By the 1960s, Disney was buttering its bread with a slew of cheap and easy live-action features, some of which tapped into something like the zeitgeist (the gender gap-happy The Parent Trap) and some of which just tapped into parents’ wallets (The Shaggy Dog). If they were cheaper to produce than Uncle Walt’s animated babies, they were also never released with the same level of self-acclaim as the recherché cartoons. But just as Disney’s animation department began to loosen their collective tie (the rollicking 101 Dalmatians), along came the fastidious Mary Poppins, which shot the studio’s live-action journeymen into the realm of prestige the studio had never seen before.
Mary Poppins is at the surface level an absolutely impenetrable, pulverizing piece of agit-pap whose end effect is to make reality seem even more disinfected and post-produced than the world of cartoons. Based off a coyly deviant set of books by P.L. Travers, the movie could’ve been Walt’s last great dissertation on the ease with which children’s fantasies can be codified and cashed out, the retroactive resilience of the nuclear family, and the purely vestigial qualities of the human vagina. But somewhere along the way, alchemy formed through some combination of director Robert Stevenson, songwriters Richard and Robert Sherman, and the entire female cast turned Mary Poppins into a dotty, ever so slightly confused State of the Uterus address.
The movie opens with Bert (Dick Van Dyke), a dubiously Cockney street musician in 1910 London, singing songs to flatter upper-class women when a changing wind gives him recitative pause: “Winds in the east, mist coming in, like something is brewing about to begin. Can’t put me finger on what lies in store.” While he ekes out an existence as a jack-of-all-trades, women with careers and economic purpose are throwing dishes at each other inside 17 Cherry Tree Lane. The matriarch Mrs. Banks (Glynis Johns) responds to the hasty retirement of yet another nanny (Elsa Lanchaster) by appealing to their shared common goal. A prince charming? Nope: suffrage. The first musical number of the entire movie is an ode to women throwing off the shackles of subservience, harassing the Prime Minister and declaring men on the whole “rather stupid.” While undeniably presented as a comedic interlude (Mrs. Banks tells the maid to hide their “Votes for Women” sashes before Mr. Banks gets home), damned if the ditty doesn’t color all that follows, especially upon the arrival of Mary Poppins herself (Julie Andrews, cool as a cucumber and just as emotionally phallic).
With all the subtlety of Battleship Potemkin, a queue full of sour-faced old school nannies is shown blowing away into thin air to make way for the embodiment of modern female assertiveness. Poppins wastes no time whipping the two children into shape, keeping an obviously smitten Bert at bay, twisting Mr. Banks’s words around so that he says what she wants him to, and giving Mrs. Banks plenty of time to devote herself to feminism. And then, once everyone’s learned the world according to twat, she up and leaves of her own accord, firmly maintaining her personal debt to no one. The “Whistle While You Work” residue of domestic slavery that colors “A Spoonful of Sugar” aside, Mary Poppins is basically Long Day’s Journey Into Matriarchy (cathartic for some, terrifying for others). Thank Betty Friedan it’s also one of the studio’s most relentlessly entertaining screeds, or the sooty chimneys of many an American mother may have remained unswept.