Saturday, December 11, 2004

Poppins Fresh

Watching the new DVD of Mary Poppins reminded me that Dick Van Dyke's terrible accent (in the making-of documentary, Van Dyke cheerfully cites a recent article that named it as one of the twenty worst accents in film history) isn't the most Americanized thing about the movie. Although Pamela Travers insisted on being a consultant on the movie and gave advice freely -- recordings of some of her advice-giving sessions are included in the making-of -- she didn't like the Disney film and thought it wasn't true to what she was writing about, and you can see why. It's not just that Mary Poppins becomes a much nicer person in the movie than she is in the books, where she is intimidating and frankly not terribly pleasant to talk to, like a real nanny. It's that the film's themes are heavily Americanized, or at least calculated to deal with concerns that were uppermost in America in 1963-64.

Basically, the movie version of Mary Poppins portrays an upper middle-class family with two children. The father has a well-paying but unfulfilling white-collar job, and work takes up most of his time, so he rarely sees his kids. The mother is getting heavily involved with the cause of women's rights, and is more interested in social progress than in taking care of the kids. The children therefore spend most of their time with a nanny, but they rebel against a nanny who tries to keep them from having any fun. The father doesn't realize that what his children really want is more attention from their parents; instead he assumes that they need more discipline, so he won't have to worry about what they're up to while he's at work. Meanwhile the father hasn't figured out that he's regimented his own life to the point of endangering his relationship with his children. Mary Poppins comes along to combine fun with a sense of discipline -- teaching the kids good manners and values and cleaning up their room while showing that none of that has to rule out fun and imagination. But the person she really re-educates is the father; he needs to learn this more than his children do.

This is a laundry list of worries about American family and work life in the late '50s and early '60s: the grind of office life, commuters who never see their kids and increasingly leave them in the hands of child-care professionals, concerns about how to balance old-fashioned values with the increasing freedom of choice offered in American life. The idea that it's the parents, not the kids, who really need to learn something is a rather American concept too (and something not usually found in British fiction, where children are usually portrayed as little monsters in need of a good dressing-down). And Bert, a combination of several Travers characters, is sort of a Beatnik character, the free-living, free-wheeling, artistic guy who teaches the stuffed shirts a thing or two.

Re the DVD special features, the commentary is surprisingly good, with many of the participants -- particularly the Sherman brothers, who wrote the songs -- calling attention to important themes and symbols used to convey the film's messages. And as for the inevitable analysis of how the special effects were done... well, the special effects are outstanding in this movie and I do like finding out how they were done. Julie Andrews and Dick Van Dyke, in their portion of the commentary, call particular attention to the amazing matte work of Peter Ellenshaw; when George Banks walks to the bank near the end of the film, the scenes of London are all matte drawings by Ellenshaw, a heightened, stylized version of London that feels more real than the real thing. Indeed, this and My Fair Lady the same year were among the last Hollywood-made movies to create an entire world inside the studio instead of going out on location; it works better here than in the rather embalmed-looking Fair Lady, though.

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