Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Mary Poppins (1964)

I know there are many reviews out there about the classic children's musical Mary Poppins, but I don't think any of them have looked at the film with anything but a child's eyes.  I've seen it described many times as a whimsical fairy tale about children who are paid a visit by a magical nanny.   But the film is more than that.

Having been a fan all my life, I began to wonder as I rewatched it with my daughter tonight, just why my favorite scenes differed from hers when I was a child and what gave me that feeling of melancholy as I watched it.  I realized it quickly this time.  When I was a child, my favorite part of the movie was the bird woman, followed by the chimney sweeps, and for reasons I'll maybe discuss later, those scenes not only effected the way I have viewed movies even more than 30 years later, but also the way I view reality.

Mary Poppins is the story of a man not much different from any other.  He works at a stressful job, has a wife who, while very attentive to his needs, has her head in her own amusements, to even the exclusion of their two children.

Mrs. Banks (played by the very talented Glynnis Johns) was a suffragette, fighting for the right of women to vote in England.  Of course, they eventually won, but the price was very high, including imprisonment, maiming and death, not singing and dancing.  The addition of Mrs. Banks' suffragette status was made by the movie makers as a way to explain why she sometimes neglected her children; she was not involved in the movement in P.L. Travers' books.

As the saying goes, it sometimes takes losing everything for a man to realize that he has something to lose.  Mr. Banks has very few kind words throughout the movie, painting him as a stern man obsessed with work while his children continually seek his approval and attention only to get sent to their rooms under the care of an endless parade of incompetant nannies.
Jane and Michael, while very cute and lovable, are scamps who deliberately run away from nannies, put pepper in their tea, and other bits of mischief. Being neglected and being treated roughly by household staff and nannies alike could be responsible for this.  Even Mary Poppins, who brings them a week of happiness, judges them as soon as she meets them.
The children are taken around the city by Mary Poppins to see sights that they never would have seen before, because they live in the world that their father helped to create for them. They live in a beautiful home with a father who is obviously well-to-do and a proper English gentleman.  However, with these new developments, their rogue nanny takes them along with her on outings with her love interest who is a friendly bum, picking up odd jobs as a screever, a chimney sweep, and a kite seller to name a few. 

The world of the children consisted of the upper crust Cherry Tree Lane and the nearby park, while their father, seeing only what he wants to see of the world around him as Mary tells the children, goes to his job at the bank and home.  Mrs. Banks seems the one who is most in tune with the outside world but the lives of the family members never cross outside the home.

It's not until Mr. Banks is fired and humiliated from his job that he begins to see that he had more to lose than his respectable facade.  He had children whose childhood was rapidly spinning away from him and years of his own life that had already been wasted with his head lost in his job.  When he is as far down as he thought he ever would go, he becomes free to say and do anything he wishes, and what he wants to do is mend his son's kite and take his family back.

Yeah, I took the joy out of it, right? It's all there, it's just glossed over.  And how did it effect my life for so many years?  There is a most marvelous song in the middle of the film, what you might call the pivotal event, where Mary Poppins sings to the children about sights they will see on their outing with their father the next day.  She points out that there, beneath the surface of everyday things that everyday people see as they go about their business, lies another world, a darker world, that only those few who dare to look can see.

Well, not in so many words but she does say it.  She tells them to keep their eyes open for the bird woman who sits on the steps of St. Paul's cathedral and takes money in exchange for bread crumbs to feed the birds.  The woman is another street person Mary seems to be acquainted with, like Bert.  When Mary opened the children's eyes to the bird woman, whom they most assuredly would have bypassed on their trip, she also opened my eyes. I was perhaps six or seven the first time I saw the movie.  I remember the scene where the children walk with their father toward the bank and then suddenly see the woman there and it was as if all the manufactured grime on the pavement, the dampness, the starkness, even the smells that likely would have been there, were opened up for me and them.

To this day, when I watch movies, I am always accused of watching a different movie from that which others see and when I go to a place I feel as if I'm seeing something different than others around me.  I was on that journey of discovery that the second half of the movie takes its hero and heroine on, not of the self, but of the existance of other people, other worlds than their own.  After being awakened, the Banks children are then taken down the rabbit hole, or rather up the chimney, to a world that is there, existing above the rooftops, fantasy and reality mingled.  I think that this was the single moment in my personal film history that defined the types of movies I would enjoy and the way I would look at them, and the world.

I remember walking out of the theatre with my father sometime around 20 years after the movie first came out, when it had a 2nd theatrical release.  We walked down the sidewalk and it had been raining while we were inside.  The sound of my shoes hitting the wet pavement was changed, the feel of the darkness around the theatre was different.  I was so changed by the scenes of the loss of innocence of the children as they ran from the bank and into the alleys of the city, unfamiliar and scary, and learn lessons from Bert about life and loneliness and bravery that should have been taught by their parents.   But that's the way it goes.  The lessons that are most needed are rarely taught by those who should be teaching them.  The Banks children grew up in that alley, talking to Bert about their father and life and responsibility, and on the walk home, where they gave the tuppence to Mr. Banks, a profound act of kindness, the tuppence being the one thing in the world that belonged to Michael, for he had earned it, saved it, and fought for it in the scuffle in the bank.

So, Mr. Banks learns his lesson and the children learn theirs and the family goes off to fly Michael's mended kite in the park, surprising all their neighbors.  But it's a bittersweet ending.  Mary Poppins openly denies the words and actions of love to the children, which they have deprived of all their short lives.  And while Mr. Banks has been a changed man for less than 12 hours, he is informed that he has not only been given his job back, but has also been given a partnership.  More prestige, more money, more responsibility, which may not leave him time to continue the new joy of parenthood that he began that morning.  Does reality let us believe that he remained a changed  man? Or did he go back to the aloof, neglectful man he'd been before, maybe worse now that he is a partner in the bank? It's a nice picture at the end, if you let it end there.

1 comment:

  1. I always loved the bird woman (and the song). All of my favorite parts of Mary Poppins involved the dirtier, less peachy parts. I'd never really thought about why.

    Awesome post :)