Mary Poppins is the well known live action Disney film that stars Julie Andrews. It was not only the biggest box office hit of the year when it was released, but it was nominated for an astounding 13 Academy Awards, including Best Picture. Only the films All About Eve (1950) and Titanic (1997) ever received more – both with 14. Mary Poppins won five Oscars, including Best Actress for Julie Andrews in her big screen debut. She was only the second woman to achieve this (after Shirley Booth for 1952’s Come Back, Little Sheba.) So what made this film so popular with both audiences and filmmakers? For the former it was simple: this is a heartwarming family film that presents a happy message for kids. For the latter it can be summed up in two words: Julie Andrews.
There was a lot of politicking going on in the background in the early 1960s when it came to casting movies. As early as 1961 Julie Andrews was the first choice of Walt Disney to play the title character, but she held out, first to have a child, then to see if she would be cast as Eliza Doolittle in My Fair Lady – a role she had played on the stage. It was only when non-singer Audrey Hepburn was cast instead that Andrews accepted the role of Mary Poppins. There was some backlash at the time that the popular Andrews, who was the star of the stage version, did not get cast and that the “big name” was given the part instead. This backlash probably contributed to Andrews not only winning Best Actress for Poppins, but for Hepburn not even getting nominated for My Fair Lady – a film that received 12 nominations of its own, including all three other acting categories, and that won 8 Oscars, including Best Picture and Best Actor.
And there was also a nasty fight going on between Disney and P.L. Travers, the author of the Mary Poppins books. As early as the 1930s Walt Disney had tried to get the film rights, but Travers had refused. Who did this American film company think they were wanting to make a film about her veddy British nanny? For decades Disney pursued the rights, but it wasn’t until her book sales plummeted that Travers changed her tune and decided that a movie would make for some good advertising. She negotiated and received full approval of the script, and she also approved of the casting of Julie Andrews.
When it came to the completed film, however, Travers hated it. She gave Disney a long list of changes she wanted made, including replacing all the songs with period-specific ones, removing the chalk animation scene, and reshooting all of Andrews’ scenes to make her colder and more unlikable to match the character from the books. In other words, Travers wanted them to redo the entire film. It was then that Walt Disney pointed out to her that while she had script approval, she did not have final cut approval. Travers threw a hissy fit and announced to anyone who would listen that she hated this film. Even four decades later when another stage production was hoping to be mounted Travers refused to allow it because she so hated the film. It finally went forward only after she was assured that not one single person involved in the Disney film would be a part of the stage production. The woman could hold a grudge.
The plot of the film is pretty basic: two children with distant parents are unhappy. A new nanny with magical powers (Andrews) arrives and teaches them first to behave, then how to have fun. Eventually the entire family is won over by her and they become much closer.
What makes the film so popular is what happens while these things are going on. The movie is filled with familiar songs: the Oscar winning Chim-Chim-Cheree, the oral vaccine inspired A Spoonful of Sugar, the surprisingly spell checker approved Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious, and many others, including Feed the Birds. I mention the latter because Jane Darwell was convinced to come out of retirement to play the elderly bird lady in this film. Walt Disney personally visited her to convince her to do it because he so wanted to have her involved.
In addition to Darwell there are several other faces familiar to fans of older films: Ed Wynn as Uncle Albert, Reta Shaw as a maid, Elsa Lanchester as a nanny, Glynis Johns as the mother, and others. Next to Julie Andrews, though, the person most thought of in connection to this film is Dick Van Dyke.
He plays Bert, a man who is a “jack of all trades, master of none”. Each time he shows up he has a different job, but the one that seems to have been best remembered is as a chimney sweep. The one time I visited
Disneyland I saw two adults practically in spasms over
seeing the character of Bert the chimney sweep walking around the park. They were pointing him out to their little
kids, who didn’t have a clue who that was because they only knew the animated
The reason Van Dyke is so well remembered is often a negative one: his accent. A few years ago a British publication voted it the single worst English accent in film history. Honestly, though, if the worst thing that most people have had to say about this film for the last 50 years is the accent of one of the characters then it’s a pretty good film.
Van Dyke also played a second role in the film, somewhat secretly. He was the elder Mr. Dawes at the bank. The children didn’t even know it was Van Dyke in the role and didn’t like whoever was playing him. Van Dyke wanted to play that small part so much that he even told Walt Disney that he would do it for free. Disney made him audition anyway, and was won over by seeing Van Dyke do a comic routine where he’s an elderly man trying to step down from a curb. Disney ended up adding the scene with the step in the bank precisely because of this. Even in the credits Van Dyke’s name is initially shown backwards when they come to Mr. Dawes, Sr.
Okay, so this is a children’s film. Can adults watch it, too? Well, I never saw this film until just a few years ago. While I did not love it as much as I’m sure some kids do, the bouncy songs, the fun characters, and the happy ending won me over and I enjoyed myself. Like me, if you’ve somehow never seen it then I recommend you give it a try.
Chip’s Rating: 3 out of 5 stars