Mary Poppins: fifty years later and still practically perfect in every way…or at least so the 1964 Walt Disney classic would suggest; an effortless blend of live action and animation undeniably marking a crowning achievement for the studio. It all looks so effortless, so completely right in tone, deportment and accoutrements that one can easily forget two aspects of the movie’s arduous production. First, that Poppins was a movie at least 25 years in the making, and second – that it took liberties with P.L. Travers original children’s novel; occasionally to the author’s chagrin. Travers was much more the caustic and intimidating nanny of her novel than the sugary sweet – if ever so slightly pert - reincarnation a la Julie Andrews. Indeed, Walt had tried to woo the reluctant authoress for nearly twenty years with prospects of turning her first book into a movie. Travers, however, remained staunchly unconvinced; chiefly because she had seen other time-honored literature transformed into ‘marketable’ entertainments by Hollywood; relying on a book’s title – but precious little else - to sell stories and characters not in keeping with the original sentiments of the work. But Travers may have also thought Walt incapable of producing any version based on her beloved children’s classic.
Walt’s earliest contact with Travers began in 1938; a cordial letter affectionately praising the authoress. It was immediately met with a rather stern rebuke. Disney had, in fact, no track record for producing live action movies then, and had only just experienced his first flourish of worldwide success with his foray into animated features: Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs (1937). Over the next two decades Walt intermittently wrote Travers with subsequent inquiries, all the while building a private rapport with the author and a public reputation as one of the movies’ most formidable storytellers. By the mid-1950’s talks between Travers and Walt were on more amicable terms. Perhaps Travers had seen one of Disney’s superb live-action literary-to-screen adaptations (20,000 Leagues Under the Sea 1954, and Old Yeller 1957 immediately come to mind). Or maybe the starchy Brit was just getting weary of saying ‘no’ to this persistent and much beloved figure of family entertainment. Travers did pay Walt a singular compliment in an interview around 1959, saying that if anyone could do Mary Poppins justice it would likely be Disney.
But this was the last bit of encouragement Walt would receive from Travers as pre-production on Mary Poppins began. Disney was, in fact, taking a terrible gamble on Travers and Mary Poppins. At the time he signed Richard M. and Robert B. Sherman to write the score he had neither Travers’ approval to move forward nor any guarantee from the authoress that she would grant her consent in the near future. Hence, Walt was investing funds on a project that might never have seen the light of day in his latest attempt to woo Travers to his way of thinking. Travers did come around – barely – but only after Walt agreed to give her unprecedented access and final approval on virtually all aspects of the production; starting with the score and ending with her seal of approval on its final cut. Travers made no bones about the fact she would be overseeing Walt’s progress on an almost daily basis; her keenly critical eye studying Julie Andrews like a hawk.
It’s enough to unsettle any actress – but particularly Andrews who had, as yet, not appeared in a movie and was rather callously overlooked by Jack Warner for his big budget screen version of My Fair Lady (1964). In the meantime, Walt had seen Andrews in the London West End production of Camelot opposite Richard Burton, and was overwhelmed by her presence and singing voice. Backstage the die was cast for Andrews to come to America and do Mary Poppins. It would prove a most fortuitous decision, earning the relatively unknown actress the much coveted Best Actress Academy Award. Andrews, who once desperately hoped to do the movie version of My Fair Lady, had the last laugh on Oscar night when, during her acceptance speech she reserved her final thanks for “…the man who made all this possible – Mr. Jack Warner!”; a rather ribald snub done tongue-in-cheek that brought down the house and even made Jack smile.
In hindsight, Mary Poppins is such a perfect confection; perhaps the best all-around family entertainment made since The Wizard of Oz (1939). But behind the scenes it was also a lot of hard work. P.L. Travers constant scrutiny aside, Walt had taken on considerable responsibility, necessitating a new level of scope and quality from his artisans; by far his most large-scale project. To this end Walt assigned his two top story men, Bill Walsh and Don Da Gradi to rework Travers’ book into a manageable screenplay. For purposes of concision, the Banks’ children were paired down to two and Mary’s travels around the world using a magic compass, expunged from the plot. Walsh and Da Gradi also consolidated the characteristics of several supporting characters in the book into one jack-of-all-trades for the movie, played with inimitable charm by Dick Van Dyke, whose cockney accent left very much to be desired.
The story’s timeline regressed from Travers’ WWII setting to the more gentile Edwardian age drawing yet another parallel between Poppins and My Fair Lady. This also afforded Walt the opportunity to indulge in some truly marvelous set recreations of that more elegant English era. Finally, at Walt’s insistence, one of the pivotal moments in the movie would involve Mary taking the children on a ‘Jolly Holiday’; a musical jaunt through a series of chalk pavement pictures sketched by chimney sweep/scrivener, Bert. P.L. Travers objected to this sequence – a sumptuous blend of live action and animation – with Walt exercising his authority on this very rare occasion to veto the authoress. Choreographers Mark Breaux and Dee Dee Wood began the arduous task of working out the movie’s many intricate dance sequences. Dick Van Dyke and Julie Andrews had never danced before. But they proved quick studies. Still, there were endless hours of rehearsal – leaping, jumping, tumbling and tapping in the hot sun on the Burbank lot while sound stages were readied with exquisite reproductions of merry ole England via Carroll Clark and William H. Tuntke’s production design.
Mary Poppins also presented various technological challenges that had to be worked out in advance. Walt’s technicians – notably headed by Ub Iwerks – had perfected the sodium matte process some years earlier, an in-camera photographic bit of trickery isolating foreground live action (shot under natural lighting conditions) and seamlessly matting backgrounds and miniatures later, using sodium ‘yellow’ light. Matte artist Peter Ellenshaw painted all of Mary Poppins evocative aerial shots; romanticized bird’s eye views of London on glass. Finally, Walt put his top animators on crafting his ‘Jolly Holiday’ sequence; a lavishly appointed bit of escapism that had Mary, Bert and the Banks’ children cavorting with various barnyard animals, penguin waiters, riding in a fox hunt, and finally, engaging Pearlie street performers in a spirited gavotte to ‘Supercalifragilisticexpialadocious’; arguably, the most memorable song in the Sherman Brothers’ stellar score.
In hindsight, Mary Poppins songs are exemplars of a certain style in film scoring that, regrettably, is no more a part of our popular entertainments. Each song, from the aforementioned exuberant duet between Mary and Bert (ably assisted by the Pearlies) to the lyrical and heartrending ballad, ‘Feed the Birds’ (said to be Walt’s all-time favorite), to the spirited ‘Step in Time’ and plucky nursery work song, ‘A Spoonful of Sugar’ is instantly recognizable, hummable and indelibly etched into our collective consciousness from the very first moment. Yet, it is important to note that the Sherman brothers’ efforts on Mary Poppins included twenty-one cast offs: songs either rejected by Walt or P.L. Travers or cut due to time constraints and edits made along the way. Of the sixteen tunes remaining, virtually all deliver the sort of flashy razzamatazz expected from a big budget Hollywood musical; the showstoppers and the ballads intermingled to create a frothy and seemingly uncomplicated aural supplement.
Mary Poppins opens with a spectacular overview of London at twilight, Peter Ellenshaw’s evocative matte painting aligned with live action footage of Mary Poppins (Julie Andrews) perched high atop a cloud, adjusting her umbrella and carpet bag while applying a smattering of rouge to her cheeks as she prepares to descend upon her next port of call. We drop from the heavens into a park near Cherry Tree Lane; our master of ceremonies, Bert (Dick Van Dyke) entertaining a gathering as a one-man-band. A change in the wind leads Bert to deduce that something magical is about to occur. He begins by taking us on a tour of this affluent neighborhood; the camera pausing a moment on the imposing edifice of retired sea captain, Admiral Boom (Reginald Owen) who informs Bert that there are ‘storm signals’ up at #17; the impressive abode of George (David Tomlinson) and Winifred (Glynis Johns) Banks.
Indeed, upon closer inspection we learn that the cook, Mrs. Brill (Reta Shaw) and the Banks’ nanny, Katie Nanna (Elsa Lanchester) have quarreled for the last time. Although the upstairs maid, Ellen (Hermione Baddeley) implores Katie Nanna to stay on, a request seconded by the rather flighty Winifred who has just returned invigorated from her latest Suffragette meeting to discover her adoring children, Michael (Matthew Garber) and Jane (Katharine Dotrice) are missing, Katie Nanna demands an immediate computation of her wages, departing the Banks’ domicile just as George is returning home from work.
Herein, the Shermans’ score brilliantly informs us of the changing – or perhaps conflicted - times in aristocratic Edwardian England; an era where men still regard themselves as ‘the sultans, the lieges’ of their homes (nee castles) while their women are steadily gaining ground in their campaign for ‘political equality and equal rights as men’. “We’re clearly soldiers in petticoats,” Winifred explains to Mrs. Brill, Katie Nanna and Ellen, “And dauntless crusaders for women’s votes. Though we adore men individually, we agree that as a group they’re rather stupid.” Contrast this with George’s emphatic and pontificating, “It's grand to be an Englishman in 1910. King Edward's on the throne; it's the age of men…I treat my subjects: servants, children, wife with a firm but gentle hand - noblesse oblige.”
The Banks’ confusion is momentarily quelled with the return of Jane and Michael by the kindly Constable (Arthur Treacher) and George’s declaration that he will handle making all inquiries for a new governess. Jane and Michael have their own ideas, of course; their imploring for a rosy-cheeked nanny who’s ‘fairly sweet and very pretty’ and ‘plays games – all sorts’ all but ignored as George reaches for his pen to take out an advertisement in The Times. After the children have gone to bed George destroys their letter in the unlit living room hearth, the torn pieces floating up its flue and magically reassembled in Mary Poppins’ gloved hands. The next day George is astounded by Mary’s pert evaluation of the Banks’ family home, telling George she’ll give him one month to make ‘her’ decision on whether or not she’ll stay.
Naturally, the children are overjoyed at Mary’s arrival – sliding up the banister on her fanny as though she were in a lift. In short order, the new nanny removes the most confounding assortment of personal effects from her rather meager carpet bag, including a large plant, floor lamp and unique tape measure. After measuring up Jane and Michael, Mary’s first task seems very much like hard work – tidying up the nursery. Instead, Mary explains how “in every job that must be done there is an element of fun…you find the fun and snap – the job’s a game.” Indeed, with Mary’s melodic guidance, Jane and Michael discover the joy in their exercise and thus transform a task into their pleasure. Afterward, Mary takes the children to the park where they meet Bert who is, at present, earning his living as an artist of chalk pavement pictures. When Bert suggests that Mary might easily teleport them all into a ‘jolly holiday’ inside one of his renderings Jane and Michael are overjoyed. But Mary resists until Bert makes a minor spectacle of himself in a feeble attempt to outdo her.
Mary and Bert take the children by the hand and leap into the lush and escapist cartoon world of a pastoral countryside, complete with a carousel that delights beyond all measure after Mary’s light touch animates the horses, crossing the imaginary threshold of the ride; first into a fox hunt, and then onto a steeple chase Mary effortlessly wins by politely asking the other riders to make way for her. At her loving cup and floral horseshoe victory presentation, Bert encourages Mary to offer a few words to the clamoring press; her elation exemplified by only one: ‘supercalifragilisticexpialadocious’. The exuberance of this moment ends with a clasp of thunder, a sudden rainstorm drawing Mary, Bert and the children from this imaginary world back into their rather gloomy reality. To stave off the prospect of a cold, Mary administers medicine to Jane, Michael and herself; the tri-colored liquid spilling forth from a single bottle tasting, at intervals, like raspberries, lime cordial and rum punch. Michael defiantly refuses to go to sleep. But Mary lulls both her wards to slumber with a poignant ballad, ironically titled ‘Stay Awake’.
The next day Mary and the children begin a journey into the heart of London – delayed at the last moment when Mrs. Lark’s (Marjorie Bennett) dog, Andrew informs Mary through a series of inquisitive barks that Uncle Albert (Ed Wynn) is caught in a perilous fit of laughter. Jane and Michael follow Mary to Uncle Albert’s home where they discover the wiry and vivacious prankster floating very near his ceiling. Bert’s attempt at damage control aggravates the situation; Uncle Albert’s infectious chuckles causing Bert and the children to eventually joint him for a tea party on the ceiling. Mary agrees to pour, but criticizes the men’s fortitude as they ‘Love to Laugh’ before terminating their joy altogether my informing the children they must all go home at once. Upon their return Jane and Michael regale their father with some of their high-spirited adventures. George sends them off to bed before confronting Mary. She agrees to be more firm with the children, but after dinner serenades them once again; this time with a snow globe of St. Paul’s cathedral where the little old bird woman comes to ‘Feed the Birds’. If Mary Poppins – the movie - does have a heart, then ‘Feed The Birds’ is undeniably its most sustained and poetic beat; tenderly melodic, slightly sad, yet thoroughly affecting.
The next day George elects to take his children to his place of work, the Dawes’ Fidelity-Fiduciary bank overseen by Mr. Dawes Sr. (Dick Van Dyke, quite convincingly disguised) and his son (Arthur Malet). The excursion turns into a minor disaster when Michael refuses to open an account for his tuppence, thus inadvertently creating the illusion that the bank is refusing to give someone their money. As a result, there is a run on the bank. Jane and Michael escape into the night, terrified before running into Bert who is presently working as a chimney sweep. Bert encourages Mary to take them all on a breathtaking journey across the rooftops of London; Peter Ellenshaw’s superb matte paintings of London at twilight still one of the most gorgeous pieces of art. Bert recalls his fellow chimney sweeps to ‘Step in Time’; their energetic dance inciting Admiral Boom to fire his canon full of fireworks at the unseemly revelers. George comes home to find his children covered in soot, the house full of sweeps prancing about with Mrs. Brill and Ellen.
Later, George is recalled to the bank and let go from his position. Mr. Dawes Sr. attempts to humiliate George in front of the other bankers to set an example. Instead, George confronts the old miser with some inspired flippancy, charging out of the bank as though he were mad. At dawn, Winifred telephones the police, worried her husband has taken drastic measures. Instead, she finds him much changed for the better, having mended Jane and Michael’s battered kite and encouraging the family to take a holiday in the park. They are met by the younger Mr. Dawes, also flying a kite with the other elder bankers, who informs George that his father died laughing, thus opening up a new position for George at the bank. Realizing she has fulfilled her promise – to restore this loving family unit – Mary departs into the clouds. “They think more of their father than they do of you,” her rather haughty parrot-handled umbrella reminds. “That’s as it should be,” Mary quietly replies. Although the Banks’ family does not notice Mary’s departure, Bert doffs his cap into the skies, adding, “So long, Mary Poppins. Don’t stay away too long.”
Mary Poppins is undeniably Walt’s most satisfying live action feature. Under Disney’s direction the studio made many fine features but none quite so unique; the culmination of all the creativity, ingenuity and technological proficiency homegrown and fostered by Walt at his studio. Indeed, Disney’s legacy cannot be compared to any of the other dream factory merchants in Hollywood. Walt’s movies were relatively few and far between by comparison – especially during his early years when animation was his sole bread and butter. The diversification of Disney’s output, first into live action shorts, then features, and finally television (and this at a time when virtually all of his contemporaries shunned that ‘little black box’ taking over everyone’s living room) in hindsight illustrates the liquescency of Walt’s dreams; his ability to make inroads into virtually all aspects of the entertainment industry and excel in each; and finally, to achieve his own heart’s desire by making some very fine films that have since withstood the test of time and become cherished cultural touchstones in the world of entertainment. Without question, Mary Poppins is one of these enduring masterworks; the final flourish of this ancient Disney Empire under Walt’s rule.
Of course, the film also marks Julie Andrews foray into American movies; a very blessed debut indeed. Although Andrews’ squeaky clean public persona would acquire the unflattering patina of being referenced in jest as the world’s oldest virgin (a stereotype Andrews sought to rectify years later by bearing her breasts in 1981’s S.O.B.) in reviewing Mary Poppins today one finds an exceptionally varied, and not altogether saccharine performance emerging from beneath the prim waist coat and high-cut lace collar. Andrews’ Poppins displays elements of stoic British pride, hints of vanity, moments of stern frustration, and, even a flashing glimpse of petty larceny in defiance of England’s ensconced patriarchy.
Asked by a perturbed George to explain herself after his house has been infiltrated by chimney sweeps, Andrews’ Poppins grows instantly stern. “Let me make one thing perfectly clear,” she informs George, before shedding her glower for a congenial grin, “I never explain anything!” Her Poppins isn’t about to let the children have things easy. They will learn the necessary life lessons – but only when challenged with her guiding hand and understanding heart. In short, Mary is practically perfect in every way; the sort of maternal influence one sincerely wishes on every child’s upbringing.
Dick Van Dyke’s charming jack of all trades is mostly delightful; a genial man who never succumbs to playing the fop. Indeed, P.L. Travers was adamant that Walt’s movie make no hint of a ‘relationship’ between Mary and Bert. Disney obliged, to a point, relying on friendly glances between Andrews and Van Dyke to suggest perhaps something more to their comradeship. Disney’s homegrown favorites, including David Tomlinson, Rita Shaw and Ed Wynn all live up to our expectations. Half the battle in achieving movie magic is pluperfect casting. Mary Poppins certainly has this licked in spades. Yet when we conjure to mind visions of Edwardian England we’re likely to imagine it as Disney’s artists and behind-the-scenes artisans have; a cordial and inviting series of gated and impeccably manicured homes perpetually bathed in sooty bluish hues of a gloomy, yet somehow enveloping, London air; the fog kept at bay, the citizenry sporting their bowlers and buttoned down laces.
Life and art are irreconcilable…or rather, ought to be. Disney’s fictionalized London is a sumptuous feast for the eyes and so utterly convincing that it just might be misconstrued as a reasonable facsimile of the real thing. That’s an extraordinary achievement and it works brilliantly to evoke P.L. Travers’ vision as well. In one of his last pleas to the authoress, Walt made an earnest promise to Travers that audiences would leave the theater overjoyed for having witnessed the experience of seeing her characters brought to life in his movie. Fifty years later, the sincerity in his undertaking endures. Mary Poppins remains Walt at his finest; a true testament to a great man doing miraculous things with a superior story and cast at his disposal.
Disney’s 50th Anniversary Blu-ray is a revelation long overdue. But it’s been well worth the wait to see Mary Poppins looking so utterly perfect in every way. The 1.66:1 hi-def image is extraordinary; a reference quality 1080p rendering by any stretch of the imagination with colors vastly improved over previously issued DVD releases. Flesh tones are remarkable, with other colors popping as they should, particularly during the Jolly Holiday sequence, easily one of the most joyously colorful sequences ever put on film. Contrast is excellent throughout. Film grain has been faithfully reproduced and matte lines are mostly concealed for a smooth visual presentation sure to delight. Disney Home Video’s three audio options - remastered DTS 7.1, DTS 5.1 and Dolby Digital 2.0 offer the listener strikingly clean and vibrant renditions of Irwin Kostel’s magical orchestrations with dialogue crisp and very natural.
Extras are mostly carry overs from Disney’s lavishly appointed DVD from a few years ago. New to Blu-ray: a compiled audio commentary featuring sound bytes from Julie Andrews, Dick Van Dyke, Richard Sherman and Karen Dotrice; a somewhat self-congratulatory and altogether brief featurette starring Jason Schwartzman, who plays Richard Sherman in the upcoming theatrical release of ‘Saving Mr. Banks’ – the story behind the making of Mary Poppins – and Mary-Oke (a riff on Karaoke…get it?) where you can sing along with only four songs given the animated sing-a-long treatment. Mercifully, Disney continues its tradition of including virtually every extra feature ported over from their original DVD and these include the fairly comprehensive ‘making of’ just shy of an hour with contributions from many surviving cast and crew affectionately waxing about the indelible magic they have wrought. Also included, a nearly hour long backstage pass to the New York and London live theater incarnations, the complete stage version of ‘Step in Time’; the Grauman’s Chinese Theater world premiere, vintage radio interviews, a brief featurette on the various SFX featured in the movie, and deconstruction pieces for the Jolly Holiday and Step in Time musical sequences.
We get some make-up tests of Dick Van Dyke as Mr. Dawes, various trailers, a ‘recollections’ piece featuring Andrews, Van Dyke and Richard Sherman, and storyboards recreating the deleted Chimpanzoo song, an animated short - ‘The Cat That Looked at a King (voiced by Andrews) and promos for the aforementioned Saving Mr. Banks and the upcoming January Blu-ray release of Disney’s beloved animated classic, Jungle Book. Frankly, we’re looking forward to some ‘bare necessities’. For now, Mary Poppins rates our highest praise and recommendation. It is a must have movie presented for the very first time in a transfer befitting the caliber of its enduring legacy. Quite simply wonderful. Enjoy!
FILM RATING (out of 5 – 5 being the best)