Mary Poppins was my first love at the movies. I fell head over heels in love with Julie Andrews at just 7 years old. It wasn’t just Julie Andrews though, it was Dick Van Dyke, who, for a 7 year old, was the single funniest human being on the planet. His silly accent, mocked by many for years, was an absolute wonder to a child. His penguin dance in Mary Poppins was the first big laugh I can remember from my childhood, the first time I laughed so hard that I remember the moment.
With the sequel, Mary Poppins Returns, now in theaters nationwide, now is perhaps the appropriate time for me to express my undying dedication to the original Mary Poppins from 1964. For years, when I was working on my snobby critic credentials, I pretended that Mary Poppins was beneath me, a trifle only for children. I pretended that I didn’t know the words to every song and that the movie didn’t make me happier than any movie ever, aside from maybe, Legally Blonde.
That, however, was the posing of an immature man-child, afraid that his macho credibility would be questioned if he admitted he loved what he loved. Now, I am an adult and I’m more secure with myself, and not worried about such nonsense. Now, I can fully express that Mary Poppins is adorable and deserves to be remembered not just as a great kids film, but as a genuine motion picture classic. It helps a little that the sequel is nearly as good as the original.
Mary Poppins (1964) stars Julie Andrews as the mischievous yet proper Governess, Mary Poppins. Mary has floated down from some magical place in the clouds to take the position as caretaker to the uproarious Banks’ children, Michael and Jane (Matthew Garber and Karen Dotrice), whose nanny, played by acting legend Elsa Lanchester, has just quit. Michael and Jane aren’t troublemakers, per se, but with their fastidious father, George (David Tomlinson), always at work and their mother, Winifred (Glynis Johns), always off on her causes, they like to seek attention.
Mary Poppins appears and has just the solution for Michael and Jane’s rambunctious behavior, a series of adventures that include Mary’s good friend, and Banks’ family Chimney Sweep, Burt (Dick Van Dyke). Burt is also a one man band and a chalk artist and a kite salesman, all of which play minor roles throughout this remarkable plot. Together, our foursome sing songs and dance with animated penguins and generally have a blast, until George’s job at the bank is threatened and the family faces ruin.
It’s almost impossible to believe that this was Julie Andrews first big screen starring role, she’s a movie star from the first moment. That likely has to do with her background on Broadway and in musical theater but regardless, she is a movie star of the highest order in Mary Poppins. Her command of a scene, her effortless charisma and her spirited yet proper English singing style is infectious. Even when slightly imperious in her self-satisfaction, she remains an utter delight.
History has not been kind to the performance of Dick Van Dyke in Mary Poppins. For years, snobs of many sorts, myself included, have poked fun at Van Dyke’s ludicrous Cockney accent. Looking at it through the prism of my childhood however, that accent becomes part of Van Dyke’s charm. He sounds funny, he makes goofy faces and for a child of 6 or 7 years old, there are few things as funny as an adult acting like a big goof with a funny voice.
For me, Van Dyke’s performance recalls the laughs at all cost approach of Donald O’Connor in Singing in the Rain. Like O’Connor, Van Dyke’s performance is a physical marvel and while Van Dyke can’t dance like O’Connor he can throw himself into a physical gag with similar caution to the wind style. Van Dyke also shares a similar goofball charm with O’Connor and it makes his performance memorably adorable in Mary Poppins.
The unsung hero of Mary Poppins however, is the brilliant David Tomlinson. George Banks is not an easy role. He has to love his family but be distant, he has to come off as a believable father who is also obsessed with work and with money. He has to border on cruel in some scenes but not so much that he can’t win us back to his side in the end. Tomlinson nails every bit of George Banks and his final scenes are some of my favorite memories of Mary Poppins with a hole in his bowler and his collar askew, finally ready to go fly a kite.
Mary Poppins was directed by Disney regular Robert Stevenson and while he is not a celebrated director, his work for Disney has endured and, in the 1960’s, he defined the Disney formula with Mary Poppins, Bedknobs & Broomsticks and Herbie the Lovebug. Stevenson’s light touch and adherence to the wholesome, Walt Disney ethos, really work to create something wonderful in Mary Poppins. Some might find the Disney factory approach stifling but Stevenson turned it into movie magic that has lasted to this day.
Of course, Stevenson is greatly overshadowed by Walt Disney himself, the producer of each of the films that Stevenson directed. Disney set the course for the movies made under his umbrella and Mary Poppins is perhaps his one, true, live action masterpiece. Other Disney live action features like That Darn Cat and most assuredly, Bedknobs & Broomsticks, would try to capture the same magic but they don’t rise to the level of enchantment that is Mary Poppins, a truly one of a kind work in the Disney canon.
One of a kind until now anyway, with the release of Mary Poppins Returns in theaters now.