Amongst the many wisdoms Mary Poppins dispenses to the children in her care is the statement that “A thing of beauty is a joy forever.” This is a truism that could easily be applied to this winning and timeless tale about the magical nanny who changes the world around her with her wholesome charm.
Mary Poppins is the story of two young children, Jane and Michael, who their father, Mr. Banks, is too busy to give attention to and endeavours to find a nanny to look after them. The first candidate is not exactly what Mr. Banks is looking for – she is eccentric not prim, avuncular not authoritative. Yet upon arrival she inveigles herself into his employ by bamboozling and perplexing the cold patriarch and immediately begins to charm the children with her magical ways. Mary Poppins introduces the children to the small wonders of the world around them – the charismatic Bert, the Bird Lady, the power of imagination. As Michael and Jane become alive to their imaginations they are filled with joy; something Mr. Banks can’t understand. He is logical, practical – why waste a good tuppence on feeding scratty birds when it could be saved or invested? Maybe, he reckons, this Mary Poppins is a bad influence.
As a feature Mary Poppins is largely, and inaccurately, remembered as a piece of throw away light entertainment widely ridiculed due to the strange cockney accent Dick Van Dyke employs during his performance as Bert. Yet the film is so much more than this; there are pertinent political allegories, deep satire and, quite stunningly, some dazzling cinematic achievements to be enjoyed here. The film is slyly anti-establishment and politically minded – the fairness and tenderness of Poppins beats the authoritative type of nanny Mr. Banks wants to employ, there’s a dig at the prime minister’s expense and an animated sequence where a fox is rescued from a pack of hunters. Also note how Mr Banks occupation quite literally defines him – he IS his job.
The performances too, an accent aside, are exquisite. Van Dyke’s voice, whilst singing, is able to fleet between earnest lament and gleeful whimsy. His role is also a hugely important one in terms of social commentary. Bert, at various points a one man band, a street artist and a chimney sweep, represents the working class of Edwardian England and it is through Van Dyke’s performance that they are awarded a humble dignity and quiet pathos in the face of avaricious oppression by the upper crust of the era. Similarly Julie Andrews performance in the title role is one of shrewd excellence. Benefitting the most from the film’s glorious Technicolour cinematography, her face radiates through the screen, Andrews delivers a delicious turn as the perfectly enunciated and caring nanny. What is quite startling, however, is that the films best performance may belong to a character who has less than a couple of minutes of screen time
The most sublime moments in the film centre around the appearance, on personal insistence of Walt Disney, of the retired actress Jane Darwell. Having been the recipient of an Academy Award for her viscerally staggering portrayal of Ma Joad in The Grapes of Wrath, here Darwell, and her kind face, appear in the cameo role of the Bird Woman. She sits surrounded by birds, at peace with them, amongst them, her lovely features showing a tranquillity and happiness that is next to impossible to describe using mere words whilst Andrews croons the lilting melody to the song “Feed The Birds” with a weightless grace. The Bird Woman is, by appearance, a vagabond but by simply studying the numerous wrinkles that line up either side of her mouth to match her euphoria it is transparent she is amongst the happiest people alive. In this moment it is easy to see what cinema is about – the hugely expensive effects of Avatar or a George Lucas film have nothing on the vivid details that comprise Darwell’s well worn, lived-in face. It is in this moment that cinema is at both its most expansive and it most intimate, its most bold, its most beautiful.
Mary Poppins, however, is a film about the growth of the seemingly marginal character Mr. Banks (played with suitable sobriety by David Tomlinson). Come the conclusion, it is neither the titular character or the Banks’ children who have under gone a character journey; the profound lessons here are to be learnt by the formerly cantankerous, curmudgeonly head of house Mr. George W. Banks.
His journey begins when he can understand to see the world through his children’s eyes, a process that starts when he introduces Jane and Michael to his banking peers to convince the children to open an account. Oh, how unappealing those staid businessmen and starch bankers appear through the children’s eyes. Where is their sense of wonder? They are uniformly prim and proper without the slightest hint of anything approaching joy in their soul. As children, the sight of a parade of businessmen trying to negotiate away from them the money they would spend feeding the birds is an unseemly one. The children want to explore their imaginations, not investment opportunities. The humourless bankers’ logic seems unkind, twisted, foul. Michael wanted to use the coins for kindness, the bankers are imploring him to embrace greed. When the head of the bank snatches away the tuppence he not only takes the coins, he takes the child’s dreams from him. Its a reminder of how quickly childhood can fade and how terrifying this can be.
Also of note is the aftermath to this scene. As the child asks for his tuppence back from the banker he is overheard he is being denied this request. The bank’s clients panic and set about demanding the immediate withdrawal of all their money from their accounts, funds the bank don’t have in stock, prompting an instant banking collapse. Particularly at this point in time this scene is very pertinent – Mary Poppins, in one short sequence, is able to explain how busts occur in the financial market a lot clearer and in a lot more succinct a fashion than I have ever heard from an economist or a politician.
From here Mary Poppins imparts its simple but affecting message that there is more to be enjoyed in life than the pursuit of money and status. A lyrically poignant moment is when Bert addresses the children as they, and Mary Poppins, stand on a roof top looking out across a magnificent London sky-line. “There’s the whole world at your feet. But who gets to see it but the birds, the stars and the chimney sweeps?” Bert has found the wonder in his life – though his vocation may not be as well paid as the bankers he has happiness. Earlier he referred to the cage that Mr. Banks’ job keeps him in whereas Bert himself, a chimney sweep, would be more akin to a bird free to soar.
The underlying message in Mary Poppins is a simple one – There is wonder and majesty to be found everywhere you want to look for it. At the same time its just as easy to cut yourself off from it too. You can put yourself in a cage if you like. Or you can soar like a bird. Or a kite. Or a chimney sweep. Mary Poppins reminds us of this in the same way she reminds Mr. Banks of this. Which is one of the many reasons why she, and the movie that takes her name, is “practically perfect in every way.” Watching a film of such splendour, a similar thing happens to the viewer as it does to Mr. Banks – the journey opens the eyes to whimsy, the heart to love and the mind to majesty. In doing so Mary Poppins ennobles the viewer. It transports them to another world no matter how old or how jaded.