There’s a rule of parenting: never buy your kids a book, music record, or video you don’t plan to memorize. I should have known this, seeing as how I grew up with two sisters who demanded repeated readings of There Are Rocks In My Socks! Said The Ox to the Fox and wore out the tape of Land Before Time.
Since late July, we have been memorizing Mary Poppins. I don’t know if it’s the singing farmyard animals, or Julie Andrews, or even Dick Van Dyke’s risible “cock-er-nee” accent, but the Bean’s hooked.
It’s bad. She will park herself in front of the DVD player, holding the case, and give you puppy eyes until you come over and set it up. If you don’t move fast enough, she will try to put the disk in herself, not quite seating it properly in the carrier. There will be a terrible grinding noise from the machine, and she will grunt: why isn’t it playing?
On Saturday, I tried to put in The Wizard of Oz for a change. Once the MGM titles came up, she turned off the machine, ejected the disk, and handed it to me. “Neh,” she said, shaking her head.
I reckon we have watched “Mary Poppins” five days out of seven for about a month now. That’s a lot of spoonfuls of sugar.
It’s like there’s a spell on the house, full of scratchy Disney animation from the ’60s and the (admittedly extremely impressive) warbling of Dame Julie. So, in an effort to break the spell, I will ruin this film the way I ruined movies during my college career: by overanalyzing it to death.
Ready? Spitspot, best foot forward!
META: Mary Poppins was released in 1964 by Walt Disney. Disney had nagged P.L. Travers, the author of the series of books on which Poppins was based, to sell him the rights for nearly 25 years. When she finally agreed, he moved the story’s setting from the 1930s to the 1910s, an era he was obsessed with,– Lady and the Tramp, The Aristocats, and Peter Pan are all set during the ’10s–and whacked a bunch of dancing penguins into it.
He also made the cold, vain Poppins of the books considerably cuddlier. Broadway actress Julie Andrews landed the role. She had recently been heartbreakingly turned down for the role of Eliza Doolittle in My Fair Lady— a role that Andrews had created on Broadway.
Audrey Hepburn got the part instead, although Audrey’s songs were sung and overdubbed by Marni Nixon. However, Andrews had the last laugh: she won the Academy Award for her debut in Mary Poppins, beating out Hepburn, her rival nominee. (My Fair Lady ultimately won best picture that year.)
In her acceptance speech, she thanked Jack Warner, who’d passed her over for My Fair Lady. That is how you shiv a man: with a smile and a statue in your hands. Don’t mess with the Dame.
PLOT: Mary Poppins is commonly mis-classified as a children’s musical film about a magical nanny, based on a series of beloved books by P.L. Travers. It features with whimsical animated interludes, wacky dance sequences, and a charmingly romanticized image of Edwardian Britain, capped off with catchy tunes and a lot of gurning from Dick Van Dyke’s rubber mug.
But it’s not. Oh no. It is the searing emotional journey of miserable middle-class salaryman George Banks, a petulant, tyrannical workaholic (at a bank, naturally– ha, ha) whose lack of feeling is tearing his family apart. His children, Jane and Michael, are two adorable well-scrubbed moppets whose only crime appears to be excessive cheerfulness and a habit of running after kites. But he treats them as if they are idiots and delinquents:
Their mother, Winifred, is spirited and lively, but ultimately disinterested in actually looking after them. She is fanatically devoted to the cause of women’s suffrage, obviously a sore point between herself and her husband. At one point she asks a servant to place her “Votes For Women” sash in a closet “because you do know how the cause upsets Mr Banks!” She also mentions that “Mrs Pankhurst has been clapped in irons again!”
This is played off lightly. But in fact, the battle for women’s suffrage in Britain became violent in the 20th Century and was a considerable cause of unrest prior to the outbreak of World War I. “Mrs Pankhurst”, for instance, refers to Emmeline Pankhurst, militant leader of the Women’s Social and Political Union. Mrs. Pankhurst’s work with poor and indigent women convinced her that political enfranchisement for women was the only way to bring justice and relief to Britain’s most vulnerable people. And she was frustrated with the genteel political wrangling that had been the norm in the 19th Century, so she got tough. “[T]he condition of our sex is so deplorable,” she once said, “that it is our duty to break the law.”
She sanctioned riots, vandalism, and arson. She was regularly jailed and beaten, and, when she resorted to hunger striking while in prison, she and her fellow suffragettes force-fed. The bill finally authorizing voting rights for (some) women became law after her death in 1928.
So, in Mary Poppins, Winifred Banks, far from being a charming flake who preaches feminism while submitting to her husband’s iron will, was actually a militant radical, risking imprisonment and bodily harm for a political cause. Watch her cute little song here. Feel the subtext.
A cold and aloof father. A mother swept away by a political cause. This is, like, totally heavy, man. No wonder these poor kids need a magic nanny.
Enter Poppins, on a breeze. She becomes the vehicle for Banks’s ruin and redemption. In order to realize the importance of his family, he must have that which seems most important to him– his position at the Dawes, Tomes, Mousely, Grubbs Fidelity Fiduciary Bank– destroyed.
Poppins proves adroit at manipulating Banks. She bullies him into hiring her, and later into taking the children to his workplace. The night before their visit, Poppins plants a seed in little Michael’s head about “feeding the birds”, causing him to instigate a run on the bank when Banks’s boss tries to take the boy’s two pence away.
Banks is called onto the carpet before the board and stripped of his position. He suffers a nervous breakdown and, by blurting out the word “Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious” and singing “A Spoonful of Sugar” out of tune, shows how deeply scarred he is by Poppins’s influence over his family. The joke he tells, also cadged from one of his children’s adventures with Poppins, actually kills a man. While there is eventually a new peace and closeness brought to the Banks family, don’t be fooled by the cute nose and charming soprano: Poppins is no benevolent presence. She is Scary Mary:
Oh, who am I kidding? This isn’t going to help. The Bean is only going to want to watch it again tomorrow.