Happy Anniversary, Mary Poppins!
Mary Poppins, one of the best children’s movies ever, is filled with delightful songs and whimsical characters led by Julie Andrews and Dick Van Dyke. It’s the amusing story of a nanny who comes into a home and helps two youngsters actually become children again. To remind us of why the film earned five Oscars out of 13 nominations, Disney went all out in the new 2-disc 40th Anniversary DVD. The fantasy, music, color and extra features will blow your umbrellas up.
Composers and brothers Richard and Robert Sherman had already written songs for Disney TV including their first hit “Tall Paul” (sung by Mouseketeer Annette Funicello) when Walt Disney brought them the book, The Stories of Mary Poppins by Pamela Travers.
“We poured ourselves into this bookand found there were wonderful, delightful characters and incidents without a story,” says Richard Sherman. “It was written in the 30s, which was a dull period. So we created a story with six of the chapters and put it back in time to 1910.”
Tony Walton, set and costume designer for the film, says in the DVD audio commentary, “Mary Poppins didn’t start out as a musical. But once we put the story together the music came in where it belonged, and as it got going we added the choreography.”
The story takes place in London in 1910. Due to their bad attitude, the Banks children, Jane (Karen Dotrice) and Michael (Matthew Garber), have lost their nanny. Their well-off father, who works in a bank, may have something to do with the kids’ attitude. He’s busy, stuffy and lacking in imagination. That’s why he advertises for a nanny with a cheery disposition who can play games.
Mary Poppins (Andrews) blows in on her umbrella, ready to face another nanny challenge. She does play games -- clever, inventive ones that the children adore -- but ones that also accomplish something, such as when she belts out “Let’s Tidy Up the Nursery.”
Poppins takes the kids on all sorts of fanciful outings. They meet up with her friend Bert (Dick Van Dyke), a chimney sweep, and the kids are introduced to a chalk pavement picture. “Think, wink, and double-blink,” they’re told as they close their eyes and jump into a luscious animated world.
Bert and Mary open up an entirely new world for Jane and Michael. “This is what it’s all about,” explains Sherman. “The father and mother are not giving that tuppence to the kids, that little extra bit of caring, not love, because the parents do love the kids. We wanted to show Mr. Banks was sort of narrow-minded. Mrs. Banks was very interested in causes, she was a club lady, and she was out there fighting for women’s rights. They’re so preoccupied with their lives that they don’t pay attention to the kids, don’t demonstrate it, don’t smile, don’t give them that extra something that the children need -- like the father flying a kite for them.”
This is where the wonderful chapter comes in about a woman who sells bags of breadcrumbs on the steps of St. Paul's Cathedral so that passers-by can feed the birds. The Sherman brothers wrote the wonderful song, “Feed the Birds, Tuppence a Bag.” “Yes, we say, ‘My God, there's the symbol of the whole show, and once we wrote that song, we knew this is what it’s about.”
The Sherman brothers won two Oscars for their work on Mary Poppins. Best Music, Original Song for Chim Chim Cher-ee" and Best Music, Score -- Substantially Original.
Robert Stevenson, the amazing director who brought all the elements together, has a passion for imagination and a vitality that’s evident in his repertoire of films, which includes such notables as Old Yeller and Darby O'Gill and the Little People.
Julie Andrews (The Sound of Music) -- with her amazing voice, sweet disposition, inner strength and ability to project whimsical surprise (she won a Best Actress Oscar for her performance) -- and Dick Van Dyke (Chitty Chitty Bang Bang) -- with his exceptional comedic ability and lovable attitude -- were the perfect actors for the movie’s leading roles.
“They were such a team,” says Sherman. “Walt had put together so many incredible people. He felt that Julie Andrews would be phenomenon on the screen, and he felt Dick Van Dyke would be fantastic as her cohort.”
What were they like to work with? “Julie was something super special,” says Sherman. “She is phenomenal. From the time that I saw her in My Fair Lady in New York when I was a young man, I said, ‘My God, this is magical.’ Dick Van Dyke was a joy. From the very beginning, this is a fellow who was a superstar with absolutely no ego. He’s no prima donna. He’s just a regular, wonderful guy. He gives everything he has when he’s on the job. He works desperately hard, and he’s a selfless, giving and dear sweet man.”
The DVD reminds audiences of what a marvelous time kids can have with words, catchy sayings and nutty songs. The word supercalifragilisticexpialidocious became a household name that Julie Andrews can actually say backwards (she does it on one of the extra features), and that kids still say today.
I wondered how that word came about. “The idea came from this wonderful experience the characters have when they jump into the truck going on the sidewalk and having a jolly holiday,” says Sherman. “We wanted to give the children a souvenir that they could take out of this to tell their parents about. If they show them a physical, tangible thing, it wouldn’t make any sense because it came out of an intangible place. It was imagination. We used to make double-talk words, just silly ridiculous words that sounded intelligent. So supercalifragilistic, and then we wanted to be an obnoxious kind of words and atrocious is obnoxious and precocious rhymes with atrocious and that’s of course a good rhyme. And also you want to sound smart. So you’re precocious, you can use the atrocious word, and so we had 3/4 of the song.”
The scene where Mr. Banks decides to educate the kids by taking them to the bank is another kaleidoscope of merriment and song. Although quite young at the time, Karen Dotrice and Matthew Garber were fantastic as Jane and Michael. They are blank faced and emotionless when Mary first arrives, but once she opens up new worlds to them, they light up with excitement and energy.
Among abandoned songs and scenes that were not used, one of the amazing features on the new DVD is the sound and look of the film. Sherman agrees. “The excitement of the sound, the clarity of the picture...everything is so much cleaner and fuller. There's not a frame that has been changed, in other words just enhanced and more glorious than ever. It’s just wonderful.”
Sherman concurs that no one ever expected Mary Poppins to be such a smash. “The world took it over and seemed to have fallen in love with it, and that is a great satisfaction,” he says. When people love your stuff and they cry where they're supposed to; and they smile, and they laugh where they’re supposed to, it makes me feel wonderful.”
The DVD features of the film are superb, offering hours of visual excitement and fun entertainment for both children and adults alike. The bonus items include:
· Bonus Short
· Deleted Song
· Music and More
· Games and Activities
· Backstage Disney
· Poppin’s Pop-Up
· Audio Commentary with Julie Andrews, Dick Van Dyke and Richard Sherman
Read Diana’s full Mary Poppins review and Richard Sherman interview at http://classicfilm.about.com.