A wooden leg named Smith.
I never had a great affinity for Mary Poppins as a child. It could have been that I didn’t connect to the subject matter or more likely it was because my sister did. I gravitated towards Bedknobs and Broomsticks instead as a point of conflict—a film (unbeknownst to me at the time) with the same director (Robert Stevenson) and screenwriting duo (Bill Walsh and Don DaGradi). I had therefore let everything slip away from memory as far as plotting and characterizations go due to my youthful protestation. What I had retained, however, was the music by Richard M. Sherman and Robert B. Sherman. Watching it now more than two decades since my last go-round proved that my insolence was no match for those incomparable tunes.
Here I was singing along to the instrumental overture, every lyric coming to me from the depths of my mind with a surprising dose of genuine delight. From there came a recollection of bits and pieces. There was Mary (Julie Andrews) pulling up her sinking umbrella from the clouds. Admiral Boom (Reginald Owen) ordering cannon blasts that forced the maid (Hermione Baddeley‘s Ellen), cook (Reta Shaw‘s Mrs. Brill), and matriarch (Glynis Johns‘ Mrs. Banks) of 17 Cherry Tree Lane to protect every piece of ceramic prone to fall and break from the quake. And who could forget Bert (Dick Van Dyke) filling his role as impromptu narrator, turning to the camera to personally address those of us watching? The rest gradually came into focus as things moved along.
Based upon P.L. Travers‘ literary series (the rocky relationship pitting her disinterest in a cinematic adaptation and Walt Disney’s cajoling on behalf of his daughters’ affinity for the work is documented in the underrated Saving Mr. Banks), we find ourselves in pre-WWI Edwardian London with a stable of characters apt to sing, dance, and laugh. What they don’t often do, though, is part with their well-earned money no matter how much joy a busker may deliver unto them. It’s no surprise then that we eventually find ourselves at the aforementioned address to meet an affluent family busy enough to sustain their way of life yet too busy to cherish the people living in its comfort. The children (Karen Dotrice‘s Jane and Matthew Garber‘s Michael) have begun to notice.
Mrs. Banks is a gung-ho suffragette hitting the streets in protest while Mr. Banks (David Tomlinson) embraces the delusion that being a breadwinning banker is enough to earn him praise. What he enjoys in a routine of coming home, being doted upon, and letting his lack of observational skills see the chaos building around him as invisible, however, proves anything but tip-top. So his young kids act out in search of attention and love. And since their parents are never home, they take out their frustrations on a revolving door of nannies hired for a type of discipline that only works if someone else is supplying the carrot. After Katie Nanna’s (Elsa Lanchester) inevitable resignation, the children decide to write their own advertisement for a replacement.
With a cheerful disposition, rosy cheeks, and the patience of a saint, Mary Poppins floats down with her umbrella to take the job. Her sense of magical wonder stops Jane and Michael in their tracks, the awe she conjures keeping them off-balance and attentive for whatever comes next. They have adventures inside chalk-drawing worlds and laugh their way to the ceiling of Uncle Albert’s (Ed Wynn) dining room—excursions these children can’t help themselves from wanting to share with their inattentive father. Due to Mr. Banks being such a pragmatist, these stories unfortunately don’t come off as exciting as intended. He sees them as frivolous and Poppins an unsavory influence. Her games thus become as much fun for the kids as provocation to Banks’ entire way of life.
I guess I always assumed she was teaching the children lessons about cleaning their rooms and being kind, etc. because that’s what would come across to a child. But seeing the film again as an adult reveals there was really only one: “a spoonful of sugar helps the medicine go down.” That’s it. The beauty of its simplicity, though, is that its sentiments work in every situation. When the medicine is putting away toys, the sugar is making it a game (and using magical finger-snaps to do the work for you). When the medicine is a day’s work, the sugar is the anticipation of knowing what will be there to meet you at home afterwards. It’s the fun/responsibility dynamic that we all must reconcile—children and grown-ups alike.
Jane and Michael are thus being shown what’s behind the curtain of their parents’ lives since previous nannies merely distracted them from the fact mom and dad were never home. And Mr. and Mrs. Banks are taught that it’s okay to let loose and embrace imaginative flights of fancy because adulthood only brings less and less opportunity to do so. The kids learn how laughter isn’t permanent, but neither is its absence. Their parents learn that duty and identity don’t have to simply be sacrifices to a better way of living nor do they have to force the household into believing there’s no room for improvement. And the best part is that they ostensibly teach themselves these truths. Mary pokes and prods until they open their own eyes.
That’s the part my former self missed completely in the 80s. Mary Poppins isn’t the lead character in her own movie, but the catalyst for the Banks to claim agency upon their lives as a unit rather than disparate individuals. It’s perfectly drawn too with Andrews hamming it up on the vanity scale, primping her hair and patting her own back in the knowledge that her words and actions are precisely providing her wards exactly what they need to achieve a state of self-conscious introspection. She’s there in the background pulling the strings while Bert goofs around in the foreground to more overtly explain her motives. This tag-team approach surprised me because it’s more than just a human who knows Mary. He’s quite literally her intentional partner-in-psychological-crime.
So we sing along to the catchy melodies that make us smile and take stock in the more somber ditties asking us to refocus the values that drive us forward. “Feed the Birds (Tuppence a Bag)” may possess the same meaning as “stop and smell the roses” on its surface, but the inclusion of a monetary transaction makes it all the more powerful. There’s more to Mary’s lessons than simply finding the time to love. They’re about severing ties to a capitalist mindset that creates automatons killing themselves for employers rather than family. They’re about replacing that mindset with a humanist one wherein the money earned is never more valuable than the ways in which it’s used. Financial solvency is no match for a full, happy heart.