Mary Poppins

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A movie for every day of the year – a good one

13 December

Dick Van Dyke born, 1925

On this day in 1925, Richard Wayne Van Dyke was born. As Dick Van Dyke he has been entertaining people since the Second World War, when he was a radio announcer. Since then he’s been an actor, Sunday school teacher, radio station owner, dancer, singer and keen amateur computer graphics man. More famous and well loved than his CV might suggest, Van Dyke’ imprint on the cultural consciousness has been made by a film and a TV series. The film is Mary Poppins, in which Van Dyke plays Bert, the chimney sweep with an accent so famously wide of the Cockney mark that it’s become a shorthand joke. There’s also The Dick Van Dyke Show on TV in the early 1960s, whose brand of domestic goofiness has been replicated down the years (Friends and New Girl, to name but two) and only rarely bettered. What exactly Van Dyke does is hard to put in words. Though remembered as a dancer, he never trained as one, and for his first leading role on Broadway, in Bye Bye Birdie, he was taught from scratch. He’s not really that much of a singer either. Like Danny Kaye his ability to entertain by just kind of standing there, being himself, is extraordinary and uncanny, and the fact that what he does can’t be categorised means he tends to be sidelined by critics. Dick Van Dyke makes things look easy, and he has a big big smile that suggests he’s making it up as he goes along. This naturalness is part of his secret. But behind the “shucks it’s nothing” persona Van Dyke is a worker – like his idol Stan Laurel – who when one project has ended has simply gone into another one, as he did when the long-running Diagnosis Murder ended in 2001 and switched fairly quickly into Murder 101. “Aren’t we lucky,” he rhetorically asked his fellow actors on receiving a Screen Actors Guild Lifetime Achievement Award in 2013, “to have found a line of work that doesn’t require growing up. I love that.” It appears that Van Dyke’s many fans love that too.

Mary Poppins (1964, dir: Robert Stevenson)

If The Wizard of Oz is the greatest kids movie of all time, Mary Poppins must run it close. The story of a magical nanny who comes to work for two unruly Edwardian children whose father is too busy earning money and whose mother is too busy being a suffragette (I did not say it was the most feminist movie of all time), it is practically perfect in every way – to borrow a phrase. The standout leads are Julie Andrews and Dick Van Dyke, the Sherman brothers deliver the songs (Chim Chim Cheree, It’s a Jolly Holiday, Feed the Birds, A Spoonful of Sugar, Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious) and there’s a huge cast of Hollywood stalwarts providing characterful support. The story of Walt Disney’s struggle against author PL Travers to get the film made is legend, and has now become a film in its own right, Saving Mr Banks. This was one of the last that Walt Disney supervised directly. Would Disney Corp today hire an unknown actress to play the lead, as Walt did back then with Julie Andrews? It’s unlikely, since Disney these days can’t even make animations without name voice talent. However, Walt was right with Andrews as Poppins – it is one of the defining portrayals of the character, a fact born out by every stage version ever since, in which whichever actress from whatever part of the world plays not Mary Poppins, but Julie Andrews’s Mary Poppins. The same is true for Dick Van Dyke’s Bert the chimney sweep – “I loves ya Mary Poppins” and all. They are the perfect combo – him all livewire and disruptive, her all cool and constrained. There must be no hint of a sexual relationship, Travers thundered. And there it is, early on in the Jolly Holiday sequence, with Mary singing “Forbearance is the hallmark/Of your creed/A lady needn’t fear/When you are near/Your sweet gentility is crystal clear!/Oh it’s a jolly holiday with you, Bert/A jolly jolly holiday with you!” So that’s all right then. And nor does it matter that it’s all shot on a sound stage. It’s unlikely Disney would allow that to happen today either. And it’s unlikely they’d get the movie this right, either.

Why Watch?

  • Perfect casting all the way from top to bottom
  • The Sherman brothers’ songs
  • The live action/animated sequences don’t look faintly believable, but they work
  • Julie Andrews won the Best Actress Oscar – in her debut role

Mary Poppins – Watch it/buy it at Amazon

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© Steve Morrissey 2013

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