We’ve watched the original Mary Poppins twice this weekend - I sort of love the fact that when kids like something they want to watch it again straight away, sometimes on a loop (I remember sitting through the Snowman about six times in a row with my nephew and he’d cry unless it started up again straight away - the weird thing is that he was 28 years old at the time). Soul was the last one that really grabbed my daughter in that way and I didn’t mind too much because it’s a brilliant film. And it’s actually rather lovely that Mary Poppins, a film that is older than me and set 111 years ago is still enchanting kids now. And that my daughter may one day sit down and watch it with her own kids. If there is still electricity then or they’ve invented TVs that work underwater.
But my wife and I hadn’t had enough of Poppins and were inspired to watch the excellent “Saving Mr Banks” which tells the story of how difficult it was for Walt Disney to persuade Travers to give him the rights.
Obviously the authentic glimpse into the life of cockneys is usually the main take home from this film, but there was lots to enjoy beyond Dick Van Dyke’s strangled vowels. My main issue with the film is that the kids who are meant to be too much for any nanny to bear are two of the most adorable children you could hope to meet. It’d be nice to see Poppins dealing with some fucking terrors (though the Poppins in the book is a good deal darker than the one in the film, I understand).
My favourite bit, which I’d never noticed before is the verse about Bert in “It’s a Jolly Holiday with Mary”. This is meant to be Poppins complimenting the chimney sweep for being a gentleman, but it goes on for so long that it begins to undermine itself and seem like a criticism. I am almost certain that this is entirely deliberate and it’s extremely funny.
Poppins sings, "Oh it's a jolly holiday with you, Bert
Gentlemen like you are few
Though you're just a diamond in the rough, Bert
Underneath your blood is blue”
So far, so complimentary.
"You'd never think of pressing your advantage
Forbearance is the hallmark of your creed”
OK, that’s nice, I suppose. But no need to press the point. Bert is a nice guy for sure and yes, he’s definitely no sex pest, but he’s still a human being, with needs and desires. He isn’t going to try anything on, but that doesn’t mean he’s not a virile and sexual human being. Poppins insists on clarifying further,
"A lady needn't fear when you are near
Your sweet gentility is crystal clear”
Dick Van Dyke even pulls a face at this bit, as if to say, all right, that’s enough. I’m a nice guy, but it’d be nice if you thought of me as someone who might possibly be a potential sexual partner for someone.
Mary Poppins is the queen of manipulation and damning people with faint praise, but this is a masterclass in ego puncturing, almost taunting Bert for being so nice. And this shows a little of the darkness in the character and maybe also the frustration from the Sherman Brothers (who wrote the amazing songs in this film) that Travers has insisted there should be no inkling of romance between Mary and Bert. I think she was wrong about that - there should be (and actually is) some flirtation - all that matters is that Poppins is in control and will never act and that Bert understands that, but still wants to let her know how amazing she is. This long take down of Bert’s ineffectualness as a potential partner does feel like a piss take. And it’s brilliantly performed, especially by Van Dyke who gets as close to saying “all right, come on Mary Poppins, that’s enough. I’m not sure this is entirely fair. I’m still a man,” without opening his mouth.
Then, as if to prove her point, he does a funny dance with some penguins with his trousers bunched around his ankles. Yup, no one is going to that guy for anything more than laughs. No wonder he has to spend his days poking brushes up chimneys. That’s as close as he’s ever going to get.