Mary Poppins (1964)


Film review of the Disney fantasy starring Julie Andrews and Dick van Dyke.

Director: Robert Stevenson. Disney (U).



Cast & credits

Producer: Walt Disney.
Writers: Bill Walsh, Don DaGradi.
Camera: Edward Colman.
Music: Richard M. Sherman, Robert B. Sherman.
Sets: Carroll Clark, William H. Tuntke.

Julie Andrews, Dick van Dyke, David Tomlinson, Glynis Johns, Hermione Baddeley, Reta Shaw, Karen Dotrice, Matthew Garber, Elsa Lanchester, Arthur Treacher, Reginald Own, Ed Wynn, Jane Darwell.


When their Nannie (Lanchester) quits and leaves, the Banks’ (Tomlinson and Johns) have to quickly find a replacement to take charge of their unruly, mischievous children (Dotrice and Garber). As if by magic, Mary Poppins (Andrews) appears and assumes the post. An unconventional woman, she takes the children on a wonderful adventure and turns the family upside down, getting them to appreciate each other in the process.


I freely admit to detesting musicals. A strange thing for a gayer to say some may think, but I really don’t like the preposterous and unnecessary tendency to express in song what the spoken word can achieve quite as well on its own.

It seems an infantile way to communicate, but there are the odd musicals where the drama is not Mary Poppins postersublimated to song, that capture my attention, where lyrics are artfully used to embellish the straight dialogue. A Star Is Born (1955) and My Fair Lady (1964) are two, this Disney production being another.

Walt Disney’s wooing of intractable author P.L. Travers to let him adapt her novels lasted for over twenty years and was itself made into a movie, Saving Mr Banks (2013). This awkward but fruitful working relationship, Hollywood pizazz sparking off British reserve, resulted in a perennial family favourite, Disney’s most accomplished live-action production and a blockbuster hit at the cinemas ($110m for its initial release alone).

Travers objected to Disney watering down some of the harsher aspects of the Poppins character but considering what she does in the film, she would probably be struck off the ‘General Nanny Council’ register, or at least severely reprimanded.  Her dereliction of duty and neglect include:

  • During the part-animated summer fair, she lets the children run off on their own for a considerable amount of time so she and a gentleman of her acquaintance can have a ‘Jolly Holiday’
  • Mental cruelty – denying she took the children to the fair when Mr Banks questions her
  • Taking the children to visit a strange, drug addled old man in a run-down part of London, who is so intoxicated he is flying on the ceiling. The children (and later Mary) are then encouraged to join in
  • Mary drinks alcohol on duty, taking a good gulp of ‘rum punch’ and becoming inebriated when giving the children their ‘medicine’
  • Mary drugs the children – they fall asleep after taking the aforementioned ‘medicine’
  • Mary ignores basic health and safety principles when when she takes the children for a rooftop dance-off with a group of grubby chimney sweeps

The songs, the one thing I should hate about this film, are so good. The Sherman brothers were never as verbose, witty or true with their music than with this film. One of the best lines of lyric ever has to be when Mary, describing the honest and patient character of men such as Bert, sings: ‘Forbearance is the hallmark of your creed’.

As for the song and dance numbers, all are well handled but it is the rooftop ‘Step In Time’ that is the best, if not the most polished. Its rough around the edges choreography makes it the most fun.

There are timeless performances. Johns is adorable as the Suffragette Mrs Banks, wide-eyed and passionately pro-feminist, but still a docile and diligent wife eager to keep hearth and home in good running order for her man.

Tomlinson’s stuffy father is more cuddly than curmudgeonly, but he still manages to make you smile when he realises spending time with his family is more precious than working hellish hours with coldly corporate colleagues.

Dotrice and Garber were the most accomplished of cute kid performers in Disney films, not annoying or saccharine and the wonder they must have experienced on-set is palpable in every open-mouthed exclamation.

Van Dyke continues, deservedly, to receive derision for his shit cockney/Bristolian accent as genial chimney sweep Bert. But this is to the detriment of a overall performance that is otherwise 100% entertaining, with his gymnastic dancing, singing and also playing another role, that of the elderly and infirm Bank Chairman Mr Dawes, Senior there is much to be admired.

Andrews made her name with this film, after being snubbed by producer Jack Warner to recreate on film her stage role in the hit Mr Fair Lady, a role that went to Audrey Hepburn. So with a brisk, officious charm, a perfect pitch, four octave voice and wonderfully English eccentricities she proceeded to make herself into the box office female champ of the sixties, slaughtering all before her and nabbing the Best Actress Oscar (Hepburn, whose singing voice was dubbed by Marnie Nixon, wasn’t even nominated).

Despite Travers’ divisions on the animated sequences (she thought they should be completely taken out), the attention to detail here is superb, note the mud dredged up by the poles of the carousel horses being ridden. However, it is complete fancy to think cockney, pearly Kings and Queens would ever be admitted to a prestigious British racing meet, especially to play a few tunes.

On the whole though, this is ‘practically perfect in every way’.


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