Thursday, April 2, 2020

Walt Disney, part XXIII: I rocked the fretful baby gods to sleep before time started, and I am companion to the women who paste up the stars. The quarters of the world are bound unto my compass. I have taken tea with earthquakes. I know what the bee knows... And you really are a dreadful little boy.


Directed by Robert Stevenson
Written by Bill Walsh and Don DaGradi (based on the novel by P.L. Travers)

Spoiler alert: high

Mary Poppins recommends itself as a subject for our Disney retrospective for several reasons, most obviously because, despite being a live-action film, it contains a smaller-than-you-remember but nonetheless non-trivial amount of animationBut the reason it might be a requisite is that it's one of the last times in his life that Walt Disney really, truly cared about one of the motion pictures he presented.  In many ways, it's only the same old Disney production storysometimes I think that every Disney movie must have some roots going back to the late 1930sbut this time, it comes with a twist.  As his corporate hagiography tells us, Walt became interested in the flying nanny through his daughters Diane and Sharon, whom he found laughing joyously as they read Pamela Lyndon Travers' first Mary Poppins novel; as Diane tells us, this happened exactly as reported, except the book was Winnie the Pooh.  Regardless, somebody must have brought it to his attention, and he made a bid for the rights.  Travers took the measure of this American cartoon monger, and dismissed him entirely.  Maybe rejection was what kept Walt's interest keen.  Whatever it was, he really wanted to do Mary Poppins, and this was not the typical Disney situation, where a semi-abandoned project, abandoned because it wasn't working in the first place, got revived with a shrug of Walt's shoulders.

So, every few years, Walt would bother the Englishwoman anew.  As the early 1960s rolled around, with a healthy number of projects now under Walt's belt as an established producer of "real" live-action films, Travers relented.  Famously, this was to her eternal regret, to the extent that her dying act was an attempt to foreclose on the possibility of any Mary Poppins sequel ever being made.  (It's more fun to print the legend, but of course the real story is more complicated: Travers was in touch with Disney for decades on the subject of a possible sequel, including one where the Bert figure could have been played by Michael Jacksonoh dearthough Travers proved impossible to deal with, perhaps intentionally, making crazy person demands like "Mary Poppins must not wear red," and nothing ever came of it.)  In any event, the provisions in her will failed to take; in 2019 came Mary Poppins Returns, and before it, Saving Mr. Banks, a fictionalized/propaganistic account of the process by which Walt had cajoled her to release Poppins to him in the first place.

The part it gets right is that, in 1961, he invited her to come to America, granting her the largely illusory right to "consult" upon the screenplay and songs as they were being developed.  Saving Mr. Banks itself was also a Disney filmoriginally, it was a BBC film that Disney bought up, which would be awfully suspicious if they hadn't more-or-less announced their revisionist intentions for it upfrontand it more-or-less presents the opposite of what actually happened in 1961: Walt blew smoke up Travers' ass, and, when she complained, pointed her directly to the contract she'd signed, as well as the lawyers standing behind it, and the principal emotion she felt when she attended its premiere was fury.

And maybe Mary Poppins is indeed a betrayal of her novels.  But while it (clearly) makes for an easy structuring principle for an essay, it's rarely actually useful to grant any special deference to any author who makes a big deal about being unbearably precious about their own work.  Still, if it's been a long time since you've seen Mary Poppinsand in my case it has been thirty yearsyour awareness of Travers' hatred could only add to your hesitancy when, say, you've obliged yourself to watch it as part of a Walt Disney retrospective.  On top of that, it's a movie musical from the 1960s, and while it's a comfort that Mary Poppins is "the good one," along with The Sound of Musicsay, do those two films have anything in common?musicals from the 60s do have a certain reputation.  No, it might be a classic, but hell, so are lots of Disney films that I have no use for; it is also 139 minutes long, which came as a shock to me as I read the box, because it seemed impossible that a Disney film made for small children could possibly scrape up against two and a half hours, yet still, somehow, succeed.  Another bad sign: scanning my childhood memories, I could not recall anything about the plot.  But of course, you know that in fact I recalled Mary Poppins quite perfectly.  It simply doesn't have one.

And that's why I consider Mary Poppins a miracle: because it's 139 minutes long; because it only ever develops the scanty emotional stakes it has after something like 120 of them have passed (and on behalf of a vague character who has previously been, at most, the film's antagonist); because, in the meantime, it has filled itself exclusively with fluff of the most frivolous and pointless kind.  Which is the point.  It makes Mary Poppins the rarest kind of film: a pure excuse for zany tweeness and high-energy fun-fun-fun! that does not, in the process, outrun your patience.  Far more than just a spoonful of sugar, watching Mary Poppins is more like ingesting half a pound, but I have been known to eat half a pound of sugar, in various forms, from time to time.  Somehow, it is enjoyableeven compellingall the way through, shockingly well-paced and devoid of pretty much anything I actively dislike, despite being a product of a process practically guaranteed to produce a lot of things I actively dislike.  For while it may be mostly live-action, it's very much akin to the Disney cartoons of its vintage: a collection of goofy events presented one after the other, the sole major distinction being that not all of the cartoons of this period also had Sherman Brothers songs.  Not a year before, however, The Sword In the Stone had followed this pattern precisely, and it's a blight on the animation studio's name.  (As for The Jungle Book, the other contender for the last film Walt felt any passion about making, it has a plot, and still winds up a bunch of barely-connected scenes.)

Objectively, it is hard to distinguish its essence from The Sword In the Stone or The Jungle Book, or Alice In Wonderland or Peter Pan, or any of the other vignette-driven Disney films of the 1940s, 50s, and 60s (not all of them were British, of course, but Walt seemed to find episodic British children's novels irresistibly attractive).  However, I believe the difference is this: Mary Poppins never pretends it has drama, and therefore it is incapable of fucking its drama up.  The closest it ever gets, deep, deep into its runtime, is Mr. Banks losing his joband by this utterly irresponsible movie's lights, that's actually a good thing.  (Upon being sacked, he then kills his boss with a weaponized bad joke.  In a film that constantly veers into the random and unexpected, the way it casually swerves into black comedy in the exact same moment it's tying up its loose ends far-too-neatlyallowing Banks to keep his job and fly a kite, toomust be the thing that catches me the most by surprise.)  I suppose that Mary Poppins earns its right to be wall-to-wall whimsy because it's hard to reject a movie for simply embodying its only nature.  All it ever asks is for you to sit still, and, if you haven't killed the child inside you entirely, smile.  It threatens genuinely hefty seriousness once and only once, and even this is only a reminder to "feed the birds" while you can, because soon they'll fly away.

In the absence of a plot, the circumstances that pertain to Mary Poppins are as follows: we find ourselves in an Edwardian neverwhen of London, years before the Great War and still the center of an Empire built through, well, mostly the exploitation of the British underclass and the global south, but, for this film's purposes, likewise upon the backs of such unimaginative and uncomplaining men as George Banks (David Tomlinson), who is foremost a banker, but occasionally, at least when the unwanted obligations of these roles are thrust upon him, also the disengaged husband of Winifred (Glynis Johns) and a reluctant father to Jane (Karen Dotrice) and Michael (Matthew Garber).  The two children, described in dialogue as impossibly ill-behaved but frankly never presented this way whatsoever, have just sent their current nanny fleeing into the streets, which opens up the position for someone new, and, through machinations that George can scarcely comprehend, Mary Poppins (Julie Andrews) enters their lives, reintroducing a sense of play and wonder to the household, of such a profound nature that eventually even snooty old George must succumb.

This tends to ignore what the film is actually about for the great balance of its runtime, which is evidently whatever happened to strike the fancy of its story developers, predominantly variations on Mary Poppins taking the kids on warped day trips featuring Sherman Brothers songson occasion the film just abandons the children altogether, and it's indicative of how much it genuinely cares about Jane and Michaeland it's only at the last that George's stiffening resistance eventually generates a conflict between his uptight ways and the madcap joie de vivre which Mary Poppins symbolically represents (and rarely, or never, explicitly acknowledges herself).  Travers' objections to all this, incidentally, appear to have been largely aesthetic: she hated the songs and the admixture of cartoonsupon seeing it, she demanded Walt remove them, and you can guess how seriously Walt took this admonition, that is, he stopped barely short of laughing in her face, though it's certainly possible that when he told her that ship had sailed, he was laughingand she did not care at all for her perceived nicening of Mary Poppins, which was accurate yet somewhat hard to believe if you haven't read the book, considering she's still awfully condescending and imperious.  I assume her greatest conceptual objection was that the movie ultimately tells the story of how George Banks got his groove back; that is definitely not in the first novel, in which he is barely a character in any way, and if it's in the next three that were published up till 1964, Wikipedia does not mention it.

History does not, however, record Travers objecting to a rampantly arbitrary screenplay as such, though certainly she would not have had a leg to stand on (not even one named Smith) if she had.  That screenplay, credited to Bill Walsh and Don DaGradi, appears designed mostly just to fill up time and, out of five possible characters, never manages to find a single protagonist, since Mary Poppins is only our magical guide to a hidden world, George is basically the villain, Winifred is a ditzy non-entity (which is for the best, as the film already comes disturbingly close to equating her zeal for women's suffrage to bad mothering, and if it gave her more material, it clearly would have gotten there), and the children are largely props, sometimes not even that, spending most of this film sharing one personality trait between them, usually just slack-jawed overjoyed wonder.

I said it works, though, and does it ever; in fact, there are few things that don't work, and these are all quibbles.  (The biggest, I think, is that the first musical number occurs before Mary Poppins appears; the Banks' Cherry Tree Lane neighborhood has been presented as an already quite-odd placetheir neighbor, a former admiral of the RN, is a manifest lunaticbut there's something even more off about Winifred precipitously announcing her characterization in song before anyone else gets a chance.  It was therefore not a surprise to me that "Sister Suffragette" exists, and is where it is, solely because Johns demanded a number of her own, and so they thoughtlessly shoved it into the most convenient place.)

Anyway, the big reason that Mary Poppins works is certainly not hard to name, since she won an Oscar for it, so let's name her: that's Julie Andrews, hired off Broadway to make her screen debut here, and she is a flawless Mary Poppins.  The only person I've ever seen disagree is P.L. Travers, and even she softened on that over time.  That Andrews sings like an angel, of course, needn't even be mentioned (especially as the Sherman songs, despite being a lot of fun, couldn't have possibly challenged her, at least beyond the Shermans' employment of fourteen syllable words in their lyrics).  Andrews is the reason that the film Mary Poppins even seems as distinct from the book version as she does, playing the warmest possible version of a character that is still quite stern and casually mean-spirited; for all that Walsh and DaGradi did sand off Travers' edges, this Mary Poppins is still perfectly capable of all the constant self-superior sniffing and fits of offended dignity that characterize her in the book, and it's mostly in Andrews' performance that the jerkishness comes off instead as just another part of the game that Mary Poppins has been playing for an eternity, where she sets the parameters of every adventure, and permits the fun to happen, with an exasperated sigh that's hiding a wink that Andrews always lets us see.  It's within this tension between Andrews' playful rigidity and the chaos that follows her around that so much of the film's delight exists.  Of course, Mary Poppins, film and book alike, are to some degree ahead-of-their-time works of urban fantasy, though the film eschews a number of high-concept scenarios from the book that strike me as potentially far more interesting and visually grandiose than the ones the movie deploys; there was obviously some conscious effort to keep the film smaller and more limited, which in itself has its own appeal, grounding the film in the deliberately non-epic.  Yet even so, in both versions, Mary Poppins must be a secret god.  (Indeed, you can see in Travers' 1934 novel the woman who eventually turned toward esoteric mysticism.)  Nevertheless, it's only Andrews' version of the divine nanny that makes her cosmic function approachable.

With Andrews' star turn shining so brightly, then, it's understandable that Dick Van Dyke doesn't get the credit he deserves.  Andrews is really only first among equals; I don't think the movie works without him, either.  In part, this is the basic construction of his characterthe smooshing together of a number of Travers characters into Britain's first hipster, sidewalk artist by day, chimneysweep by night, and perhaps a financier before luncheonand Bert's clearly a bit of a minor deity himself, not to mention Mary's on-and-off consort.  My second-favorite thing in the movie is their musical date to the cartoon English countryside, a bizarre detour and one that Travers got her way on, at least theoretically: lyrics were changed to elide their relationship, but that's all they doput it in an ellipsisand while I suppose one does not need to understand the conjoined dance of their umbrella and cane as a metaphor for an afternoon delight, well, you ain't convincing me.  Of course, my first-favorite part of the film is "Step in Time," the chimneysweep revue that never seems to end (it is fourteen minutes long!) but only in the most gorgeously energetic way, with effects-boosted choreography and striking visuals of silhouetted dancers bolstering a pretty great song, and all combining to make one of the better musical numbers of its day.  In every moment, Van Dyke's gangly limbs and smiling face are an invitation to a better world, though only Mary Poppins holds the key; even his objectively terrible British accent seems significant, terrifically charming on its merits (it's maybe the best bad accent ever, lovely to listen to just as a collection of sounds), and it demands we perceive Bert as something to the left of human, too.

Van Dyke's frequent intrusions into the narrative are the chief expressions of the film's randomness, though randomness is absolutely its abiding mode.  In its joyous flailing, it even winds up being satirical from time to time (an Irish fox condemned to a foxhunt; a song about how banks have a chokehold on humanity); when it zig-zags into sentiment with "Feed the Birds," it's very incongruously sadthe callback to an empty set of steps, genuinely heartbreaking in a very strange and unsettling waybut the film has been building up to it, after its fashion, by explaining that silly japes are the stuff of life, and while Mary Poppins might be eternal, life is not, and childhood even less so.  Mary Poppins is a parable in that respect, arguably a regressive one, aimed squarely at the careerist fathers and feminist mothers of its own era; but in the end, its artifice is a testament to the pleasures that artifice can bestow, which is why it is so supremely fake in every respect, from its stagebound production to the Technicolor costuming, all presented with a certain guileless matter-of-factness by director Robert Stevenson.  This has the added benefit of granting the not-always-seamless effects work a certain timeless quality, inasmuch as I somewhat doubt that, e.g., Mary Poppins' creepy robot robin was ever intended as "credible," even in 1964.  The animated country holiday, on the other hand, holds up well, and it's as good as any hybridization of live actors and cartoons that Disney ever did under its own powerit lacks the psychedelic majesty of Carmen Molina's femdom cactus dance in The Three Cabarellos, or the showiness of the last Donald Duck/José Carioca team-up in Melody Time, but it's more involved, and it's another example of Van Dyke's indespensibility, for he seems staggeringly natural and at-home amongst cartoon penguinsAt its best, it represents an apex not exceeded till Who Framed Roger Rabbit took it to another level.  (At its worst, when it comes to the ride on carousel horses, it looks chintzy as hell, but that has some appeal too.)

Mary Poppins, then, is great, despite being something a waste of time, because it owns it, offering itself up as a tribute to joys of wasting timeand arguing persuasively that, actually, goofing off with our loved ones is the only time we aren't.  So sure, it's a trifle, but Disney, despite its reputation, has often been fairly bad at trifles.  It's rarely if ever been better at it than here.

Score: 8/10

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