Study Guide

Mary Poppins

Mary Poppins Introduction


Release Year: 1964

Genre: Comedy, Family, Drama

Director: Robert Stevenson

Writer: Bill Walsh and Don DaGradi (based on books by P.L. Travers)

Stars: Julie Andrews, Dick Van Dyke, David Tomlinson


Only a crazy dictator or a piece of insentient slime on the floor of a locker room would find Mary Poppins anything less than delightful. (And we're saying "delightful" the way it's meant to be pronounced—in a Poppins-style posh British accent—for extra delightfulness).

The movie is a carefree, light-hearted romp. It's got a dance sequence where chimney sweeps essentially breakdance on the roofs of London. It's got Julie Andrews at her most amazing. It has Dick Van Dyke with a truly terrible British accent…but he's so charming that you don't even notice. It has a plot that revolves around a hardened banker learning how to love flying kites. It's a treatise on the joy of feeding pigeons.

And this movie has penguin waiters. Penguin waiters, guys. Even the pre-Whoville miracle Grinch probably liked this movie.

But because we're in the business of complicating things (or "film analysis" if you want to get all technical about it) we're going to give you the backstory. Mary Poppins, like so many great things, began as a book—or, actually, a series of books by the British author P.L. Travers. Like the movie, the books detailed the adventures of a magical nanny and the two children, Jane and Michael Banks, she watches over. But, in Travers' version, Mary is super-stern and demanding—like a martial arts master from a '70s Kung Fu movie. (Don't worry: she doesn't land any flying kicks on the kids.)

But, since staring at a screen requires less energy than moving your eyes across a page, people wanted to make it into a movie. Good idea. Travers obliged.

Yet, after selling the movie rights to Disney, she fought with Disney over basically everything. In the end, they rolled with some of her changes and focused on making the movie about how Mary's attempts to teach the children a little bit about life end up forcing their work-obsessed dad, George Banks, to chill, and spend more time with his kids.

(In fact, this backstory was full of so many twists and turns that they made a movie about making the movie Mary Poppins: Saving Mr. Banks.)

As it turned out, Mary Poppins wound up being a classic almost as soon as it was released in 1964. It won Julie Andrews the Oscar for Best Actress, and also won Oscars for Best Score, Best Song ("Chim Chim Cher-ee") and Best Special Effects. And that Special Effects award wasn't just for making nannies fly—this movie broke new ground when it came to blending animation and live-action. (Take that, Who Framed Roger Rabbit?)

And it's got a killer soundtrack that will haunt you for the rest of your life. These songs— "It's a Jolly Holiday," "A Spoonful of Sugar" and "Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious"—are insanely catchy earworms, standards in the genre of the movie musical and in the genre of "singing in the shower."

But the heart of Mary Poppins, and the reason why pretty much everyone of every age will opt to watch this movie whenever it comes on TV or pops up in your Netflix queue, is the character of Mary Poppins herself. She's a bundle of contradictions: a disciplinarian who preaches the Gospel of Fun, a weirdo who manages to be the sanest person in the film, and a a general delight who teaches the uptight to relax and the too-relaxed to get it together.

Basically, she's the spoonful of sugar and the medicine it helps to go down.

  

What is Mary Poppins About and Why Should I Care?

Two words: penguin waiters.

Okay, that's not quite why Mary Poppins is important. The reason that Mary Poppins is important is, in fact, because of Mary Poppins. And the reason that this bizarre goddess/enchantress/witch/superhero-with-a-carpetbag is important is that she doles out a serious life lesson.

We know; you think we're sounding cheesy and childish. So we have a little compare-and-contrast for you: a speech delivered by the Very Important Author David Foster Wallace.

Here's what Wallace has to say about how to best navigate the minefields of life:

[…] I have come gradually to understand that the liberal arts cliché about teaching you how to think is actually shorthand for a much deeper, more serious idea: learning how to think really means learning how to exercise some control over how and what you think. It means being conscious and aware enough to choose what you pay attention to and to choose how you construct meaning from experience. Because if you cannot exercise this kind of choice in adult life, you will be totally hosed. Think of the old cliché about quote the mind being an excellent servant but a terrible master. (Source)

What David Foster Wallace—again, Big Deal Thinker—is saying here is that you have the power to choose how you think about the (often nasty) situations that life doles out. You can choose to "construct meaning from experience;" you can choose to get through the difficulties of life by being a gloomy Gus and generally hateful, or you can use a little imagination, a little willpower, and a little optimistic restraint and see the best in things.

Now compare that quote and what it's saying to this gem:

MARY: In every job that must be done, there is an element of fun. You find the fun, and—snap—the job's a game!

Mary Poppins, a character constructed from one part movie magic and two part's P.L. Travers imagination, says the exact same thing. It's all about mind over matter with both Poppins and Wallace—you decide whether you're going to view life's tasks as a slog or as something way more enjoyable.

There's a reason we're comparing a character out of children's fiction and one of the shining examples of American intellectual thought in the last fifty years…and it's not to undermine D.F.W. It's to show you what a total boss—a Zen master fused with a drill sergeant fused—Mary Poppins is.

So go ahead: get a framed print of a Mary Poppins quote and hang it above your desk. Because, as long as it comes from Mary Poppins' mouth (and not, say, Admiral Boom's) there's a chance it contains some heavy-hitting philosophy.

Okay—we take that back. Don't go hanging a framed print of the quote "Mmm: rum punch!" above your desk. But that one about finding the element of fun? That's a definite winner.

Trivia

P.L. Travers, the author of the Mary Poppins books, criticized the script of the movie the way some people pick at a hangnail. She had tons of objections: she didn't want it to have songs, she didn't like the animated sequence, and she even objected to using the color red in the movie. (Source)

You can blame the voice coach. The cockney accent Dick Van Dyke used to play Bert was widely criticized for being inaccurate. (It's still considered one of the more inaccurate English accents in movies—along with Keanu Reeves' accent in Bram Stoker's Dracula). (Source)

If things had work out differently, Walt Disney's most iconic image wouldn't have been two circular mouse ears, but two long bunny ears. In their early days, Walt Disney and animator U.B. Iwerks created a cartoon character called "Oswald the Lucky Rabbit." But the rights to the character were stolen from them, leading them to create a new character…Mickey Mouse. (Source)

Before she became a famous writer, P.L. Travers decided to up her name game. Her last name was originally "Goff." But after her beloved yet alcoholic father, Travers Goff, died of tuberculosis, she took his first name as her new last name. (Source)

Was this the inspiration for the Parent Trap—since it's kind of the same story, except way sadder? P.L. Travers adopted a boy named Camillus, but not the boy's identical twin. She never told him about his twin's existence—but one day, the twin showed up, in search of his brother. Travers turned him away, but Camillus tracked him down and reunited with his long lost brother in a London pub. (Source)

Mary Poppins Resources

Websites

Mary Poppins IMDB Page
If you want to fill your brain with technical deets about Mary Poppins, IMDB's your site. They can tell you whether it was shot on 35mm film or not. (Spoiler: it was).

Mary Poppins Rotten Tomatoes Page
This pretty much proves that everyone loves Mary Poppins. Rotten Tomatoes collects critical reviews of movies from around the web—and Mary P. gets a 100% rating. That's astonishing, or should we say that it's "Supercalifragi—" you know the rest.

Mary Poppins Official Website
Yeah, it's still got an official website. You can't relegate Mary P. to ash-pit of history. She'll arise from the wreckage and get her revenge.

Mary Poppins Twitter Account
Yeah, Mary Poppins tweets—she's not behind the times. But, actually, this Twitter account seems to be used more for hyping the stage musical version of the movie and less for expressing Mary's deeply held thoughts and views on modern life.

Books

Mary Poppins (The Original Novel)
This is where it all started—with a magical object called a book, made from paper and printed with ink. They're not used so much anymore, because they've been replaced by magical screens. But that's where Mary P. got her start, in P.L. Travers' classic series.

Mary Poppins Comes Back
This is the sequel to the first Mary Poppins book, and it would be followed by six more. These books really are like Pringles—addictive.

Movies

Saving Mr. Banks
This isn't a sequel to the Mary Popmeister's original classic. Rather, it tells the story of how Mary Poppins was made, showing Walt Disney (Tom Hanks) and P.L. Travers (Emma Thompson) in an epic power clash.

Stage Musical

The Mary Poppins Stage Musical
If you get psyched watching Mary Poppins on a screen, you'll be even more stoked to watch it and hear the same songs live on stage. Yes, that's right—a Mary Poppins musical exists.

Articles and Interviews

"Julie Andrews Reveals Secrets Behind Mary Poppins"
Julie Andrews talks about meeting P.L. Travers—who said she was all wrong for the role, except for her nose.

"Mary Poppins: Will Emily Blunt's Sequel Be as Crazy as the Books?"
Turns out, they're planning a Mary Poppins sequel. We hope the movie people won't stomp all over something we loved with a sub-par remake. But with Emily Blunt in the lead role and Hamilton's Lin Manuel Miranda in a supporting role, maybe it will be cool?

"Dick Van Dyke Tells Mary Poppins Stories"
Dick Van Dyke (the dude who played Bert) wilds out on CNN, giving us the straight dope on his Mary Poppins experience and on his technically inaccurate cockney accent.

"How We Made Mary Poppins"
Songwriter Richard Sherman talks smack about P.L. Travers, and the girl who played Jane remembers what it was like to Jane-it-up for a while.

"Does Saving Mr. Banks Portray Walt Disney and P.L. Travers Accurately?"
The answer seems to be, "Basically, yes," with a few big differences and speculative leaps.

The New York Times' Original Review of Mary Poppins
The Times' critic, Bosley Crowther, can barely contain his ecstasy at Mary Poppins. He loved it. Loved it.

"Saving Mr. Banks Left Out an Awful Lot about P.L. Travers"
This article goes through a lot of things that weren't in Saving Mr. Banks—like Travers whole drama with adopting one identical twin but not the other.

"Is Saving Mr. Banks Too Hard on Mary Poppins' Creator?"
The LA Times answers the question posed in this article's title, by saying "No."

"Emily Blunt to Play Mary Poppins in Disney Sequel"
Here's more Mary Poppins sequel news.

The Paris Review Interviews P.L. Travers
This is a fascinating interview with Travers. After all the negative press around her because of Savings Mr. Banks, it's interesting to hear her talk about her own books and what they meant to her.

Director Robert Stevenson's Obituary
If you want to learn a little bit about the director, there are some interesting details about his prolific career in his obituary.

IMAGES

Movie Poster for Mary Poppins
Mary has reddish hair in this poster and darker brown hair in the movie. Just pointing it out…

Mary Poppins DVD Cover
This DVD case picture features the penguin waiters on it…always a good choice.

Julie Andrews as Mary Poppins, Getting Chummy with a Robin
Mary looks really happy to be holding that robin, and it makes us happy too.

Dick Van Dyke as Bert
Bert has a giant open-mouthed smile in this picture. It almost looks like he wants to devour you…and maybe he does. Maybe he does.

Matthew Garber as Michael Banks
Michael looks glad enough to be here, but a little dazed. Maybe he's been hitting too many swigs of medicine with too many spoonfuls of sugar, eh?

Glynis Johns as Winifred Banks
Winifred pauses from writing a letter to look at somebody.

Hermione Baddeley as Ellen
Ellen looks like she's about to deliver a karate chop to a small child's head. Watch out, kids.

Karen Dotrice as Jane Banks
Jane looks kind of puzzled in this picture, like someone just asked her how many times a hummingbird flaps its wings in a second. (Google it—it's surprising).

Penguin Madness
In what many would consider the movie's greatest moment, Bert dances with cartoon penguins while making his pants look weird.

Mary Poppins Takes Flight
Mary comes in for a landing on her umbrella. Hope she doesn't get sucked into the engine of a jet like "Sherry Bobbins" on The Simpsons

P.L. Travers
Here's Mary Poppins' creator—and the enemy of everyone involved in making the movie.

The Sherman Brothers (Seated to the Left of Julie Andrews and the Right of Dick Van Dyke)
Songwriting duo, The Sherman Bros., take a moment to chill with Julie Andrews and Dick Van Dyke on the set of Mary Poppins.

Robert Stevenson
The Director, Robert Stevenson, (not to be confused with the dude who wrote Treasure Island) studies a script with a long pipe in his mouth.

Mary Poppins, Bert, and the Kids Covered in Soot
Everyone here is covered in chimney soot, mouths hanging open in mid-song.

Video

The Making of Mary Poppins (1/6)
This hour-long doc delves into the making of the movie, discussing Travers conflict with Disney (and with everyone else).

Saving Mr. Banks Trailer
The Saving Mr. Banks trailer leads us through the whole plot, detailing Travers power clash with Disney. It even gives away what's supposed to be the big surprise—that she had unresolved issues over her father.

Walt Disney Previews Mary Poppins with Bob Selig
Disney chats with Bob Selig of Grauman's Chinese Theater in L.A., who praises Mary Poppins, and then they show a trailer for the film.

Julie Andrews Interview
Julie Andrews (who played Mary) chats about the 50th Anniversary of Mary Poppins on the Today Show, and also discusses a series of children's books she's writing with her daughter.

Mary Poppins Original Trailer
The trailer doesn't give away the whole plot. It gives us a few mysteries to puzzle over. Why is this movie partly animated? Why is Mary singing about a spoonful of sugar helping the medicine go down? Watch the full-length film and grow wise.

"A Spoonful of Sugar" (Clip)
Mary sings with a Robin and with her own reflection in a mirror, which takes on a life of its own. (That last bit sounds like the plot of a horror movie.)

"Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious" (Clip)
Here it is: the song that memorialized the word that probably isn't actually the longest word in the English language (since it isn't a real word—not to sound like Mr. Banks).

"Let's Go Fly a Kite" (Clip)
In this number, the Banks Family finally gets their act together and starts enjoying their lives. Credit it to the simple joy of flying a kite.

Mary Poppins Chalk Drawing Scene
Mary Poppins leads the children into some sort of alternate universe where everything else is animated. It's a head-trip—like The Matrix for children.

"Chim Chim Cher-ee" (Clip)
Bert chims, chims some more, and then also cher-ees. This song won the Oscar for Best Song.

Andre Rieu – "Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious"
Dutch conductor Andre Rieu conducts his version. A singer dressed as Poppins descends from the ceiling holding an umbrella as she performs.

AUDIO

Mary Poppins Original Soundtrack
"Chim Chim Cher-ee"? Check. "Feed the Birds"? Check. Check, check, and check. They're all here—warming hearts and making feet tap.

"A Spoonful of Sugar"
Can you handle even more spoonfuls of sugar? Of course you can.

"Step in Time"
Warning: Shmoop will not be held liable for injuries incurred by those who actually attempt to "step in time" on rooftops to this song.

"I Love to Laugh"
Uncle Albert gets stuck in the air thanks to his uncontrollable laughter. He just has to belch in order to get back down…no, wait, that's from Willy Wonka and the Charlie Factory. Our bad.

"Chim Chim Cher-ee"
If the video version wasn't enough, and you wanted to hone in on the audio… well, we're not stopping you.