A Lit Major At The Movies: Mary Poppins (1964)

MaryPoppinsDisneyA few months ago I was supposed to read P.L. Travers’ Mary Poppins, and then watch the film version. Well, I did one but not the other, so I’m here today to rectify that in a new segment that I like to call A Lit Major At The Movies, because I’m really not very creative when it comes right down to it.

Dancing penguins, nonsense words, and long song-and-dance numbers; it’s just typical mid-century fare from Disney. As a child I frequently saw advertisements for Mary Poppins. I knew how to say ‘Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious’ as well as the next kiddie, and knew all I could ever care to know about A Spoon Full of Sugar, thank you very much.

So it’s hardly surprising that when I finally came to watch this film, so much of it felt familiar to me. From the sparkle in Julie Andrews’ eye to the weird cartoon landscapes and animated characters – there was a part of me that felt like I had seen it all before. And while there were parts of the film that were enjoyable (the chimneysweeps’ dance on the rooftops was a particular highlight), as an adaptation the film was more or less a complete failure.

Let’s look at some of the characters to get an idea of the changes implemented in this movie. Julie Andrews plays Mary Poppins as a slightly sweeter, twinkly personality. And while this is not necessarily in keeping with the spirit of Travers’ book, overall I actually liked her rendering of the magical nanny. Even if you love the Mary Poppins of the book, she’s very hard to actually like. Julie Andrews is serious and severe, yes, but underneath that façade it’s clear that she’s got a lot of love and affection for the children. This perhaps takes away a little from the mystery of the original character – you’re never quite sure what she’s thinking – but for a family film the change is totally justifiable.

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“I never explain anything”. Julie Andrews in one of Mary’s most severe (and brilliant!) moments.

Dick Van Dyke’s Bert is a lot more important in the film than he is in the book. He gets a fair amount of screen time, almost as much as Mary Poppins herself. And while his song-and-dance routines are brilliant, his terrible accent and general role in the film were nowhere near what can be found in the original story.

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Odd-job man… Dick Van Dyke as Bert.

As for the song-and-dance routines… well, on a technical level they are, of course, quite good. But some scenes can be tediously long. Take, for example, the extended sequence when Mary, Bert, and the children jump into the chalk painting and spend a long time in the cartoon English countryside, dancing with penguins and racing merry-go-round horses. Although these scenes were impressive, they also dragged on, bringing the film to a whopping two hours – which, I think you’ll agree, is a little excessive for a children’s film. To be honest, a lot of this movie feels a bit like an extended experiment, with the good folks at Disney trying to see exactly how much they can do mixing live-action and animation. All well and good, but perhaps not the most enjoyable thing to watch for half an hour at a time.

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“Oh. Well, I feel under-dressed.”

But here’s my main quibble: although it’s less obvious in the first half of the film, by the end of the movie it becomes clear that the real hero of the story is not Mary Poppins, or even the children, but Mr Banks. This severe and humourless character spends most of the film insisting on the value of ‘Britishness’ and what a ‘good English child’ should be like. Mary Poppins’ ultimate function in the film is to find a way to subtly reconcile father and children, and to convert Mr Banks from a paragon of ‘English’ national characteristics to a family guy who can just get a good joke. Phew. Thank goodness for that.

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The happy nuclear family, reunited at last.

As for Mrs Banks… well, her role is a little less clear to make out. She’s certainly a puzzling character, at least the way that she’s rendered in the film. She enters before we even see the children, marching in a military fashion and singing about being a suffragette. She wears a ‘Votes For Women’ sash and persuades the household staff to join her in a jolly little number about women’s emancipation. But her liberal attitudes are quickly stifled when her husband returns, and she hides her sash noting that her husband hates ‘The Cause’.

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‘Sister Suffragette’: Glynis Johns as Mrs Banks.

Is she an ineffectual mother? Her inability to stand up to her husband certainly seems to suggest so. And although she’s tender (if a little forgetful) when it comes to the children, she’s never really given an extensive scene with them. Which leads to the question: are her failings as a mother being associated with her feminism? Or does the fact that she can’t stand up to her husband and goes to pains to conceal her involvement with the women’s suffrage movement automatically make her feminism circumspect, perhaps suggesting that there is a certain hypocrisy embedded in the feminist cause?

Or, alternatively: is the fact that Mrs Banks is a suffragette a mere side note, a way of explaining to a twentieth-century audience why a wealthy middle-class housewife would need (or want) to hire a nanny? Considering that the sixties saw the beginning of the second wave of feminism, I think the depiction of Mrs Banks is by no means accidental. What it says about women’s rights movements is perhaps a little more difficult to dissect.

At the very end of the film, with the family reunited, Mrs Banks gives her suffragette sash to the children to attach to the end of their kite as a tail. This perhaps suggests that Mrs Banks is giving up ‘The Cause’; it has been subsumed beneath the more immediate and pressing demands of the family. And although the end of the film encourages parents, both male and female, to engage with their children more, I can’t deny that this particular moment let me down a little bit. Because even if the moment is not intended to be a critique of women’s rights activists, using a suffragette’s sash to fly a child’s kite potentially trivialises the very real struggles that women went through at the turn of the century in order to secure women the vote.

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The Banks family… bowing to convention or ahead of its time? You decide.

Of course, I’ve also read an article which sees the movie as an example of ‘accidental feminism’; read this way Mrs Banks doesn’t give up the suffragette cause when she attaches her sash to the kite. Rather, the film ends with her literally ‘flying her flag’ with her children – the next generation that she is, in theory, campaigning for. So what the film is saying about women’s rights movements probably depends very much on the interpretation of the individual viewer.

But depictions of suffragettes aside, the film is – if not problematic – then undoubtedly disappointing. Perhaps it’s because I’m watching it for the first time as an adult, and perhaps because I really enjoyed the book, I didn’t feel particularly excited by this famous film. Some of the songs are good, the animation and effects are impressive for the time in which they were made, and Julie Andrews is wonderful as the titular character. But in the end, I felt about the film the same way that I felt about Dick Van Dyke’s terrible attempt at a Cockney accent – I’m not buying it.

Rating: 3 Stars

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2 thoughts on “A Lit Major At The Movies: Mary Poppins (1964)

    • Thanks so much, Corinne! I really like writing about film, even though it’s never something I really studied at uni. :)

      I never watched the movie as a kid so it was very interesting seeing it for the first time, especially from an adult’s viewpoint.

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