Something Steely, Unsympathetic, and Cold: A Reconsideration of Mary Poppins
Something horrible is coming to 17 Cherry Tree Lane.
Something horrible is coming to 17 Cherry Tree Lane, the home of the Banks family. Anyone can see it: clouds are mounting on the horizon, the winds have shifted, the barometer is falling. Their neighbor Admiral Broom (Reginald Owen) warns Mr. Banks (David Tomlinson) that he’s “steering into a nasty piece of weather,” just as Broom had cautioned neighborhood chimneysweep Bert (Dick Van Dyke) that “storm signals are up at number 17.”
But this is no ordinary storm. Mary Poppins (Julie Andrews) is coming.
If the last time you saw Mary Poppins you were under the age of 10, prepare to be startled upon a fresh viewing. I recently watched it with my kids, and like so many things revisited in adulthood, Mary Poppins proved altogether different from my memory.
The first thing you notice is that, despite her reputation as a paragon of patience, understanding, and love, Mary Poppins simply isn’t very pleasant. It’s not clear that we’re even meant to like her. For one thing, she’s highly and relentlessly critical of the children, Michael (Matthew Garber) and Jane (Karen Dotrice) — you slouch, she tells them, you’re slobs, your manners are deplorable, and when you let your mouths hang open you look like fish. She’s also largely humorless, never satisfied with anyone but herself, and terribly vain (she describes herself, quite sincerely, as “practically perfect in every way”). Furthermore, she’s a bully: When a line of nannies congregate outside the Banks’s front door to apply for the job, she conjures a violent windstorm to sweep them away.
Mary Poppins isn’t just rude and egostistical, she’s also faintly sinister. It isn’t simply that director Robert Stevenson (a Disney lifer whose final film, The Shaggy DA, is also surprisingly creepy), and screenwriters Bill Walsh and Don DaGradi (adapting from the P.L. Travers book series) choose a violent, foreboding storm to announce her arrival, although that certainly sets the stage. There is, in Andrews’ performance, something steely, unsympathetic and cold that makes even the magical things she does — sending toys leaping back onto shelves with a snap of her fingers, say, or jumping into a chalk sidewalk drawing — feel a little threatening. It’s not for nothing that this recut trailer works so well.
If we have a pervasive, collective sense of Mary Poppins as the most dreamily agreeable babysitter of all time, it’s presumably because she can perform magic (I suppose looking and sounding like Julie Andrews doesn’t hurt, either). But really, it’s remarkable how much is obscured by the magic and the singing. The children have fun with Mary Poppins, but she allows it only grudgingly. Bert is the real instigator—she only takes the children into the sidewalk drawing after he fails in his attempt to do so (“Why do you always complicate things that are really quite simple?” she scolds Bert), and when they find old Uncle Albert (Ed Wynn) floating helplessly at the ceiling thanks to a fit of giggles, she’s furious at Bert and the children for encouraging him, as if fun and laughter are somehow hazardous. This could be the key scene in the film, in fact. The lightness and giddiness are all things we associate with Mary Poppins. The first time we see her, she’s sitting in a cloud, presumably awaiting her next assignment, and between that and her magic umbrella, she’s strongly identified with the heavens. But on close inspection, none of that feeling really comes from Mary herself, and the fact is that her sensibilities are firmly earthbound. The frivolousness, fun and whimsy of childhood are everywhere in the movie, but only in spite of Mary Poppins who, it seems clear, would just as soon see the children dressed properly in their best Sunday suits, obediently awaiting her next command.
There’s very little on the screen to suggest that Mary Poppins is, or is meant to be, a real character, with feelings, dreams, a past or a future. She doesn’t suffer aspirations or disappointments, only annoyances (and many of those) and smug affirmations of her good sense and rightness, and she doesn’t want anything because she has everything she wants already. The “practically perfect” line is meant as a joke, I suppose, but it’s true: She’s perfectly in charge of the children, perfectly vain, and perfectly self-assured. “I never explain anything,” she haughtily tells Mr. Banks when he demands to know, quite reasonably, why he’s come home to find a small army of chimney sweeps performing a choreographed dance number in his living room. Mary Poppins is a closed circuit, perfectly self-sustaining, a machine without the capacity or need for love, either chaste or romantic (you could spend the entire film watching nothing but the sexual undercurrents between Bert and Mary, although they almost entirely flow from him towards her).
But if Mary isn’t meant to be a person, what is she? If she’s meant to represent something, then what? It’s not warmth or kindness — she makes it quite clear during her initial interview with Mr. Banks that her wages are a matter of great concern to her, and she holds the children at arm’s length. It’s not love, either: at the end of the film, as Mary begins to pack her bag (including her prized possession, a mirror), the children tearfully beg her not to leave, profess their love and ask, “Don’t you love us?” Mary replies, “And what would happen to me, may I ask, if I loved all the children I said goodbye to?” Andrews and the treacly music behind the dialogue do their best to inject a mood of sorrow into the scene, but there’s simply nothing else in the story or Andrews’s performance to support the idea that Mary Poppins cares about them in the least, to suggest that this hasn’t been, in fact, just another job.
By the end of the film, we’re meant to feel that Mary Poppins has taught the children — or more to the point, their parents — a valuable lesson, but it’s hard to say just what it is. Standing on the front step, ready to depart, Mary watches the kids run off to the park with their parents without so much as a goodbye, and her bird-shaped umbrella handle says, “Look at them! You know, they think more of their father than they do of you!” (By this point, it seems perfectly consistent that Mary Poppins has an easier and more natural relationship with an inanimate object than she does with actual people.) “That’s as it should be,” Mary replies, and again, Andrews gives her line readings a Disney touch of sentimentality. But again, because she’s been such a relentlessly unsentimental character, it rings hollow. So have they somehow learned, thanks to Mary’s eye-rolling and grumbling assent to various ill-advised adventures, to love their father, or he to love them? It’s a stretch.
Still, I can’t help but feel that there is some message in the film, even it isn’t the one that everyone seems to hear (in fairness, the steeliness of Mary Poppins hasn’t entirely escaped notice). Maybe I’m giving it too much credit. After all, the early 1960s were a strange, transitional time in American film. The studio system was moribund, and the new Hollywood of independent cinema, maverick directors and raw subject matter were rumbling below the surface, but still a few years from changing movies (John Cassavetes’ Shadows appeared in 1959, but Easy Rider didn’t come along until 1969). With few exceptions, major studio films were bloated and unfocused, designed by committee to make money, not statements.
Nevertheless, you could say that even a high-profile spectacle like Mary Poppins might have a message. After all, Mary represents discipline and, specifically, the idea of giving children less love, or at least what too many parents think of as love—namely, indulgence. What if Mary Poppins, a supernatural being if ever there was one in cinema, is the higher, less familiar idea of boundaries, consistency, and authority? Their parents, and specifically their father, have a strong sense of propriety, but that’s not really the same thing. As I said, Mary doesn’t try very hard to make us or anyone else like her, and maybe that’s the point: Maybe Mary Poppins is meant to suggest that love and indulgence are different things, and that sometimes love looks cold, efficient and decidedly unsentimental. Can a movie made in the 1960s and set in Edwardian England have something to teach 21st century parents? I think it can.