Silver Screen Standards: Mary Poppins (1964), Prop Culture and You
This spring, the streaming service Disney+ launched a new series called Prop Culture, in which host Dan Lanigan brings together props and people from some of Disney’s most memorable live-action pictures. The oldest movie featured on the first season of the show is Mary Poppins (1964), a truly iconic achievement for Disney that has become a beloved classic for generations of viewers.
Prop Culture is a fun series for film fans who enjoy behind-the-scenes stories about movies; it revisits not only physical props but the people who worked on both sides of the camera to get the pictures made, and the Mary Poppins episode is particularly delightful for its inclusion of actress Karen Dotrice, who played Jane Banks, and composer Richard Sherman, who is shown playing the piano in Walt Disney’s office while talking about making the movie. There’s never a bad time to watch Mary Poppins, but the new Disney series makes this a great opportunity to learn a little more about it and perhaps introduce younger fans to the fascinating idea that movies are so much more than just the finished product we see on a screen.
Julie Andrews is undoubtedly the star of the show with her Oscar-winning performance as the practically-perfect nanny who upends the lives of the Banks family, but there’s also a lot to be said for the treasure trove of supporting actors who populate the film with quirky characters. The Prop Culture episode devotes a lot of attention to the snow globe of St. Paul’s Cathedral that is featured in both the original movie and the 2018 sequel, Mary Poppins Returns, but it doesn’t mention Jane Darwell, an Oscar-winning actress whose appearance as the Bird Woman seen in the globe would be her final role (she died three years later at the age of 87). Darwell is just one of the familiar faces classic movie fans can find in Mary Poppins; Elsa Lanchester, Arthur Treacher, Reginald Owen, Hermione Baddeley, and Ed Wynn all contribute to the picture’s charm, although Glynis Johns and David Tomlinson enjoy the largest supporting roles as the Banks parents.
The character actors make Mary Poppins a great starting point for introducing kids to other, perhaps less familiar classics: track down the 1948 mermaid fantasy, Miranda, for a very different look at Glynis Johns and David Tomlinson! Arthur Treacher also appears in several Shirley Temple movies, including The Little Princess (1939), and you might well give some youngster a shock with the news that Katie Nanna is the same actress who plays the title character in Bride of Frankenstein (1935), although perhaps Lassie Come Home (1943) is a better introduction to Elsa Lanchester in a more recognizable form. Reginald Owen, who plays the aptly named Admiral Boom, can also be found in The Canterville Ghost (1944), and you’ll find both Lanchester and Owen in the 1948 adaptation of The Secret Garden. Disney had a habit of using the same character actors in multiple movies, so you can also have fun comparing Ed Wynn’s role as Uncle Albert with his portrayal of the Mad Hatter in Alice in Wonderland (1951) and then have a look at the vocal tribute to Wynn created by Alan Tudyck for the King Candy character in Wreck-It Ralph (2012).
The visual effects in Mary Poppins bring magic into even the most ordinary activities, from unpacking a bag and tidying up to inspecting the chalk art on a London sidewalk, with the mix of live-action and animation creating some of the most memorable moments of the picture. The Prop Culture episode revisits this element of the movie through the history of the carousel horses ridden by Julie Andrews and Dick Van Dyke. These delightful sequences earned the movie its Oscar for Best Visual Effects and inspired later productions like Bedknobs and Broomsticks (1971) and Who Framed Roger Rabbit (1988), but Disney had been experimenting with the technique since the first Alice comedy, Alice’s Wonderland, in 1923, and a number of other classic movies also use it to varying degrees. If your family loves the animated scenes in Mary Poppins, introduce them to Anchors Aweigh (1945), Dangerous When Wet (1953), Invitation to the Dance (1956), or, my personal favorite, The Incredible Mr. Limpet (1964). Today, actors in many movies perform with CGI or motion-capture costars, but there’s a particular charm in sequences with traditional 2D animated characters and live-action, and budding special effects experts can benefit from a look at the “old school” efforts like Mary Poppins and its contemporaries.
Mary Poppins brought Walt Disney a whole new level of success with its five Oscar wins, thirteen nominations, and massive box office returns that helped fund a certain real estate project in central Florida. It’s hard to imagine anyone reading this column not being familiar with its plot, its stars, and its songs, not to mention its contentious backstory in the conflict between Disney and the original books’ author, P.L. Travers. Disney has even provided some of that context itself in the 2013 movie, Saving Mr. Banks, albeit with its own perspective on events. You don’t need me to tell you that Mary Poppins is a classic or that Julie Andrews and Dick Van Dyke are great fun to watch in it. Instead, I want to suggest that Mary Poppins is worth revisiting with people in your life who aren’t necessarily steeped in classic Hollywood lore because it offers such a fabulous starting point for discussions of performers, careers, legacies, and intertextuality. If you’re cooped up with the family this summer due to the pandemic, there are lots of film festival programs you can create using Mary Poppins as a starting point. Let it be the spoonful of cinematic sugar that starts a discussion about adaptation and authorship, for example, or an exploration of later, similar fantasies like Bedknobs and Broomsticks (1971) and Nanny McPhee (2005). Use the Prop Culture series as a companion to introduce kids (and even other adults) to the rich mix of people, techniques, and props that makes movie magic happen. Mary Poppins has a lot to offer on many different fronts, which is one of the reasons it has endured and is still so beloved today. Whatever your approach to Mary Poppins, be sure to check out the Prop Culture series, which is really a lovely treat for film geeks and also includes episodes devoted to The Muppet Movie (1979) and Who Framed Roger Rabbit (1988).
— Jennifer Garlen for Classic Movie Hub
Jennifer Garlen pens our monthly Silver Screen Standards column. You can read all of Jennifer’s Silver Screen Standards articles here.
Jennifer is a former college professor with a PhD in English Literature and a lifelong obsession with film. She writes about classic movies at her blog, Virtual Virago, and presents classic film programs for lifetime learning groups and retirement communities. She’s the author of Beyond Casablanca: 100 Classic Movies Worth Watching and its sequel, Beyond Casablanca II: 101 Classic Movies Worth Watching, and she is also the co-editor of two books about the works of Jim Henson.