered the message with such elegance or such potency.
I love the movie, and my kids have watched it a few times since we watched it together. And while I may not sit with them every time, I am glad that it is one more thing I shared with them, one more memory that they'll have in which we talked and laughed and bonded. My greatest fear is that I will end up as Mr. Banks, allowing my time to slip away, and my greatest joy are those times I feel like I got it right.
"Film Nerd 2.0" remains, in every sense of the word, an irregular column: