A magical classic that has remained a family favorite since its first release
Major film studios each became known for producing films with a specific flavor, and Walt Disney Productions films contained a clear but indefinable magic (a word you will hear often in this post). They even named their Florida theme park, “The Magic Kingdom”, though there may not be a better example of their specific brand of magic than their film “Mary Poppins”. Catchy songs, colorful sets, commanding performances, and a fantastical storyline bewitchingly and seamlessly come together, as if created by the supreme powers of superhero "Mary Poppins" herself. Add tantalizing special effects (which include matte paintings, animation, animatronics, stop motion, and lots of flying) and this film does what cinema does best - create a world that is nothing short of magical. This cinematic jewel was nominated for thirteen Academy Awards (including Best Picture) and won five. It was also ranked by the American Film Institute as the 6th Greatest Movie Musical Of All Time. A financial blockbuster, its profits provided the studio and its head Walt Disney, the funds to purchase land in Florida and finance what would become the Walt Disney World theme park. "Mary Poppins" is a favorite of all ages, and my sister fondly remembers it as the first film she ever saw.
Set in London just after the turn of the twentieth century, “Mary Poppins” focuses on a disjointed family aptly named the “Banks”, headed by “George Banks”, who is preoccupied with work and money. His wife “Winifred” is also distracted by her fight for women’s rights, leaving their two children, "Jane" and "Michael" to look to their nannies for affection and attention. Having gone through six nannies in the past four months, the film begins as the current nanny quits and a new nanny arrives from the sky, floating down from a cloud with umbrella in hand to save the day. Little do they realize this otherworldly nanny named “Mary Poppins” comes bringing miraculous powers and laser sharp insight.
“Mary Poppins” takes place in an enchanted world where nannies come and go from the heavens, and inanimate objects come to life. Cleverly overshadowed by music and fun, the film carries rather earnest themes. Made just as the Women's Liberation Movement was emerging, there is an undercurrent of women standing up for themselves seen with “Winifred’s” activism, and through “Mary” herself. Fiercely strong, authoritative, and feminine, she ultimately enlightens the stereotypically male sensibility found in “George”. There is also a battle between too much work and no play. Arguably the major theme of the film is how only a little can bring a lot of understanding, caring, and magic into our lives. A scintilla of kindness and imagination go a long way, one spoonful of sugar can make this tough life less bitter, and with only tuppence (pennies) you can heal your family and the world.
The film is based on the “Mary Poppins” book series by P. L. Travers (primarily the first book in the series). Walt Disney tried to obtain film rights to Travers’ books for decades. She finally relented in 1961 (the 2013 Disney film, “Saving Mr. Banks” dramatizes this period and her tumultuous relationship with Walt). Composer brothers Richard and Robert Sherman were approached to write songs based on the books, and their music served as the basis for the film. The Sherman Brothers had a gift for writing misleadingly simple sounding, hummable songs that stick in one's head. Many of their most famous songs can be found in “Mary Poppins”, including "A Spoonful of Sugar", "Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious", "Jolly Holiday", "Feed the Birds (Tuppence a Bag)", "Chim Chim Cher-ee", and "Let's Go Fly a Kite”. These fetching songs express such delight and beauty, they are a definitive part of the film's brilliance (I challenge you not to be humming one of them after the film ends). With an almost vaudevillian feel, they inform us about the characters and themes and help guide our emotions from bittersweet to joy.
The Sherman Brothers were Walt Disney Productions' staff composers who had previously written songs for films such as "The Parent Trap" and "The Sword in the Stone”, and “Mary Poppins” was their first complete musical. They went on to compose such Disney musical classics as "Chitty Chitty Bang Bang”, "The Jungle Book", "Winnie the Pooh and the Blustery Day", "The Aristocats", "The Happiest Millionaire", and "Bedknobs and Broomsticks”, becoming the songwriting team to have written the most film musical song scores in history. They also wrote songs for some Disney theme park attractions including “The Tiki Tiki Tiki Room” and the infectious "It's A Small World After All". They won two Oscars for “Mary Poppins” - Best Score and for Best Song (Chim Chim Cher-ee”) - their first and only wins out of nine career nominations. The Sherman Brothers won their first Grammy Award for the film's score, and a second for the 1974 children’s album "Winnie the Pooh and Tigger Too”. They have twenty-three gold and platinum albums, and many more awards and nominations. Robert B. Sherman died in 2012 at the age of 86, and as of the writing of this post, Richard M. Sherman is alive at the age of 92 years old. The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences honored the Sherman Brothers in a 2018 all-star event which I was lucky enough to attend. Richard Sherman was there and he enthusiastically sang and played the piano. Also appearing and performing at the event were Hayley Mills, Kenny Loggins, LeAnn Rimes, Lesley Ann Warren, and others, including a rousing song and dance by Dick Van Dyke. A definite historical night to remember.
Innovator, creative genius, and risk-taker Walt Disney not only took a chance on the Sherman Brothers, but also personally chose stage actress Julie Andrews, to star as “Mary Poppins”. She was pregnant at the time, but Walt was so confident about hiring this newcomer to films, he held off production until after she delivered her baby. Once again his instincts were on the money. Andrews splendidly creates a uniquely compelling character who successfully carries a firm, no-nonsense attitude with a warm and gentle hand. “Mary” is confident, sarcastic, and vain, all of which are expressed via Andrews' winning deadpan delivery. Though "Mary" is proper on the outside, one can’t help but feel there is a playfully devilish streak somewhere inside. We also get glimpses of “Mary’s” deeply hidden emotions from time to time, most exquisitely while she watches the “Banks” family leave to fly a kite, and when she talks to her umbrella handle (yes, her umbrella handle). She is a fascinating and completely crystallized woman thanks to Andrews' artistry. There’s also Andrew’s glorious singing. Just as “Mary” describes herself as “practically perfect in every way”, so is Andrew’s voice - pure in sound, brimming with breathtaking tone, impeccable diction, and able to capture a gamut of emotions. She conjures bold excitement with “Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious”, and poignant sweetness with “Feed the Birds” (which one of my childhood friends used to say always made her cry). Andrews also provided bird whistles, and voiced one of the female background singers in “Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious”. For her stunning film debut, she was awarded a Best Actress Academy Award. “Mary Poppins” made her an international star, and her voice became a worldwide treasure.
English born Julie Andrews began singing on the British stage. Even as a very young girl her four octave range, perfect pitch, and articulation stunned audiences. By the time she was thirteen she was singing at the London Palladium before King George VI and Queen Elizabeth. Andrews soon began appearing in musical theater, radio, and TV, and when she was eighteen she made it to Broadway debuting in the musical "The Boy Friend”. Her next role show the female lead opposite Rex Harrison in the Broadway musical “My Fair Lady”, which earned her a Tony Award nomination (and at the end of the decade, the show became Broadway's highest grossing up to that point). Television appearances came next (most notably in the titled role of Rogers and Hammerstein’s version of “Cinderella”), before returning to Broadway in the musical “Camelot”, where Walt discovered her for “Mary Poppins”. Around this time, Warner Brothers was casting a film version of "My Fair Lady". Even with all her success, studio head Jack Warner didn't think Andrews was known enough to carry a film, so Audrey Hepburn was cast instead. Being snubbed for the film version of "My Fair Lady" kept Andrews free to accept "Mary Poppins". At Oscar time the two films were pitted against each other with “My Fair Lady” winning eight (including Best Picture), though Hepburn was not nominated. When winning that year's Best Actress Golden Globe for "Mary Poppins", Andrews ended her acceptance speech by saying, "Finally, my thanks to a man who made a wonderful movie, and who made all this possible in the first place, Mr. Jack Warner". Both films were successful, but “Mary Poppins” turned out to be the highest grossing film of the year. Some felt Andrews was partially awarded her Oscar for being snubbed for the film version of “My Fair Lady”, but either way her performance is one for the ages. The following year, Andrews starred in the film version of Rogers and Hammerstein’s musical, “The Sound of Music”, which has become one of the highest grossing films in history (adjusted for inflation). Her role in that film earned her legendary status, and a second Best Actress Oscar nomination. She continued to appear in hit films (including "Thoroughly Modern Millie “, and Alfred Hitchcock’s “Torn Curtain”) until she had a pair of notoriously expensive flops (”Star!” in 1968 and “Darling Lili” in 1970). After that Andrews appeared in films less frequently, having a famous “comeback” in 1981 with “S.O.B.”, followed by her iconic performance as a woman dressed as a man, dressed as a woman in 1982’s “Victor/Victoria”, for which she earned her third and so far final Oscar nomination. Andrews mostly appeared on TV from the 1990s onward, with a few films here and there including "The Princess Diaries" in 2001 and its sequel in 2004. She also voiced characters in three “Shrek” and two “Despicable Me” animated films. In addition, she recorded albums, appeared on stage, and in concerts.
An enormously awarded entertainer, in addition to her Oscar, Andrews has won two Emmy Awards, three Grammy Awards (her first being in 1965 for “Mary Poppins”), six Golden Globes, one BAFTA, a Kennedy Center Honor, multiple Lifetime Achievement Awards, and in 2000 was made a Dame by Queen Elizabeth II. That’s just a sampling of her wins, with no mention of her countless nominations. In 1995 she starred in the Broadway version of “Victor/Victoria” (which I was lucky enough to see) and received her third Tony Award nomination - which she declined, feeling that other than her, the show was snubbed. By 1997 her voice was becoming hoarse. She left the show and had surgery to remove nodules, which were later discovered not to have been there. The surgery permanently damaged her voice, leaving her no longer able to sing, and with a slight rasp to her speaking voice. A tragic loss for her and the world indeed. Andrews entered a lawsuit with her doctor and a private settlement was reached. She wrote two children’s books and two autobiographies. She married twice. Her first husband was set and costume designer Tony Walton. Married at the time of “Mary Poppins”, she introduced him to Walt, who hired him to help design the film’s sets and costumes. It was Walton's first film, and for it he earned a Best Costume Design Oscar nomination. Their marriage ended in 1967. In 1969 Andrews married legendary film director/producer/writer Blake Edwards (remaining married until his death in 2010). As of the writing of this post, Julie Andrews is 85 years old. In addition to seeing her in concert at the Hollywood Bowl and on Broadway, I had a chance to be up-close and personal with her at one of the “Princess Diaries” premiers. It was beyond thrilling!
Dick Van Dyke stars as "Mary's" friend “Bert”, and also plays “Mr. Dawes Sr.”, the very old director of the bank where “George” works. Van Dyke is superb at mixing energy with comedy while serving as our official introduction to the film. When we first see “Bert” he is a one-man-band, making up poems and passing the hat for money. It is a perfect fit in every way, as it shows “Bert’s” exuberance and Van Dyke’s unique brand of showmanship. As “Bert” senses a change in the winds and warns of approaching heavy weather, he addresses the camera directly and leads the viewer smack into the world of Cherry Tree Lane. A brilliant opening to the film, performed with just the right amount of amusement and intrigue. It also encapsulates the many colors of Van Dyke’s performance throughout the film. This dynamic entertainer was also personally chosen for the role by Walt, and it's clear why. Van Dyke is both kid friendly and galvanizing, and his robust dancing is inspired. Not a trained dancer, he more than holds his own, even among the professional dancers in the show-stopping dance, "Step in Time". How he moves his body during his dance with the animated penguins is masterful, and in reality he was dancing against a yellow screen without penguins or backgrounds, as everything was added later in post-production. Despite his infamous fake English accent, he is marvelous in the role.
Dick Van Dyke began his career on radio, and shortly after formed a comedy team which toured nightclubs. He began appearing on television in 1954, mostly in variety and game shows. Making his Broadway in 1959, he hit success with his second show, as the lead in the musical “Bye Bye Birdie”, for which he earned a Tony Award. That led to his starring in the historic TV sitcom, “The Dick Van Dyke Show” in 1961, which ran until 1966 and won fifteen Emmy Awards, including three for Van Dyke. Incredibly popular and considered one of TV’s classic shows, it made Van Dyke a TV legend. It also made famous another soon-to-be TV legend, Mary Tyler Moore, who played his wife. In 1963, Van Dyke appeared in his first film - the screen version of “Bye Bye Birdie”. “Mary Poppins” was his third, and he would continue appearing in films during the 1960s, including "Chitty Chitty Bang Bang" and "Divorce American Style”, and from the 1970s onward, he almost exclusively appeared on television. A couple of his later films include "Night at the Museum", and a 2018 sequel to "Mary Poppins" titled "Mary Poppins Returns". He won another Emmy Award for his 1976 TV variety show “Van Dyke and Company", as well as a Daytime Emmy Award for his appearance on a 1975 episode of "CBS Library". He also shared the Grammy Award with Andrews, the Sherman Brothers, and Irwin Kostal for the "Mary Poppins” recording. Next month he will be awarded this year's Kennedy Center Honors Lifetime Achievement Award. His brother is actor Jerry Van Dyke, who passed away in 2018. He has been married twice, and is currently married to his second wife. As of the writing of this post, Dick Van Dyke is 95 years old.
David Tomlinson is wonderful as “George Banks”, the somewhat pompous father and husband preoccupied with work and order. Tomlinson excels at making us believe that this man with such discipline and drive would want nothing more than to mold his children in his own image. If you watch the subtleties of emotion in his eyes you’ll see a richly nuanced performance. Watch him closely in the scene in when “Mary” gets him to bring his children to work - he is terrific. Tomlinson also provided the voice for the parrot head handle on “Mary's” umbrella, and several animated characters in the film. An English actor, David Tomlinson began appearing in British films in 1941, and by the time of “Mary Poppins” was an established stage and screen actor in the UK, having appeared in over thirty films including "'Pimpernel' Smith", "Carry On Admiral", and "Tom Jones". "Mary Poppins" was his first American film, and Walt hired him again to appear in "The Love Bug " and "Bedknobs and Broomsticks “. His final film was "The Fiendish Plot of Dr. Fu Manchu” in 1980. He was married and widowed twice. David Tomlinson died in 2000 at the age of 83.
The bubbly Glynis Johns plays “Winifred Banks”, distracted wife and mother. She isn’t given a lot to do, but Johns’ effervescence is so contagious she is a joy to watch. South African born actress Glynis Johns began her career on the British stage in the mid-1930s, and began appearing in British films in 1938. She would work in both mediums for over six decades. While “Mary Poppins” is perhaps her best remembered film today, she had lead and supporting roles in other classics such as "The Court Jester", The Sword and the Rose", "Around the World in Eighty Days", and "The Sundowners”, for which she earned her only Academy Award nomination (for Best Supporting Actress). In addition to “Mary Poppins”, she is best known for her Tony Award winning performance in the original 1973 Broadway production of Stephen Sondheim’s “A Little Night Music” in which she introduced the song “Send in the Clowns” (written specifically for her), which has since become a standard. Johns was also an accomplished pianist and a trained dancer. She began appearing on television in the 1950s, and would continue to do so until 1994. She was married and divorced four times. As of the writing of this post Glynis Johns is 97 years old.
“Jane Banks” and her younger brother “Michael”, are played by Karen Dotrice and Matthew Garber respectively. In many ways the two are the heart and soul of the film. Both bring an innocence and sensitivity vital to the film’s triumph (besides the fact that they are both adorable). In order to keep things fresh for them, the two were often not told details of what would happen in a scene. For instance, when “Mary” pours medicine into their spoons, they didn’t know it would turn different colors. They also had no idea what "Mary" would be pulling out of her carpetbag, and were not told that “Mr. Dawes” was Van Dyke in make-up. It worked as their performances are bursting with honesty and genuine reactions. Both British born, they had appeared the year before in the American-British fantasy film "The Three Lives of Thomasina”, and “Mary Poppins” was the second film for each. Matthew Garber only made one more film, “The Gnome-Mobile” in 1967. He contracted hepatitis which later affected his pancreas, and he died of pancreatitis at the age of 21 in 1977. Dotrice also appeared in “The Gnome-Mobile”, and worked in stage, film, and TV until retiring from acting in the 1980s. After retirement she did some voice work and made a couple of screen appearances, including one in "Mary Poppins Returns” in 2018. She’s been married twice - first to actor Alex Hyde-White, and currently to film producer Ned Nalle. As of the writing of this post Karen Dotrice is 65 years old.
Every actor in “Mary Poppins” is perfectly cast, and brings their A game. Many in the film are veterans who’ve had long, successful careers. I’ll briefly mention just a few I think you might find interesting…
Elsa Lanchester plays “Katie Nanna”, the nanny who quits at the beginning of the film. By the time of “Mary Poppins”, Lanchester had about forty years of film, TV and stage appearances behind her. This talented character actress began in theater and cabarets, and then small parts in British films. In 1935 she appeared in her first American film,”David Copperfield”, directed by George Cukor. That same year she became forever immortalized as a film icon in the title role of the classic horror film, “The Bride of Frankenstein”. Lanchester received two Best Supporting Actress Academy Award nominations in her career (for “Come to the Stable” and “Witness for the Prosecution”). She appeared in just shy of 100 films and TV shows, including other classics such as "The Razor's Edge ", "Les Misérables", "The Private Life of Henry VIII", "The Bishop's Wife", and her final film "Die Laughing" in 1980. Famously married once to actor Charles Laughton, she found out was gay right after their marriage but remained married to him until his death (for over thirty years). She wrote two autobiographies, "Charles Laughton and I” and "Elsa Lanchester: Herself”. Elsa Lanchester died in 1986 at the age of 84.
Arthur Treacher plays police officer, “Constable Jones”. An English actor who also sang and danced, Arthur Treacher began on stage, and moved to America in the 1920s where he appeared on Broadway. He began appearing in films in 1929, and became best known as playing Hollywood's quintessential butler - most notably in the 1936 film “Thank You, Jeeves!” and its follow-up the following year, "Step Lively, Jeeves!” . He also appeared opposite Shirley Temple in four films, including “Heidi”, "The Little Princess”, and "Curly Top”. He would amass 90 film and TV credits, including roles in other classics such as "A Midsummer Night's Dream”, "National Velvet", and "Magnificent Obsession”. He also worked on radio. He was married once, until his death. Arthur Treacher died in 1975 at the age of 81. If you’ve heard of the fast food chain, Arthur Treacher's Fish and Chips, he's the one after which it was named.
The last actor I’ll point out is Jane Darwell who plays the “Bird Woman” sitting in front of the Cathedral selling breadcrumbs. I previously mentioned her in the “Gone with the Wind” post, as she briefly appears in that classic. She also appears in "The Ox-Bow Incident", "My Darling Clementine", "Stage Door Canteen", "Poor Little Rich Girl", and most famously as the tough yet motherly “Ma Joad” in the 1940 classic "The Grapes of Wrath", for which she won a Best Supporting Actress Oscar. Walt wanted her for this role so badly he convinced her to come out of retirement (even with ill health) to play the part. Because her voice was so frail, the film's co-producer/writer Bill Walsh dubbed her one line of dialogue. “Mary Poppins” was her last film. She was married once for about three years. Jane Darwell died in 1967 at the age of 87.
In addition to the film’s Oscar wins for Best Actress, Best Song, and Best Original Score, it also won Academy Awards for its editing (Cotton Warburton) and visual effects (Peter Ellenshaw, Hamilton Luske, Eustace Lycett). “Mary Poppins” was also nominated for Best Picture, Best Director (Robert Stevenson), Best Adapted Screenplay (Bill Walsh, Don DaGradi), Best Cinematography (Edward Colman), Best Art Direction-Set Decoration (Carroll Clark, William H. Tuntke, Emile Kuri, Hal Gausman), Best Costume Design (Tony Walton), Best Sound (Robert O. Cook), and Best Scoring of Music Adaptation or Treatment (Irwin Kostal).
This week’s film is immensely creative and incredibly imaginative, with catchy songs, stunning visuals, and inspired performances. You are in for one truly magical time. Enjoy “Mary Poppins”!
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