Tuesday, March 25, 2014

Mary Poppins


Joseph phoned this morning. The producers of Flying Down to Reno, the musical remake of Airport '75 , have acceded to my requests. They feel that a star of my magnitude will make their production very special. Although I shall not be playing the stewardess (that part went to Linda Granger, still trading on her 'Does she fly or does she die?' days...), I will not have to portray Gloria Swanson, instead I will be Mrs. Norman Maine, fabulous star, on board the jet flying from one fabulous career stop to another. I am to have a stunning torch ballad, in which I review my career highlights and a rousing finale tap number in which I lead the cast out the doors and down the emergency exit chutes to celebrate our deliverance. Rehearsals begin on Monday.

Joseph and Madame Rose have also been discussing the new musical program, The Ssssoundssss of Ssssilence that I will use at my concert booking opening the snake wranglers' hall of fame. I am to have a new dress of olive and black, in a snakeskin pattern, complete with flaring cobra hood and I will emerge from an enormous egg at the beginning of the set. Songs selected so far include Asp Time Goes By, Viper I Love You, and Snake the A Train .

My broken toe, from tripping over that crate of Lesterene beauty products, is still throbbing so I called my personal physician, Dr. Peter. He diagnosed what sounded like 'Super Calci Fragilistic Osteoporosis' and prescribed large doses of OxyContin. His medical gibberish reminded me of one of the wonderful songs from Walt Disney's Mary Poppins so out came the DVD and soon Julie Andrews and I were both flying high in my home theater. Very few know that I had a small part in this film. Anne Miller, June Allyson, Jane Powell and I played the tap dancing penguin waiters. We still joke about it when we get together at our 'Studio Kids' dinners. We were supposed to get featured billing but Uncle Walt felt that that might destroy some of the magic and gave us all Blackglama tail coats instead.

Mary Poppins is a musical fantasy based on a series of British children's books by P.L. Travers. Walt had been interested in doing a film adaptation since the 1930s, when the books were originally published, but Ms. Travers was very selective in terms of granting rights to her work, and she did not strike a deal until 1961. In the original books, Mary is a very starchy and prim figure, not pretty and not particularly soft- in fact, very British. Disney's touch of genius was finding an actress who understood the British underpinnings of the character and could be firm, but who could also humanize her and make her more acceptable to American audiences. That actress was Julie Andrews.

Julie Andrews came from the British music hall tradition where her incredible soprano and perfect diction had made her a star in her teens. She came to New York in 1954 with a London stage show, The Boy Friend , a quaint spoof on 1920s musical conventions and made a success of its leading lady, Polly. Two years later, at age 20, she gained international stardom by creating the role of Eliza Doolittle in My Fair Lady , first in New York, then later in London. She followed this with Guinevere in the original production of Camelot . After the closing of this last show, she turned her eyes towards Hollywood where Warner Brothers was set to film My Fair Lady . Jack Warner wanted film names and faces in the cast and tapped Cary Grant for Higgins, Audrey Hepburn for Eliza, and James Cagney for Doolittle. Grant and Cagney wisely turned Warner down allowing Rex Harrison and Stanley Holloway to recreate their stage roles. In one of Hollywood's great injustices, Julie Andrews was not allowed to join them. Andrews got the last laugh when she won the Oscar for best actress for her film debut in Mary Poppins , widely seen as a major mea culpa gesture on the part of the film community. With a hit movie and an Oscar, Julie Andrews went on to become the reigning musical star of the 60s.

The film adaptation of Mary Poppins is an episodic, but pleasing tale of an Edwardian household in London. The Banks family, of #17 Cherry Tree Lane, live just down from Regent's Park and consist of Mr. Banks (David Tomlinson), a stuffy banker, his suffragette wife (Glynis Johns), two harried domestics (Hermione Baddeley, Reta Shaw), and two somewhat neglected children (Karen Dotrice, Matthew Garber). Things are taking a turn for the worse in the Banks household, the latest nanny (Elsa Lanchester in a fun little cameo) has quit, no one is caring for the children and household routines are in a rut. One day, Mary Poppins, a self-described practically perfect person, floats in on the wind underneath her umbrella to take charge as nanny to this loving, but quietly dysfunctional little group. Together with her pal Bert (Dick Van Dyke), a jack of all trades who hangs around the neighborhood, Mary smartly sets about reordering all of their lives using magic and just a spoonful of sugar to help the medicine go down. She thinks nothing of having them pop into a chalk picture for a jolly holiday, dancing over London rooftops with the chimney sweeps or having a tea party in midair.

Julie Andrews, even after nearly fifty years, still charms in the title role. She's lovely to look at, sings like an angel, and brings a firm conviction to every scene. Is it an Oscar performance? Maybe not, but it's unforgettable, and she carries the picture effortlessly. Dick Van Dyke, sporting the strangest accent ever devised in the history of cinema (it's supposed to be cockney but bears no relationship to anything heard within the sound of Bow's bells), is absolutely charming as her partner in magic. The role allows him to use his talents as vocalist, dancer, and physical comedian and he makes every moment look easy. The supporting cast have less to do than the leads but everyone gets at least one good scene. David Tomlinson, as the father makes his transformation from stuffy fussbudget to human being work well and he patented this kind of character, reprising it in several other Disney films, most notably Bedknobs and Broomsticks with Angela Lansbury. Glynis Johns is a bit one note as the mother with 'Votes for Women' on her brain but she gets one socko number ( Sister Suffragette ) early in the proceedings so we forgive the inadequacies of script later. The bit parts are full of familiar Hollywood character faces like Arthur Treacher and Jane Darwell, obviously pleased to be part of something special.

Any musical lives or dies on the strength of its score and this one does not disappoint. A number of the songs have become standards, even clichés. Is there anyone who cannot sing at least part of SupercalifragilisticexpialidociousA Spoonful of SugarFeed the Birds or Jolly Holiday? The brothers Sherman, who wrote music and lyrics, never came up with anything this good again. The only question I have is why, with a score this good, did the Oscar for best song go to one of the weaker numbers,Chim Chim Cheree? The staging of the songs is energetic and the Disney studio pulled every visual effect trick available in 1964 to keep the feeling of magic going. There are live action/animated scenes, songs done in midair, big Michael Kidd type chorus songs, and bankers doing minuets.

The film was shot entirely on soundstages at the studio. All of the vistas, used extensively through the movie to give a feel for Edwardian London, are matte paintings. This feeling of hyper reality helps keep the magic elements of the film from overpowering the more human nuances and allows the transition from live action to animation and back to happen seamlessly. It was filmed in old-fashioned Technicolor to give those fantastic hues free reign in aiding the visual spell.

The DVD is a widescreen transfer in the original proportions with 5.1 Dolby sound and the glorious Technicolor intact. Included are a brief 'behind the scenes' documentary (which has some hysterical footage of the chorus boys rehearsing Step In Time on the back lot in their bathing suits) and a short feature produced at the time on the premiere. This includes a lot of shots of up and comers on the Hollywood scene of the time (James Franciscus, Carol Lynley, Connie Stevens etc.) trying to look glamorous in early sixties fashion.

I can't recommend this one highly enough for the kid in all of us. It also shows the true sense of wonder that Disney managed to capture when Walt was at the reins, prior to the Michael Eisner regime where corporate machinations seem to have sucked a lot of the soul out of the Disney experience. I also think that the none too subtle messages about the importance of parenting should be heard by suburbanites suffering from affluenza.

Animatronic robins. Singing reflections. Bannister sliding. Carousel racehorses. Farmyard serenade. Gratuitous wooden leg joke. Pigeon mobbing. Floating banker. Paeans to air pollution. Kite flying.

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