Saturday, 23 March 2013

Mary Poppins (1964)

Yes, I really am doing this. All these horrors and I go and blog Mary Poppins. What can I say? It amuses me. I won’t pretend this sort of thing is usually my cup of tea, but I actually rather enjoyed it. In fact, I’m full of regrets about waiting until the age of almost thirty-six to see it. This is the perfect film for children, with everything about it firing the imagination of the child within us all. It’s forever deriving fantasy from the mundane and ordinary. A simple bag becomes a magical repository of all things. You can jump into pictures and become a cartoon. Plus there are songs and that. Julie Andrews is captivating as our heroine, and her voice is extraordinary.

The one thing everyone knows about this film is that Dick Van Dyke’s “cockney” accent is said to be awful by all. In fact, it is far more jaw-droppingly atrocious than I would have had the power to imagine. I would be very much surprised if this were not the worst accent in the history of cinema. Having said all that, I worry that I may have underestimated just how bad it is! It’s a pity. Van Dyke is actually pretty good when it comes to the actual acting, giving us a likeable and charismatic Bert, but you’re far too busy laughing at the accent to take any notice of what he’s doing.

This is very much a tourist friendly version of London and, for that matter, a version of 1910 which has been sanitised for the children of the 1960’s. Knowing that this is a Disney film I was looking for reactionary sentiments throughout, which was an interesting exercise. One of our first songs appears to mock the Suffragette movement, and the character of Bert portrays the hard life of Edwardian poverty as not only bearable but positively fun. This may appear to show conservative attitudes to both gender and class issues, but, these are interestingly subverted at the end, where Mr Banks’ patriarchal authority is undermined by both of these things.

The whole look of the film is a bit of a jolt after so many more modern films in a row. The tanned faces, the technicolour picture quality and the matte painting backgrounds give the film a retro charm that contemporary audiences would have never seen.

Mary Poppins herself is a force of nature. Yes, we see this in her interaction with the children, but the best moments for the character are those in which she wraps Mr Banks right round her finger. She is, essentially, the perfect Edwardian woman- unflappable, infinitely capable, sexless, and maintaining the very stiffest of upper lips in the silliest and most surreal of circumstances. This, of course, is what makes her so damned charismatic.

Some of the social attitudes are fascinating. It’s only 1964, but the film shows a strangely modern hostility to fox hunting. I never knew, though, that apparently foxes can be Irish! I raised an eyebrow, given the bastardry of banks in recent years, at their negative portrayal in this film. A run on a bank is a rather more alarming thing to see nowadays than it would have been at the time.

This film is quite, quite mad. We have an Admiral who keeps his house like a ship and shoots at chimney sweeps. We have a carousel where one can ride the horses away. We have animated fireworks that look like something out of Yellow Submarine. We even have an Englishman who pronounces “niche” as “nitch”. Grrrrr! The ending is simultaneously reinforcing of the patriarchal family structure and subversive of it, a nice touch. Mary Poppins buggers off as the wind changes: this apparently orderly and conservative figure is, underneath, capricious and chaotic, and brings whimsy to all she touches. I never thought I’d say this, but I love this film.

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