I am on record many times in these reviews as being okay with the “Disneyfication” of classic children’s books and fairy tales. I haven’t changed my mind here, though this one was probably the most hotly condemned of any, possibly because the author, P.L. Travers, was still alive, and hated, hated, hated the movie. And indeed it sounds like Walt pulled a fast one on her. She demanded script approval when she sold the rights, and she got it, but she hadn’t realized that very few movies are filmed exactly according to the script you had when you began. Walt had final cut, and he put things in that weren’t in the original script, and refused to take out stuff that Travers didn’t like. And perhaps I’m prejudiced in favor of Walt. Though I usually would side with the author, I think she was dead wrong in most of her objections. She didn’t want an animated sequence, for instance, and I think the trip into the sidewalk chalk art was one of the highlights of the picture. She wasn’t really happy with there being music in it, and I think she was wrong there, too. And she didn’t like it that Mary was made to be not nearly so harsh and vain and—it sounds to me, from reading the descriptions of her—rather unpleasant. My own feeling is that Julie Andrews struck pretty much the best balance between Travers’ vision and what would be acceptable on the screen. I think Travers’ Mary Poppins would have put a lot of people off … including me. Again, perhaps I’m wrong, maybe I should read one of the books, it’s possible I’d think she was a wonderful character who had been spoiled by Disney. But I’m not going to. I loved this movie when I saw it as a junior in high school, and I still do.
The box office verdict was resounding. It was the top moneymaker that year, beating such films as The Sound of Music (#2, also starring Julie Andrews) and My Fair Lady (#4, which should have starred Julie Andrews). It ranks with the very best family movies of all time. Andrews won the Oscar for Best Actress, and “Chim Chim Cher-ee” won for Best Song.
I recall once reading an interview with Julie Andrews, who had been passed over by Jack Warner for the role of Eliza in My Fair Lady, the role she had created on Broadway, in favor of non-singer Audrey Hepburn. She said that after she won the award, she drove by the Warner lot in Burbank and shouted “Take that, Jack Warner!” I loved her for that. I think Julie Andrews would have been better as Eliza. It was just so hard to see Audrey Hepburn as a dirty street flower girl. But look on the bright side. Casting Hepburn meant more work for the great, unsung (so to speak) Marni Nixon.
Watching it this time I saw what I probably should have seen before, which is that this is not a story about the children, it’s a story about Mary Poppins getting Mr. Banks to notice his children. She takes the kids on these marvelous magical adventures, but it is all done to get Mr. Banks (David Tomlinson, another unsung hero, who played the part to perfection) to stop being such a dull, self-satisfied, oblivious fool. The moment he learned to laugh and fly a kite with his children, Mary took off, her work done.
Dick Van Dyke’s dancing is as good as his cockney accent is bad. I liked almost all the songs by the Sherman Brothers, who had written a lot of music for previous Disney films. All in all, this is a big, happy musical that’s well worth seeing again. As I write this (2/15/10), the stage musical version just finished a run here in Los Angeles at the Ahmanson Theater, to great reviews. I wish I had been able to see it.