Monday, December 16, 2013

The Brilliance of ... "Mary Poppins"


Yes. You heard me right. Mary Poppins is brilliant. And right now, you can definitely tell I'm a father. But I must confess that I've loved this Disney musical since before I had a kids! Based on the 1934 book series written by P.L. Travers, Mary Poppins tells the story of a magical nanny (Julie Andrews) who comes to watch over two nice, sweet children -- sister Jane (Karen Dotrice) and brother Michael (Matthew Garber) Banks -- who also happen to be somewhat emotionally ignored by their parents, George (David Tomlinson, one of my favorite underrated actors) and Winifred (Glynis Johns). Everyone who knows even slightly about the movie knows that songs are sung and wackiness ensues. But what most viewers are missing is a deep, underlying message in the story. 

1.) Saving Mr. Banks
At the end of the film, it is not so much the children Jane and Michael who are "saved" as it is their father George.

With the upcoming release of the Tom Hanks/Emma Thompson film about the making of Mary Poppins and the rift between Walt Disney (Hanks) and Travers (Thompson), it is great in knowing that Travers' true story of Poppins will come to the forefront in pop culture knowledge. Travers' (whose real name was Helen Lyndon Goff) father, Travers, was a bank manager (eventually demoted to bank clerk), much like the George Banks character in the book/film. Unfortunately, he died young in 1907 at age 43. And it is, what many Travers biographers say, her father who inspired the George Banks character in her book. 

Throughout the film, Banks is always "on schedule," thinks "children should be seen and not heard," does not believe in make-believe, and is only concerned about living a comfortable life with money and the perfect image (as evidenced in the songs "The Life I Lead," "A British Bank (The Life I Lead)" and "Fidelity Fiduciary Bank"). Even though all of the adults around him are welcoming to Poppins' magic and ways, it is Banks who consistently puts down her tactics and beliefs in raising children. It is not until the end of the film when he opens up about his dreams and fears to Bert (Dick Van Dyke), and then realizes, thanks to Burt, that -- despite his blaming Poppins -- his children will grow up one day -- it happens fast -- and not only will he not have the same time he has with them now, but they also  may "not have time for him" just like he never did with them. The movie reminds us, through the George character, that life doesn't have to be taken so seriously ... especially if you have kids, because time flies fast and our own mortality is just around the corner. This storyline reminds us of the truly important things in life.

As seen in the scene above, Banks says Poppins "tricked" him into spending time with kids. It is then that Bert delicately lays down the law.

It can be said that -- like that cheesy reality show Nanny 9-1-1 -- Poppins was there to save Mr. Banks ... and ultimately his entire family. One cannot think of the "happy ending" in Poppins and not think about how Travers herself most likely yearned for her father while she was growing up (he died when she was only 7). The origin for Poppins came to Travers when she was a little girl, writing stories for her little sisters, and at a time when her father was being demoted, was an alcoholic, died and left her family destitute; her mother became hysterically overcome with grief, leaving her emotionally unbalanced (Picardie 2008). 

As shown in the 2013 movie, Saving Mr. Banks (to be released December 20, 2013), Travers was extremely annoyed with Walt Disney when she read what screenwriters Bill Walsh and Don DaGradi had come up with. The songs plus the inclusion of the cartoon world (i.e., penguins, race horses, etc.) especially irritated her. It is legend that after viewing the movie at its premiere (to which the author was not invited), Travers cried ... out of disappointment!

2.) The Music

Written by brothers Richard and Robert Sherman, the music for Mary Poppins follows a certain leitmotif. This theme is introduced in the song "The Life I Lead" and is appropriately heard throughout most of George Banks' songs -- even more proof that the story is just as much about him as it is about the children. For those who don't know the brilliant Sherman brothers' work, you do; you just don't know it. They've written songs for classic animated movies The Jungle Book, The Many Adventures of Winnie the Pooh, The AristoCats, The Sword in the Stone, Charlotte's Web, as well as live-action movies Chitty Chitty Bang Bang, The Parent Trap, Bedknobs and Broomsticks, the Disney park staple song "It's a Small  World (After All)" and the 1960 Johnny Burnette hit song "You're Sixteen." Their legacy was covered in the 2009 documentary The Boys: The Sherman Brothers' Story, and I consider them two of the most prolific songwriters in music history.

Recently, The Hollywood Reporter attended a special sing-along with Richard Sherman (sadly, his brother Robert passed away last year), and asked him about he and his brother's first introduction to Mary Poppins. According to the Reporter article, "Sherman remembered that he and his brother had been called in for a 10-minute meeting with Walt Disney to discuss the project, but the meeting ended up running for two hours because they discussed in great detail the chapters of the Poppins novel. At one point they played some notes from a song that would become 'Feed the Birds' -- which, in turn, would become Disney's personal favorite song -- 'and he gave us our job,' Sherman said."

The Sherman brothers also convinced Disney to change the setting from the depression of the 1930s (which is what is in the book) to the Edwardian rule of 1910 England. This caused more of a rift with author Travers as she then only wanted classic music pieces that were popular during that time period. Luckily, the Sherman brothers stuck to their guns and what is delivered are some of the most popular, recognizable music of our time! The Sherman brothers used the music to their advantage when it came to advancing the women's civil rights movement -- through Mrs. Banks' song "Sister Suffragette," which puts her at odds with her husband (who does not believe in the women's right to vote), although she never voices her opposition and tries to go along with his "merry life" he leads. All of the songs -- especially "The Life I Lead," "A Spoonful of Sugar," "Jolly Holiday," "Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious," "I Love to Laugh," "Feed the Birds," "Chim Chim Cher-ee," "Step in Time," and "Let's Go Fly a Kite" -- are catchy, superb songs that capture every young person's ear and stays with them through the years.

To this day, the Mary Poppins soundtrack remains one of my most favorites! I sing "Feed the Birds" to my young daughters right before bedtime. In fact, "Feed the Birds" -- like Mr. Disney -- is one of my favorite songs of all time. Disguised as a mere ballad or lullaby about a bag-lady who sells bird feed, the song is about so much more. The song is not just about feeding birds. The birds represent mankind -- particularly the poor and meek -- and the message is that no matter what amount, whether monetary or material, we can all give of ourselves to help our fellow man. It is a God-like thing we can all do, and is represented in the lyric: "All around the cathedral the saints and apostles/Look down as she sells her wares/Although you can't see it,/You know they are smiling/Each time someone shows that he cares." Take that element, along with Julie Andrews' beautiful voice, and it is no wonder the film won an Academy Award/Oscar for best music!

 3.) A Trailblazing Author

Before there was J.K. Rowling, Harper Lee, or Flannery O'Connor, there was Helen Lyndon Goff, who would change her name to P.L. Travers. Some of her detractors thought of her as a "cold" woman, but she had quite the career. In the early 1920s, Travers was an actress, touring throughout Australia and New Zealand with a Shakespearean company, while also writing and publishing poems. In the early 1930s, she moved into a cottage in Sussex, England, and began writing Mary Poppins, which was eventually published in 1934. Even though the first story was officially published in 1934, Travers had early composition books from her childhood which held Mary Poppins stories she had written for her younger sisters.

During World War II, Travers lived in Manhattan, where she worked for the British Ministry of Information (England's publicity and propaganda machine), and was approached by Walt Disney's older brother and business partner Roy Disney about selling Poppins to Disney Studios in order to make a film. Whereas most authors would jump at the chance, Travers was hesitant. For more than 20 years, Walt Disney periodically made efforts to convince Travers to allow him to make a Poppins film. He finally succeeded in 1961, although Travers demanded and got script approval rights. Planning the film and composing the songs took about two years. Travers objected to a number of elements that actually made it into the film. Somehow, Disney was able to attain the rights and the relationship between he and Travers was "icy." Later, in 1993, when Broadway producer Cameron Mackintosh met with Travers -- who was in her 90s -- to acquire rights to make a Broadway musical adaptation of Mary Poppins, Travers said he could do it on one condition: only English-born writers and no one from the Disney film production were to be directly involved with the creative process of the stage musical. Thus, Downton Abbey creator/writer Julian Fellowes wrote the adaptation.

In her personal life, Travers was known to have romantic relationships with both men and women, and, at the age of 40, she adopted an Irish boy named Camillus Hone. She never married and, in a time when being a single parent was unheard of, she did just that. Her character Mary Poppins is a testament to a strong female character and paved the way for many other such characters -- in both realism and fantasy.

4.) Groundbreaking Technology

Before Mary Poppins came on the scene in 1964, only two prior films had mixed live-action actors with animated characters: first, in 1945, with Anchors Aweigh, which featured Gene Kelly dancing with Jerry the mouse (from Tom and Jerry); and, second, in 1946, with Disney's Song of the South, which featured actor James Baskett interacting with an entire animated world. While the former found Jerry being drawn onto the live-action film, the latter was not very popular and did not really get much notice from audiences. But when Poppins came along, critics, audiences and filmmakers alike all noticed the mixed cartoon/live stage world that Poppins, Bert, and the children stepped into.

The technology used in Poppins and its predecessors would be used to make films such as Who Framed Roger Rabbit? and would go on to inspire special FX artists -- and even computer graphic artists -- around the world. If it weren't for Poppins, it's safe to say that this technology may have taken even longer to get off the ground. 

What's more important than technological advance, though, is how it sparked every viewer's imagination. Watching the actors interact with cartoon characters made the viewer believe these characters were in an animated world and it helped the film all the more for it.

Just a few years ago, I was eager to show my daughters Mary Poppins and continue the tradition started when I was a kid. For its great music, animation, lively story and spark of imagination, Mary Poppins is a brilliant film!

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