Saturday, January 18, 2014

There's Something About Mary

We took the kids to see Saving Mr Banks this week, the excellent film about the making of Mary Poppins; so I thought I'd reblog this little piece (below) about watching Mary Poppins for the first time. A couple of guesses in my original blogpost about the nature of Mary Poppins seem to have been born out by time. Like many of the most famous Englishmen and Englishwomen PL Travers was a self creation with the hint of Johnnie Foreigner about her. The Duke of Wellington, Winston Churchill, etc. sought to expunge their foreigness by becoming more English than the English as Travers also seems to have done (although if you listen to her on the BBC's Desert Island Discs there is a distinct Aussie accent.) As an Irish girl growing up in Australia Travers must have been aware of the Tir na nOg which I also guessed at. Since writing the below blogpost I've read Alan Moore's League of Extraordinary Gentlemen III where Mary Poppins is identified as a god-like elemental creature who saves England from an evil mirror-world Harry Potter (seriously). Anyway here's what I thought 4 years ago...
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Watching Mary Poppins for the first time is an interesting experience for a man of my advancing years. In a way the film is exactly how you imagine it from all the clips you have seen but in crucial and exciting ways it's not like that at all. These days of course newbies to Poppins must watch it through the prism of Nanny McPhee and countless parodies on The Simpsons, Family Guy etc. but I'll still try and decontextualise it a bit here. The first thing I want to talk about is the role that Mary Poppins occupies in the film. In Nanny McPhee the mysterious magical nanny comes to help the parents by teaching the children how to behave. But Mary Poppins comes to do precisely the opposite. There's the famous anarchic room tidying scene but that's about the only "lesson" Poppins imparts to the kids. Everything else she does with them is all about living in the moment and going on sprees and having fun just being a kid. It becomes clear that Poppins's role is not to teach the kids anything but rather to teach the parents how to love and respect their children. I was amazed to discover that Emma Thompson's Nanny McPhee is the conformist and Julie Andrews's Mary Poppins is the anarchist.
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I also had the impression that Mary Poppins was prissy, bossy and humorless but she's nothing like that. In fact she's funny, strange, coy, dangerous and erotic. Furthermore Mary is vain, self important, a little drunk with power and seems to take important decisions on a whim, like some wacky sprite or daughter of Zeus. There is a real sexual tension between her and Bert as if they have a long and textured history together in the world of spirits or Tir na nOg or wherever it is that they have come from. Dick Van Dyke does this odd thing with his face when Mary sings "you wouldn't take advantage of me, Bert" which suggests that no he wouldnt, not here, but elsewhere when the kids aren't around...
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Bert too is an odd fish. Everyone mocks Dick Van Dyke's cockney accent but I didn't mind it. Bert and Mary are clearly elemental creatures pretending to be human when in fact they have slipped over from a different world completely. Mary has perfected her chosen persona and accent, but even in the film Bert goes from job to job trying out a variety of voices and personae. Yes the actor couldnt do a cockney accent but for me that doesnt hurt the movie, it actually enhances it and makes it more mysterious. (No one praises Dick Van Dyke's decent upper crust English accent in the other role he plays in the film.) I have no idea who Bert is but he is not and certainly should not be portrayed as a simple cockney chimney sweep. There's a moment near the end when the kids have run away and he talks to them about their father's existential angst and loneliness with a wisdom that could only have come from decades of exile from a faery court.
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Mary Poppins is a strange film. It's got 4 really catchy songs, excellent dancing and a great story arc. Still for me there's a melancholic air throughout. This is London in 1910 just 4 years before Europe's 31 year long suicide attempt. London before the bombs and V weapons start to fall, before Haig sends the flower of England over the top into the wall of death. Bert's Chim Chim Cheroo melody is heartbreaking, it's almost as if he can see all of this coming and maybe he can. Yes Poppins is a tight, well crafted Disney movie, with perhaps one song and one ballet sequence too many, but if, like me, you haven't seen it, it's worth watching and for my money it's a lot darker and weirder than it first appears.

69 comments:

Glenna said...

You know, when you said it was the first time you had watched it I almost laughed wondering how you hadn't seen it yet, then I realized, I had no idea what you were talking about in the blog. My kids have seen it countless times, they know all of the songs and can recite parts as they are watching it, but I have no idea what the movie is about. I know I saw it when I was a kid, and I've heard it playing as they watched it, but it's been so long I don't remember it hardly at all. It's just one of those movies that's been around so long I hadn't given it a second thought.

Philip Robinson said...

"she's funny, strange, coy, dangerous and erotic"

Jule Andrews is strangely those things too in Sound of Music (especially if you don't have hang-ups about nuns).

Last night I watched Jennifer Lopez in 'Maid in Manhatten' and she was none of those - what a disappointment.

Jim said...

Thanks for this ... very thought-provoking.

Paul D. Brazill said...

Good call, young man. My sister took me to see it when it came out. 'Feed the Birds' always makes me a little moist.

DVD was a cracking comedy actor and, apparently, completely hammered during the making of the film. May explain the accent. (Anyway, the English revenge was Tim Roth in Resevoir Dogs. )

seana said...

Excellent analysis. My sister recently had more or less the same experience of watching it as adult because of her kids. I think she fell in love with Dick Van Dyke, actually. But I do remember watching it as a kid--in the theatre actually. For some reason it was the Feed the Birds sequence that really got me. And then, I had read Mary Poppins, and remember going out with my mom and her friend and explaining the difference between the book and the movie--maybe my first experience of having my expertise deferred to. (Also maybe my last.) The books are good too, but they are different. We had the album and ran all over the house acting it all out. Good times.

Sean Patrick Reardon said...

I also saw MP when it came out at the movies, If my memory serves me (after years of abuse) I think there was a sad part when someone laughs themsleves to death.

also,

RE: Toy Story 3. The wife and kids went to see it and they actually said it was a tear jerker at times. Don't want to spoil it, but my wife and son's reasons seemed legit from their perspective. I remember feeling like this during a few parts of Forest Gump.

rob.james said...

I agree about the anarchy. The stage show (coming to Melbourne) explores the darker side of the story and is better for it.

Try this for the even darker side:
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=2T5_0AGdFic

Peter Rozovsky said...

I, too, have always regarded "Chim Chim Cheroo" as a harbinger of the end of civilization.
==========================
Detectives Beyond Borders
"Because Murder Is More Fun Away From Home"
http://www.detectivesbeyondborders.blogspot.com/

adrian mckinty said...

Glenna

Yes its one of those things thats always around and on somewhere. But if you actually watch the thing from beginning to end its quite a different experience.

adrian mckinty said...

Phil

No Lopez doesnt have that certain sourire, although she came close in that elmore leonard one she did with Clooney.

adrian mckinty said...

Jim

You're welcome.

adrian mckinty said...

Paul

DVD does good comedy but his spastic dancing is a real treat to watch. I liked Roth in Dogs. And in Pulp Fiction, although he played English there opposite Amanda Plummer, who of course is Christopher Plummer's daughter who starred with Julie Andrews in Sound of Music. See what I did there?

adrian mckinty said...

Seana

Its one of the few kids movies that can be watched over and over. I suppose because the songs are so well put together. But the story and characters are well done too.

adrian mckinty said...

Sean

Yeah the head banker laughs himself to death, but since its the first moment of happiness in his entire life it's not seen as a bad thing.

adrian mckinty said...

ROB

Yes very good. He could have used some of the sweep stuff too. And I liked the comment from the nanny who thinks that MP is a bad nanny and probably evil.

adrian mckinty said...

Peter

You can mock, but that melody is not cheery and the lyrics are ironic messages from a doomed a time.

Peter Rozovsky said...

I saw the movie in a theater. In fact, I grew up on "Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious", so the movie I bring to it none of the slightly creepy sense of dislocation that I would have had I come to Mary Poppins just a few years later.

bookwitch said...

I think hindsight is preventing us from realising that back in the 'olden days' children's films were often very good. We are now looking at them with the jaded eyes of today and assuming children's = rubbish.

At the time I went to see Sound of Music about ten times, with the help of Uncle working the doors at the cinema. (He worked there; he didn't bulldoze them for me.)

Adrian said...

Peter

I dont think creepy is the right word for Poppins. Unearthly might be better.

Adrian said...

Miss Witch

One of the things that really impressed me about Mary Poppins was how professional it all was. Excellent song, well crafted dances, good jokes, good story. Few childrens films today have ALL of those working at the same time.

Brian O'Rourke said...

Now I'm picturing Julie Andrews in the Cameron Diaz role...

seana said...

Or what about the reverse?

Now I think about it, it's kind of strange that no one has thought to spend millions on an inferior new version. Isn't it high time?

Brian O'Rourke said...

Seana -

The screenplay to said inferior version is ours to write.

seana said...

Wow. The possibilities.

Malachy Walsh said...

The movie has a strong anti-establishment vein in it that seems to be missing from a lot of "kid movies" today.

And then there's the mother who is absent in family life as she works for women's rights. It's at odds with any easy political interpretation of the movie.

But the best part of the movie for me is watching my 3-year-old try to do "Stepping Time" along with the sweeps. He also sings "Chim-chim-cheroo" at the top of his lungs whenever he gets a chance.

seana said...

Is Mary Poppins a force that can bind the world together? It certainly seems so.

Well, except maybe Peter.

Peter Rozovsky said...

Hey, a spoonful of sugar helps the medicine go down.
==========================
Detectives Beyond Borders
"Because Murder Is More Fun Away From Home"
http://www.detectivesbeyondborders.blogspot.com/

seana said...

Good to see you aboard the good ship Poppins, Peter. Although I do have to say a whole spoonful of sugar is a little hard to swallow.

Peter Rozovsky said...

What part of "in the most delightful way" don't you udnerstand?

seana said...

Apparently, all of it.

Ah, well--chim chim cheroo, as they say on the East End.

Peter Rozovsky said...

I liked Mary Poppins, actually, though the sexual tension must have escaped me. I was too busy ranting at the oppression of the working classes by the bankers.

seana said...

I missed the sexual tension too, but then again, I was maybe 7. I know, I know--it's no excuse for failing to espy the, in retrospect, obvious class struggle. Although my fondness for Feed the Birds means that even then, I was a supporter of the proletariat. Well, of the winged variety, anyway.

Peter Rozovsky said...

Liking "Feed the Birds" may mark you as unconventional. When I went back to verify spellings and lyrics for my comments here, I came upon "Feed the Birds" and did not remember the song. This was odd, as I remembered the others, and I think I even had a record of the soundtrack.

seana said...

Maybe, but Paul Brazill apparently had much the same reaction.

Peter Rozovsky said...

I wonder if "Feed the Birds" was censored in Canada.

seana said...

I don't know. Does Canada have something against birds? Perhaps all around the cathedrals?

Peter Rozovsky said...

Maybe I was out getting popcorn when the song came up in the movie.

seana said...

Did you give a moment to think of the poor unfortunate pigeons outside who didn't have the wherewithal to actually come in and see the movie? I mean it was probably only tuppence a bag.

Peter Rozovsky said...

You just wanted to write "tuppence," didn't you? I don't blame you; it's a wonderful word.

adrian mckinty said...

Brian

I think she could have done it. She has tremendous comic timing in this.

adrian mckinty said...

Malachy

You're absolutely right. Its a very complex story with no easy interpretation. Nanny McPhee comes off much the worse in any comparison.

I think the heart of the story is compassion, compassion for the kids AND the parents. Unlike Nanny McPhee there are no villains in Mary Poppins which I find very interesting.

adrian mckinty said...

Seana

If I'd been Walt Disney I would have been tempted to cut that song. It's so heartbreaking that it almost stops the show completely. Of course you couldnt do that because the song and the old lady are vital parts of the narrative, but still its so sad.

adrian mckinty said...

Peter

Did you ever see Barry Lyndon. Tuppence A Bag reminds me of the bit in BL when he's playing cards and this lady opposite him is losing and they're just looking at each other and it's so unbelievably sad and in the background Scubert's piano trio in E flat is chugging along.

Thats kind of what it's like.

adrian mckinty said...

Peter

Did you ever see Barry Lyndon. Tuppence A Bag reminds me of the bit in BL when he's playing cards and this lady opposite him is losing and they're just looking at each other and it's so unbelievably sad and in the background Scubert's piano trio in E flat is chugging along.

Thats kind of what it's like.

Peter Rozovsky said...

I never saw Barry Lyndon. I was never the Kubrick fan that you are. Or maybe I was too busy watchng Mary Poppins.

Adrian said...

Peter

I think you'd like Barry Lyndon. Its cold, emotionless, distant, olympian but also somehow brilliant.

Adrian said...

Peter

I think you'd like Barry Lyndon. Its cold, emotionless, distant, olympian but also somehow brilliant.

seana said...

Maybe they did cut the song from the Canadian version, thinking the Canadians wouldn't be able to hack it.

I just heard from a friend that her husband is working on a Kubrick documentary. That's probably all I should say without permission, but it sounds quite fascinating.

Alan said...

Adrian,I am glad you slipped into your clever Irish persona in truth I only remember the great joie de vivre of the players,Later or was it earlier I felt the same anarchical ebullience in Tom Jones.It seems to me the current spate of American movies ""Hustle" and "Her" are flat and rely on "hormones/testerone" for their limited appeal.Still Standing and Nebraska if available are well worth seeing.Best Alan

adrian mckinty said...

Alan

There are 10 best picture noms and I havent, alas, seen any of them...

Anne said...

I do hope I am not too late to join this nostalgia fest - I love all this communal riffing on the themes you throw up, btw., Adrian.
Anyway, regarding Peter's 'harbinger of the end of civilisation' theory: what about 'Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas' from Meet Me in St.Louis, ''Let's Face the Music and Dance' from Follow the Fleet, and , of course, 'Somewhere over the Rainbow' from THe Wizard of Oz. These always crack me up with their lyrical portents of doom.

adrian mckinty said...

Anne

I've never seen The Wizard of Oz all the way through, its always creeped the hell out of me. I get really claustrophobic watching it and have to turn it off...

Peter Rozovsky said...

Did you see that one of the last of the Munchkins died this week: http://www.latimes.com/obituaries/la-et-mn-ruth-robinson-duccini-95-dies-oz-munchkin-20140116,0,427370.story#axzz2qnqlTZgz

adrian mckinty said...

Peter

Its always amazing to me that people from that era are still going. Mickey Rooney for example is still alive and kicking. As is Olivia De Haviland - my buddy Dan Stone interviewed her a few years back and said she was pretty feisty.

Peter Rozovsky said...

I may have mentioned that I saw Mickey Rooney at the airport in Toronto about 15 years ago. He had the sourest puss I have ever seen.

In case, the Munchkins were annoying at worst. It's the flying monkeys that scarred the crap out of me. That, and Nargaret Hamilton.

In other news, I have just read American Tabloid and White Jazz, but I can't find my copy of The Cold Six Thousand.

Craig said...

The readings of Chim Chim Cheree in Saving Mr Banks really drilled in the melancholy nature of the lyrics. Paul Giamatti and the rest of the supporting cast were excellent.

adrian mckinty said...

Peter

The whole atmosphere of the film I just find really suffocating. I feel like I'm drowning in Edwardian/1930's forced jollity. And the monkeys didnt help.

adrian mckinty said...

Craig

I think it would make an excellent double bill with Poppins if cinemas do double bills anymore...

Peter Rozovsky said...

I probably did not know what an Edwardian was when I watched the movie on TV. I just hated the monkeys. And I never much liked the movie, except for the Scarecrow and the Cowardly Lion. The rest just made me queasy.

Brendan O'Leary said...

Excellent summary of Mary Poppins. The only point where I disagree is that it has more then four good songs.

We saw it at the local cinema when it came out. We'd just got our first-ever record player and already knew the songs by heart. At 10yo I didn't get the gloom, just the sense of magic and endless possibility. Around the same time A Hard Days Night came out. Same feeling. (The girls in the cinema screamed like the girls in the film and drowned it out at times.

adrian mckinty said...

Peter

The whole atmosphere of Oz is frightening. It reminds me of that hotel in The Shining, there's just something not right about it all...

adrian mckinty said...

Brendan

Feed The Birds is tragic and Chim Chim Chiree is cheerful on the surface but there's a melancholy feel to the melody I feel...

Peter Rozovsky said...

I think "Chim Chim Cheree" even slips into a minor key on one the later repetitions of the refrain.

Peter Rozovsky said...

Maybe the sweeping vistas represented on a soundstage induced all that airiness and queasiness.

Brendan O'Leary said...

Chim chim cheree has a Russian-Jewish sort of melody, a recurring influence on Tin Pan Alley. It's minor key throughout as far as I recall but that doesn't necessarily mean "sad" .

I've run my working life by the opening line of Spoonful of Sugar and had great fun over the years winding up crews with it.

Brendan O'Leary said...

Peter I think it's a tempo change that makes it go from bright to melancholy. In my mind I can hear minor key throughout.

Songs I can recall large parts of and consider good ones:
Sister Suffragette
Spoonful of Sugar
Supercali
Feed the Birds
Let's go fly a Kite
Jolly Holiday With Mary
Chim chim cheree.

Which reminds me I sat in a freezing ground watching Aberdeen getting beat 1-0 by Inverness Caledonian on Saturday. Maybe Adrian can explain the Mary Poppins connection, if not I'll come back with a link later.

Brendan O'Leary said...

http://supercaleygoballistic.files.wordpress.com/2012/01/super-caley-go-ballistic1.jpg

The headline writer must have been sitting on that for years, waiting for a moment.

Children's films weren't afraid of darkness and gloom in the 50s, 60s & 70s - as bookwitch said.

adrian mckinty said...

Brendan

I love it.

Check this one I found in the mid Ulster Times

https://twitter.com/adrianmckinty/status/326830684444430336/photo/1

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