Tuesday, February 19, 2019

Looking at Mary Poppins Through a Glass Magically

In an era keen on updating classic movies—or at least concocting sequels—I admit I have not yet watched the new Mary Poppins Returns, in which Emily Blunt cavorts with Lin-Manuel Miranda. Yes, I’m curious to see how these two super-amiable performers handle their respective roles. Nonetheless my heart still belongs to Julie Andrews and Dick Van Dyke, despite the latter’s atrocious mangling of Cockney English.

Last night I took a turn down Memory Lane when I re-watched the original Mary Poppins, the 1964 Disney musical that introduced film audiences to Broadway’s Julie Andrews and the always-useful word “supercalifragilisticexpialidocious.” I’m dating myself in admitting that this film debuted (at L.A.’s palatial and now long-gone Carthay Circle Theatre) during my senior year in high school. Of course in one sense my friends and I were far too old for a juvenile entertainment about two small kids and their nanny. But I suspect that’s part of why we kept going back to see it. On the brink of leaving our families behind as we went off to college and the big world beyond, we felt suddenly sentimental about the cheery days of our childhoods. We’d all encountered P.L. Travers’ series of Mary Poppins books years before, back when we first learned to read. Though Andrews was, frankly, too pretty and too perky (what’s all this “spoonful of sugar” business?) to be Travers’ acerbic nanny, we loved her just the same,  And it was only natural for us to think of our own early days as magic times.

Re-watching Mary Poppins in the company of a seven-year-old boy and a little girl who’s almost five, I delighted in it all over again. The kids loved the jokes (“A wooden leg named Smith!”), as well as such flabbergasting moments as the characters popping into chalk pictures and having tea parties on the ceiling.  As for me, I was reminded of the movie’s technical cleverness. In an era long before the advent of CGI, amazing things happen. There’s also a fabulous chimney-sweep dance number that rivals the barn-raising sequence in Seven Brides for Seven Brothers for male Terpsichore, as well as some droll sight gags and the wonderful work of a slew of character actors. The cast includes such British treasures as  Arthur Treacher, Reginald Owen, Arthur Malet, and the hilariously furious Elsa Lanchester (the Bride of Frankenstein herself!) as a departing nanny. In the larger roles of the children’s parents, it’s a pleasure to see David Tomlinson as a strait-laced papa and Glynis Johns as a lovingly addled mama. And some Old Hollywood royalty appears too: that’s Ed Wynn as the buoyant Uncle Albert (he who floats aloft because he can’t stop laughing) and Jane Darwell (an Oscar-winner as Ma Joad in The Grapes of Wrath) selling bird-seed on the steps of St. Paul’s Cathedral.

Of course, there are some awkward Disney ironies too. We might well question Disney’s trivializing of the British suffragette movement, as reflected in Glynis Johns’ dizzy performance.
And it’s distinctly odd that the dramatic climax of the film comes when little Michael can’t be talked into investing his pocket-money tuppence in his father’s bank because he’d rather spend it to feed hungry pigeons. We’re meant to be squarely on Michael’s side, but since when is Disney (the new owner of Fox Studios and pretty much half of Hollywood) opposed to red-blooded financial investment? 

But finally, who cares? It’s lovely to enjoy a jolly ‘oliday with Mary Poppins. And the message that childhood is fleeting is something of which we could all use a reminder.

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