Posted by davidkalat on August 6, 2011
Recently I rejoined the traditional nine-to-five workforce after close to 14 years as a stay-at-home father. It was a momentous step and one that changed more than just my life–we hired a nanny to take over my childcare duties. This occasioned my daughter to draft a list of requirements that included: “must not smell of barley water” and “must understand that reference.”
Yeah, she’s my daughter all right!
The thing of it is, she hadn’t even seen Mary Poppins in years, but it had left enough of an impression that she could call out references like that anyway.
We were fortunate enough to hire, if not the actual Mary Poppins, at least a credible 21st century alternative. And in her honor, I’d like to pay tribute to a movie so engaging and memorable that it lives on almost a half century later, in the memories of succeeding generations of fans.
One aspect of Mary Poppins deserving of more attention than I can spare it here is her magical transgression of space: from her ability to extract an impossible quantity of material belongings from a tiny bag to her ability to enter into a world drawn in chalk on the sidewalk, ordinary physical limitations don’t apply to her.
This is in fact a common feature of British children’s fiction. You can enter Narnia through a wardrobe, Wonderland exists inside a rabbit hole, the train platform to access Hogwarts can be found in the space between other platforms, the TARDIS is bigger inside than out–English notions of whimsy question the limits of physical space.
By contrast, American children’s fiction questions not the boundaries of the physical world but the boundaries between the human and animal domains–American whimsy is all about talking animals. (With the pointed exception of Snoopy–an anthropomorphic dog who doesn’t talk, and lives atop a doghouse with TARDIS-like interior dimensions).
I’m not sure what to make of any of that, maybe some intrepid scholar will write a thesis on it someday.
I tend to misremember this sequence and mix it up with a similar scene in Willy Wonka involving the Fizzy Lifting Drinks. Both sequences entail childish adults encouraging real children into misbehaving in a way that results in floating into the ceiling.
Love Ed Wynn, by the way. One of these days I’m gonna stage an Ed Wynn film festival. Here he is with the Three Stooges (you’ll want to turn your volume down on this YouTube clip–and since WordPress has been deleting YouTube clips unexpectedly of late, if you need it, here’s the direct link: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6Ucrt91zhn8)
A long time ago I had the ambition of being an animator, and when I first saw this sequence I remember gasping at the unprecedented technical achievement.
Well, “unprecedented” only because I was unfamiliar with earlier cartoon/live-action blending attempted by Disney and the Warner Brothers’ animators, among others. But it was rare enough to induce gasps in ordinary audiences back in the 1970s and early 1980s. Now, no longer.
This sequence used to just slay audiences. Nowadays its pioneering and daring blend of live action and animation is no longer audacious, much less terribly impressive in itself.
I’ve always admired the subtle romantic subplot between Mary and Bert. I don’t care that Dick Van Dyke’s faux-Cockney is so sloppy, because he’s so imminently charming in every other way. They both flirt–and refer to previous instances of flirtation, a romantic past! Nothing really comes of it, but that’s the point. I like the way it introduces the idea that children’s caretakers have lives of their own, existences that predate and extend beyond the immediate sphere of their childcare duties.
I remember thinking this at the time, back when I was a kid. I didn’t give a lot of thought to what Mary and Bert got up to in their time off, but I do recall thinking that if the world’s greatest nanny had a life beyond the nursery, then by implication it meant that the kids did too–that a child’s life was not bounded by their relationship to the adults in their life (parents, caretakers, teachers). This was a liberating thought.
Mary leaves at the end because the family no longer needs her–her work is done, and the parents are now able to better fulfill their family responsibilities.
This is most obviously represented by the father’s transformation from a grumpy banker into a delirious free-spirit. Speaking as a (former) stay-at-home dad, the film’s celebration of the importance of an engaged father has always resonated with me… But there’s something dangerous here. The film needs Mary Poppins to come in and “fix” this dysfunctional family because both parents are failing–not just the distant, autocratic father but the flighty and self-absorbed mother. And how does the film choose to depict her failure as a mother? By showing her obsessed with feminist causes–she’s too concerned with women’s rights to take care of her own children!
This is a movie from 1964–the year after Betty Friedan’s Feminine Mystique was published, in the pitch of the battles over birth control medicine, equal pay legislation, and the rise of Women’s Lib. The caricature of a 1920s suffragette does not emerge in this context without baggage.
This remains a touchy issue today. Being a man, I was always an outsider to the Mommy Wars. My choice to stay at home with my kids never implicated anything beyond myself and my family. Sure, the have been fitfully eruptions of activists advocating for stay-at-home dads, but these well-meaning idealists do a poor job even of connecting their own like-minded souls, much less having any larger cultural impact. I never once encounters anyone who viewed my decision to stay home as having any political significance at all. And, more importantly, I had the freedom to make that choice for myself either way without anyone thinking the less of me.
Had I stayed at work, no one would have accused me of being a bad father. For that matter, I could have actually been a bad father, a real-life Mr. Banks, and no one would have called me on it. But women are trapped either way. No matter what they choose or why, there will be others who will condemn them for it.
Calling anyone a bad mother is risky business, and to equate being a feminist activist seeking to expand women’s opportunities outside the home with being a “bad mother” is an especially regressive stance for what is otherwise a featherweight family comedy.
So I rankle a bit at this casual implication that Mrs. Banks is shirking her motherly responsibility because she’s misdirecting her energies into championing women’s rights, or that her suffragette struggle is to be ridiculed.
It’s a minor thing because the thrust of the film is about reforming Mr. Banks, and I’m not going to praise his pre-Poppins personality. He needed fixing. I just kinda wish that the delightfully ridiculous Glynis Johns could have been ridiculous in a different way.
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