Skip to main content

Practically perfect people never permit sentiment to muddle their thinking.

Mary Poppins
(1964)

(SPOILERS) Disney’s unimpeachable – unless you were an unimpressed PL Travers – smash hit, loved by children everywhere… Although, I don’t recall that I was ever that enamoured, preferring the similarly themed, just with an overtly identified witch and even wackier animation, Bednobs and Broomsticks (1971). Indeed, Bednobs and Broomsticks was in the running to be an earlier Disney production, when the rights negotiations for Mary Poppins were looking beyond Walt’s reach. Suffice to say, I don’t think my earlier position holds up. Even for one as jaded and cynical as I undoubtedly am – most of all towards the Mouse House – Mary Poppins is an irresistible affair, blessed with great tunes, dazzling choreography, some gorgeous cinematography and delightful performances. Even the eccentrically accented one.

I didn’t mention the director there, one Robert Stevenson, who doesn’t crop up on many lists of unsung auteurs. He was a Disney mainstay for almost two decades from the end of the 1950s. At which point, he’d come from a stint directing television. Before which he’d pursued a successful film career for two decades, the highlight probably being directing Orson Welles in the 1943 Jane Eyre. Stevenson’s Disney period saw him making movies into his 70s. These included the aforementioned Bednobs and Broomsticks, as well as the likes of The Love Bug (1968), The Absent-Minded Professor (1961), One of Our Dinosaurs is Missing (1975) and The Shaggy D.A. (1976). So prolific was he that in 1977 Variety cited him as “the most commercially successful director in the history of films” with no less than sixteen on their all-time rentals list.

As you can see from Mary Poppins, Stevenson wasn’t particularly stylistically notable. Rather, his skill came from martialling the elements. He knew to get out of the way and let it happen, be it dance routines or effects sequences (or both together), marrying a variety of elements to appealing effect. Today, he would probably be making movies for the MCU, in a reliable but anonymous fashion. Yet Mary Poppins found him receiving his sole Best Director Academy Award nomination; the musical received the most nods of any film that year, thirteen, so beating My Fair Lady and Becket’s twelve. It had to make do with five wins, however, most illustriously Julie Andrews. Which was, at least, one in the eye for the snub of the My Fair Lady lead role; she wryly thanked Jack Warner in her acceptance speech for passing her over.

Andrews is merely the foremost of the performers here. Dick Van Dyke has been the subjected to years of mockery for his patented brand of cockernee, but it’s a choice that absolutely works for the larger-than-life cheerful chappy he’s playing – you’ll have trouble even recalling Lin-Manuel Miranda in the equivalent role in Mary Poppy Returns (2018) – even if he professed that Jim Dale or Ron Moody would have been more suitable.

Mary Poppins also took home Oscars for Visual Effects, Editing, Art Direction (colour) and Best Song in the form of Chim Chim Cher-ee. David Tomlinson is magnificent as Mr Banks, whose heart thaws as fantasy triumphs over the pecuniary motive (Tomlinson would also return to the Stevenson fold for both The Love Bug and Bednobs and Broomsticks). Glynis Johns is his suffrage-enthused wife, an element that would surely be made into a heavy-handed meal today but is light and amusing while not actually mocking her. And Karen Dotrice and Matthew Garber make for appealing rather than irksome Banks children.

Obviously, the plot is an excuse for a string of set pieces/songs, including the animated horse race highlight (crude in places, perhaps, from today’s perspective, but still impressive in its energy and musical engagement). Something like Step in Time isn’t such an amazing song on its own (appropriating Knees up Mother Brown), but combined with the chimney sweep choreography, it becomes so. I’m not as convinced by the “amusing” Admiral Boom (Reginald Owen) firing off his cannon next door (although he makes a return in Mary Poppins Returns, so I guess he’s a fan fave). The Uncle Albert (Ed Wynn) scene is interestingly oddball, with him laughing so hard that he floats up to the ceiling; it’s suggestive of an alt-realm beyond the one initiated by the arrival of nanny. Later, Dawes Sr, the old director of the bank, follows suit.

It seems Travers was highly unimpressed by the animation (that bit makes it into Saving Mr. Banks (2013), where Guantanamo Hanks plays the equally reputable Walt). Combined with her distaste at the watering down of the title character and the divergence from her wish that period songs be used, she nixed any follow ups (which Saving Mr. Banks conspicuously does not relate). Maybe she’d have favoured Emily Blunt’s less cosy version, in that case. Or probably not, given the cabaret number. Mary Poppins Returns as a whole singularly lacks its predecessor’s warmth and dreamy gusto. Some films become favourites in spite of their being rather middling – nostalgia often lies at the root – but Mary Poppins fully deserves its rep.


Comments

Popular posts from this blog

No matter how innocent you are, or how hard you try, they’ll find you guilty.

The Wrong Man (1956) (SPOILERS) I hate to say it, but old Truffaut called it right on this one. More often than not showing obeisance to the might of Hitchcock during his career-spanning interview, the French critic turned director was surprisingly blunt when it came to The Wrong Man . He told Hitch “ your style, which has found its perfection in the fiction area, happens to be in total conflict with the aesthetics of the documentary and that contradiction is apparent throughout the picture ”. There’s also another, connected issue with this, one Hitch acknowledged: too much fidelity to the true story upon which the film is based.

He’s so persistent! He always gets his man.

Speed (1994) (SPOILERS) It must have been a couple of decades since I last viewed Speed all the way through, so it’s pleasing to confirm that it holds up. Sure, Jan de Bont’s debut as a director can’t compete with the work of John McTiernan, for whom he acted as cinematographer and who recommended de Bont when he passed on the picture, but he nevertheless does a more than competent work. Which makes his later turkeys all the more tragic. And Keanu and Sandra Bullock display the kind of effortless chemistry you can’t put a price tag on. And then there’s Dennis Hopper, having a great old sober-but-still-looning time.

Another case of the screaming oopizootics.

Doctor Who Season 14 – Worst to Best The best Doctor Who season? In terms of general recognition and unadulterated celebration, there’s certainly a strong case to be made for Fourteen. The zenith of Robert Holmes and Philip Hinchcliffe’s plans for the series finds it relinquishing the cosy rapport of the Doctor and Sarah in favour of the less-trodden terrain of a solo adventure and underlying conflict with new companion Leela. More especially, it finds the production team finally stretching themselves conceptually after thoroughly exploring their “gothic horror” template over the course of the previous two seasons (well, mostly the previous one).

He is a brigand and a lout. Pay him no serious mention.

The Wind and the Lion (1975) (SPOILERS) John Milius called his second feature a boy’s-own adventure, on the basis of the not-so-terrified responses of one of those kidnapped by Sean Connery’s Arab Raisuli. Really, he could have been referring to himself, in all his cigar-chomping, gun-toting reactionary glory, dreaming of the days of real heroes. The Wind and the Lion rather had its thunder stolen by Jaws on release, and it’s easy to see why. As polished as the picture is, and simultaneously broad-stroke and self-aware in its politics, it’s very definitely a throwback to the pictures of yesteryear. Only without the finger-on-the-pulse contemporaneity of execution that would make Spielberg and Lucas’ genre dives so memorable in a few short years’ time.

But everything is wonderful. We are in Paris.

Cold War (2018) (SPOILERS) Pawel Pawlikowski’s elliptical tale – you can’t discuss Cold War without saying “elliptical” at least once – of frustrated love charts a course that almost seems to be a caricature of a certain brand of self-congratulatorily tragic European cinema. It was, it seems “ loosely inspired ” by his parents (I suspect I see where the looseness comes in), but there’s a sense of calculation to the progression of this love story against an inescapable political backdrop that rather diminishes it.

The game is rigged, and it does not reward people who play by the rules.

Hustlers (2019) (SPOILERS) Sold as a female Goodfellas – to the extent that the producers had Scorsese in mind – this strippers-and-crime tale is actually a big, glossy puff piece, closer to Todd Phillips as fashioned by Lorene Scarfia. There are some attractive performances in Hustlers, notably from Constance Wu, but for all its “progressive” women work male objectification to their advantage posturing, it’s incredibly traditional and conservative deep down.

What do they do, sing madrigals?

The Singing Detective (2003) Icon’s remake of the 1986 BBC serial, from a screenplay by Dennis Potter himself. The Singing Detective fares less well than Icon’s later adaptation of Edge of Darkness , even though it’s probably more faithful to Potter’s original. Perhaps the fault lies in the compression of six episodes into a feature running a quarter of that time, but the noir fantasy and childhood flashbacks fail to engage, and if the hospital reality scans better, it too suffers eventually.

They literally call themselves “Decepticons”. That doesn’t set off any red flags?

Bumblebee  (2018) (SPOILERS) Bumblebee is by some distance the best Transformers movie, simply by dint of having a smattering of heart (one might argue the first Shia LaBeouf one also does, and it’s certainly significantly better than the others, but it’s still a soulless Michael Bay “machine”). Laika VP and director Travis Knight brings personality to a series that has traditionally consisted of shamelessly selling product, by way of a nostalgia piece that nods to the likes of Herbie (the original), The Iron Giant and even Robocop .

That’s what people call necromancer’s weather.

The Changes (1975) This adaptation of Peter Dickinson’s novel trilogy carries a degree of cult nostalgia cachet due to it being one of those more “adult” 1970s children’s serials (see also The Children of the Stones , The Owl Service ). I was too young to see it on its initial screening – or at any rate, too young to remember it – but it’s easy to see why it lingered in the minds of those who did. Well, the first episode, anyway. Not for nothing is The Changes seen as a precursor to The Survivors in the rural apocalypse sub-genre – see also the decidedly nastier No Blade of Grass – as following a fairly gripping opener, it drifts off into the realm of plodding travelogue.

You don’t know anything about this man, and he knows everything about you.

The Man Who Knew Too Much (1956) (SPOILERS) Hitchcock’s two-decades-later remake of his British original. It’s undoubtedly the better-known version, but as I noted in my review of the 1934 film, it is very far from the “ far superior ” production Truffaut tried to sell the director on during their interviews. Hitchcock would only be drawn – in typically quotable style – that “ the first version is the work of a talented amateur and the second was made by a professional ”. For which, read a young, creatively fired director versus one clinically going through the motions, occasionally inspired by a shot or sequence but mostly lacking the will or drive that made the first The Man Who Knew Too Much such a pleasure from beginning to end.