Monday, August 5, 2019
Mary Poppins: A Review
I make so secret the fact that I find Dick Van Dyke hopelessly annoying: his big toothy grin and broad face never fail to grate at me. As such, I have seen Mary Poppins exactly once strictly because of Dick Van Dyke. Now having revisited Mary Poppins, I still find him annoying but tolerable, for the film is such a delight it would be near-impossible to resist its charms.
The Banks children Jane (Karen Doltrice) and Michael (Matthew Garber) are generally good Edwardian children but prone to drive nannies away. Mr. George Banks (David Tomlinson) wants a very firm nanny. His suffragette wife Winifred (Glynis Johns) reluctantly goes along with this. Jane and Michael write out their own advertisement but Mr. Banks won't accept it.
However, Mary Poppins (Julie Andrews) does accept it despite the children's advert having been torn up. A befuddled Mr. Banks accepts Mary Poppins as the new nanny, and soon the children are under her spell. She is firm but sweet, able to sing songs and take them various places. Aided by jack-of-all-trades Bert (Van Dyke), she and the children go into magical lands and visit her laugh-prone Uncle Albert (Ed Wynn), who floats on air when laughing.
In an effort to bring Jane and Michael to a better understanding of the seriousness of life, Mary Poppins cons him into taking the children to his work at the Fidelity Fiduciary Bank. Michael's refusal to give up his tuppence to the bank versus giving it to the Bird-Woman who urges all to Feed the Birds accidentally causes a run on the bank. Jane and Michael flee the bank and wind up in the East End, where Bert (now a chimney-sweep) takes them home. Up on the rooftops of London more musical adventures with Bert and Mary Poppins before an enraged Mr. Banks is called at home to a night meeting.
Ultimately, Mr. Banks realizes what the true worth of things and people are and decides Let's Go Fly a Kite with the children and his wife. Still, things turn out all right for the Banks' and with her work done, Mary Poppins flies away.
I do not think Richard and Robert Sherman have been given enough credit for their mastery of songwriting. If you hear the songs in Mary Poppins you find the three elements they claimed made for a great song: singable, simple and sincere. You have the Oscar-winning Chim-Chim-Cher-ee, which is repeated in various forms throughout the film.
If one listens to it, you find that Chim-Chim-Cher-ee is a song for all seasons: it can be upbeat, romantic or even melancholy depending on who and how it is sung. It can shift from frivolous to foreboding and it's a remarkable feature of the film that despite the sheer number of songs, there does not seem a sense that any of them don't fit.
I might think that I Love to Laugh might be the outlier as the entire Uncle Albert sequence seems superfluous to the overall plot. However, we do see how it connects to things at the end, and besides, there's such a nice delight in seeing Ed Wynn taking them all up for tea that it almost feels wrong to say 'remove this number'.
You do hear the songs in Mary Poppins and think they are singable, simple and sincere. The joy of Jolly Holiday and Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious (it's singable even as it is virtually impossible to spell); the explosive you of Step in Time, the mournful quality of Feed the Birds. A vast majority of the numbers are fully and firmly ingrained in the English-language culture: A Spoonful of Sugar we know helps the medicine go down, in the most delightful way.
You can see also how well-crafted the film is based on the performances.
It's at this point that despite my disdain for Dick Van Dyke, I will concede his rubbery dancing manner seemed to fit the character of Bert. At least we know his Cockney accent was laughably bad, though to be fair he was more believable as a Brit than Anne Hathaway was in The Hustle and/or Lin-Manuel Miranda in Mary Poppins Returns. I found him tolerable.
My Fair Lady, is to coin a phrase 'practically perfect in every way' as our supernatural nanny. She is sweet but also firm, balancing a very British detached manner with just a hint of suppressed love for the Banks children. Her voice is crystal clear and sells every number be it cheery (A Spoonful of Sugar) or melancholy (Feed the Birds). I don't think any other actress could have sold the ability to be winning the Derby on a carousel horse and raise a frustrated eyebrow at a laughing, floating uncle with equal ease.
Tomlinson (curiously one of only two major cast members to not be alive as of this writing) was properly stuffy and British as Mr. Banks, but he shows in his performance the character's evolution when he goes to the bank for his fateful meeting. It helps that the Sherman Brothers' music gives the walking montage that sense of melancholy and realization. However, he was amusing in his stuffiness.
Johns was delightful as the somewhat daffy feminist: a suffragette on the streets, a more meek woman...at home. Doltrice and the late Garber were delightful as well as Jane and Michael, their faces so wonderfully expressive.
Mary Poppins is also blessed to have such wonderful and bright sets and costumes, fully embracing the whimsical world of 17 Cherry Tree Lane. The blending of animation and live-action holds up surprisingly well, and while some of the special effects may look slightly dated on the whole that would be excessively nitpicky.
I genuinely cannot find much if anything to fault in Mary Poppins, not even Dick Van Dyke. It's an unapologetically joyful romp filled with wonderful songs and a life-affirming message, the latter badly needed now.
It truly is a Jolly Holiday with Mary...