Mary Poppins (1964)
Before you start groaning and wander off, give me a second…
Go watch Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, read Peter Wright’s Spycatcher and catch up on a little British intelligence history of the 20th century.
And now go re-watch Mary Poppins.
Can you honestly tell me that it doesn’t seem like there’s a little bit to that plot that is suspect (or a lot)? Tell me you can’t see the Cambridge Apostles of old heartily cheering it on. Listen to that music, see the repeated dome/church crosses/cold industrial skyline/monolithic architecture shots, pay attention to Banks’ monologues as he is held up for our critical reproach, consider what messages are being debated, what economic systems are in competition, what social situations are being provocatively addressed, actually sit through it and think. Under the light veneer of musical numbers and cabaret are some extremely potent ideas given the point in England’s history when the story is set. I’ll give you a hint in one of Bert’s lines: wind in the east…something is brewing, about to begin…what’s happening has happened before… It’s cleverly done and especially for a movie that came out in the middle of the Cold War, especially for one whose audience is the parents of small children. Especially when those parents are likely to be in the midst of rabid frothing anti-communism national sentiments.
I hated Mary Poppins. I just thought it was terrible and it made me uncomfortable and I always felt like it had this dark edge lurking underneath and that sort of put me off. If you’re married with kids and live in western capitalism try watching it again. If you have any grasp on what Philby, Burgess, Blunt, Maclean, and Cairncross did and how that has reverberated throughout British literature and cinema then go watch it again.
There’s a lot going in Mary Poppins even besides politics and history. Don’t believe me? Watch as Bert and Mary become pseudo-parents in the imaginary scenes in stark contrast to the real parents and then see how Mary treats the kids (and Bert) in her official real-world capacity. You’d think she was a lunatic if she seamlessly switched emotions and personalities like that. Watch Mr. Banks pontificate on all that was the glorious British imperialism, reject it in his cathartic character transformation and then in the happy ending denouement is paradoxically immersed in an even greater role of what he just rejected. Watch Mrs. Banks in her feminist civil rights activist efforts, watch her descend into quiet submission when with Mr. Banks, and then watch her discard all of her efforts (and a country’s and a generation’s) as worth nothing more than to be the tail on a scrappy kite made by her children and repaired by her extraordinarily patriarchal husband in order to become that great passive traditional wife and mother. Try paying more attention to the stark and unpleasant cityscape the story is placed in, how everything off of Cherry street is actually very, very unpleasant. Try listening to the recurring musical themes instead of the music and dance numbers and tell me it’s not a little off-putting with those slavic motifs. And lastly, try and put this movie into context of when it was written by P.L. Travers (1934) instead of when it was set by Disney (1910). After all of that (and the rest that I missed), can you say this is just a nanny story about helping some kids survive a light rough patch in their family history?