Tuesday, September 3, 2013

Classic Films in Focus: MARY POPPINS (1964)

Disney has had a hit or miss history with its live action films, but Mary Poppins (1964), directed by Disney veteran Robert Stevenson, stands as a testament to the studio’s ability to make really fine pictures with human stars, and the film’s five Oscar wins and thirteen nominations make it Disney’s best contender of all time at the Academy Awards. Of course, a lot of the movie’s appeal stems from the captivating Julie Andrews, making her big screen debut as the practically perfect nanny and taking home a Best Actress Oscar for her performance. Today, Mary Poppins is still a thoroughly charming family film that also rewards seasoned cinephiles with appearances by a number of favorite stars, including Glynis Johns, David Tomlinson, and even Elsa Lanchester and Jane Darwell.

Andrews plays the title character, who arrives as the new nanny in the rather dysfunctional Banks family. Mrs. Banks (Glynis Johns) spends all of her energy on the suffragist cause, while Mr. Banks (David Tomlinson) devotes himself to his work at the bank and thinks that his home ought to be businesslike, as well. Little Jane (Karen Dotrice) and Michael (Matthew Garber) Banks, lost in this shuffle, delight in their new nanny’s magical abilities and embark on a series of adventures with her and her friend, Bert (Dick Van Dyke), but their chatter about their unusual outings only riles Mr. Banks. A crisis ensues, but Mary Poppins’ lessons eventually put everything right.

Julie Andrews demonstrates the enormous talent that would take her through an impressive subsequent career, leading to two more Best Actress nominations. She sings, dances, and acts beautifully, and she looks simply adorable with her bright eyes, pert little nose, and trim figure. It’s impossible not to fall in love with her, especially during musical numbers like “A Spoonful of Sugar,” “Stay Awake,” and, of course, “Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious.” Andrews’ Mary is always ladylike, but she still evinces a lively sense of humor, even under the most trying circumstances. The subtle suggestion of romance between Mary and Bert adds a touch of melancholy to an adult’s perception of the story, since we know that Mary will only stay until the wind changes.

Children will enjoy the combination of live action and animation used in the chalk drawing sequence, as well as the energetic dance numbers and Dick Van Dyke’s affable comedy. Be sure to point out to them that Van Dyke also plays the elderly Mr. Dawes at the bank, a role that proves he can do a decent English accent if not a plausible Cockney one. Classic movie fans will be pleased to see a variety of familiar faces among the supporting cast, including Hermione Baddeley and Reta Shaw as the servants, Elsa Lanchester as Katie Nana, Arthur Treacher as the constable, and Reginald Owen as the aptly named Admiral Boom. Ed Wynn has a particularly fun role as Uncle Albert, while the great character actress Jane Darwell makes her final screen appearance as the woman who sells food for the birds.

Robert Stevenson also directed the somewhat similar follow-up picture, Bedknobs and Broomsticks (1971), as well as Old Yeller (1957), The Love Bug (1968), and The Shaggy D.A. (1976). For more of Julie Andrews, see The Sound of Music (1965), Thoroughly Modern Millie (1967), and Victor Victoria (1982). Dick Van Dyke also stars in the family classic, Chitty Chitty Bang Bang (1968), and you’ll find both David Tomlinson and Glynis Johns in the mermaid comedy, Miranda (1948). For more magical nannies, try the two Nanny McPhee films starring Emma Thompson.