Sunday, December 06, 2009

Mary Poppins: Practically Perfect

"Our daughters' daughters will adore us"
– Winifred Banks

My daughter is obsessed with the Disney film Mary Poppins (1963): sometimes we watch it twice a day. At first I found Mary Poppins – played with glee by Julie Andrews (who won an Oscar for her role) – somewhat annoying; she's prim, proper and prissy. Then I started to find her attractive (it was her licking the "rrrhhum" [rum] punch flavoured medicine off her finger that did it). Now I think I may adore her. She is 'practically perfect in every way' (as her tape measure says); and it's the practically that makes her interesting. She's an irresistible mix of prim and dirty, innocence and experience, dull and wild, virgin and whore.

I'm guessing it's intentional but it seems ironic that Winifred Banks, the mother of the two children Mary Poppins is nanny for, is an enthusiastic suffragette (the film is set in 1910) – at least superficially: she may sing the songs ("though we adore men individually/We agree as a group they're rather stupid), wear the banners and go on the marches and demonstrations, but at the end of the day she is subservient to her husband ("What will Mr Banks say?" she asks nervously), George Banks, who sings "It's the age of men".

Mary Poppins, on the other hand, is a free spirit, almost a kooky Annie Hall-type character (dresses funny), unburdened by a husband or patriarchal society in general. It helps she can fly and do magic. Winifred doesn't seem to be aware of Mary Poppins's uniqueness (tellingly, they never actually speak together in the film) and goes on her suffragette marches oblivious to her own subservient position in the household – which has four women (wife, nanny, cook and servant) and only one man. Mary Poppins not only routinely disagrees or ignores pompous George Banks (job references, she tells him during her interview are "old-fashioned"), she manages to influence his thinking – more than his nervous wife does for most of the film.

We first see Mary Poppins sitting on a cloud – doing her make-up. She may be free from the shackles of marriage, but she still likes to look her best; she checks herself in the mirror some five times in ten minutes of screen time.

In her role as nanny, rosy-cheeked Mary Poppins first displays her have-some-fun-then-deny-it persona. She takes the children for a great day out (entering chalk pictures; encountering animated characters and animals – who all love Mary Poppins and sing, "It's a jolly holiday with Mary/No wonder it's Mary that we love"; riding an animated horse race on carousel horses; singing Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious with some Chelsea pensioners) then, later, promptly denies it, as well as being offended: "a respectable person like me in a horse race? How dare you suggest such a thing!"

It's obvious that she is familiar with Bert (Dick Van Dyke), the chimney sweep cum artist, but it's never explicitly stated in what way. Bert reels off names of his other female friends as Mary epitomises mock-annoyed – until the last line, Mary is "cream of the crop" and she's all smiles again. Mary Poppins is often mock-disapproving and fairly short-tempered towards most people – Bert, the children, 'Uncle' Albert (in whose scene she employs sarcastic hand clapping), George Banks, but usually – begrudgingly – comes around in the end, to the joy of all around.

By the end of the film, she has done her job – George Banks is a more understanding husband and father, and the family go off to fly a kite. Mary looks longingly at them, obviously feeling some jealousy. Maybe she's destined to be single and free – but it doesn't look like much fun, even if you can fly.

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