Study Guide

Mary Poppins Cast

  • Mary Poppins (Julie Andrews)

    British Nanny Airways

    After Mary Poppins flies away on her umbrella at the movie's end (Southwest Airlines was apparently booked, and an umbrella is cheaper anyway) we're left wondering: who or what is Mary Poppins?

    Is she a witch? "No," says Michael Banks, "witches have brooms." A superhero, then? That makes more sense, but she doesn't have a uniform. Is she…a god (or goddess)? Actually, P.L. Travers said that the version Mary from the books seemed kind of like the Hindu goddess Kali. (Source)

    Whatever the case, Mary's got some serious supernatural powers. She's not like other people—as her magical measuring tape says, she's "practically perfect in everyway." So, whatever Mary is, she's a good 'un.

    But she's not a dynamic 'un—Mary isn't really a character who changes or goes through a struggle. She's in control. Called down from her perch atop a cloud by the Banks children's torn up advertisement for a new nanny, she starts setting things right in the Banks house. She never gets ruffled and doesn't run into any obstacles that perplex her. Mary knows what she's doing.

    Basically, she's a benevolent force, who arrives to make the children's father pay more attention to them. George Banks has become a workaholic, treating the rest of his world as though it were the same as the bank he works at. By becoming the children's nanny and taking them on wild adventures, Mary is acting as a positive role model for George. She's making him jealous—and making him want to be more like her at the same time.

    We don't know where Mary comes from, or why she does what she does. Apparently, she's helped other children and parents with their problems too. And, somehow, she knows Bert the cockney chimney sweep—they have a romantically ambiguous relationship (Bert seems to have the hots for Mary, but it's not totally clear).

    Her Uncle Albert lives in London, so she might be a local in some sense. She has a proper British accent, at any rate. Also, she must have a life of her own, since she gets Tuesdays off.

    Dropping Knowledge

    Mary's philosophy is pretty simple, but it's also effective. She cuts right to it early on in the movie:

    MARY: A spoonful of sugar helps the medicine go down.

    There are oceans of meaning hidden in this simple phrase. According to Richard Sherman—half of the songwriting duo who penned the number—it captures "the whole essence of the movie—which was about the power of love." (Source)

    By showing kindness to the children, Mary's giving them that "spoonful of sugar," and showing Mr. Banks how to do that too. He loves his children, but has forgotten how to show it…

    But the "spoonful of sugar" isn't only about parental love. It's also about learning how to let loose and enjoy life. Mary transforms cleaning up the nursery into a fun task, by adding magic, making what would be totally boring into something cool:

    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!

    (Then again, since you can't actually clean up a room with magic, how do you find "the element of fun"?)

    Mary doesn't teach these lessons to Mr. Banks by lecturing him—she does it through example. Sometimes, this can end up being pretty baffling. After Mary Poppins leads a bunch of chimney sweeps through the room—at the end of the "Step In Time" musical number—Mr. Banks wants her to explain herself. She says:

    MARY: First of all, I would like to make one thing quite clear.

    GEORGE: Yes?

    MARY: I never explain anything

    Mary is almost like a Japanese Zen Master (to cite another example from Travers). She teaches through bafflement and awe. (Source)

    Family Psychologist

    Mary also orchestrates the incident that sets off the movie's climax and force Mr. Banks to change. Banks' jealousy has gotten so intense that he wants to fire her, but Mary acts like she's on his side, saying he should teach the children discipline by taking them to the bank. She sings a song to Jane and Michael about an old lady who feeds pigeons and sells bags of seeds for a tuppence a piece:

    MARY: Feed the birds, that's what she cries, while overhead her birds fill the skies. All around the cathedral the saints and apostles look down as she sells her wares. Although you can't see it, you know they are smiling each time someone shows that he cares. Though her words are simple and few, listen, listen, she's calling to you. Feed the birds, tuppence a bag. Tuppence, tuppence, tuppence a bag. Though her words are simple and few, listen, listen she's calling to you. Feed the birds, tuppence a bag. Tuppence, tuppence, tuppence a bag.

    She apparently knows the future, or at least the geography of London, since the children actually see the pigeon lady the next day, and Michael wants to use his tuppence to feed the birds.

    At the bank, this causes a row with the head of the bank, Mr. Dawes, who tries to force Michael to put his tuppence in a savings account, which causes Michael to fight to keep his tuppence…which causes a run on the bank. And that causes Mr. Banks to get fired, which makes him realize that his family's what's truly valuable.

    And Mary Poppins was the kind-hearted puppet master behind this whole fiasco.

    Mary flies away when the wind changes, leaving a happy Banks Family behind. Her work there is done. Of course, Mary can't help getting attached to the kids, as her talking umbrella points out—but, she knows that their father's replaced her role in the family, which is as it should be.

    So, she launches off on her umbrella, still "practically perfect," and ready to help some other family get its act together. She's like a talk show psychologist…except, you know, actually effective.

  • Mr. George Banks (David Tomlinson)

    Stuck in a Bank Shaped Cage

    This guy is tied up in more knots than Stretch Armstrong. He's kind of a head case—dude needs a foot massage, a long beach vacation, and maybe some daily anti-anxiety breathing exercises.

    On the surface, George Banks, father of Jane and Michael, seems to be content and self-contained. He boasts about how his family is run on a model of strict discipline, just like the bank he works at:

    GEORGE: A British bank is run with precision. A British home requires nothing less! Tradition, discipline, and rules must be the tools! Without them: disorder, catastrophe! Anarchy! In short, you have a ghastly mess!

    So, George acts like this strict disciplinarian, who only wants strict nannies to rule over his children. But, in reality, he has a strong fun-loving side—and he loves his kids. It's just that his inner childlike, happy-go-lucky nature has been crushed and repressed. He can't show who he really is. Of all the major characters, George is in the worst situation—but he also goes on the most significant journey.

    Bert says that George lives in a "cage"—specifically, a "bank-shaped cage." George has gotten so caught up in his work, that he's let it dominate his life and his worldview. He doesn't spend enough time with his kids, and he also lacks the human touch with other people—like the constable who brings the kids home when they run away at the beginning.

    When the constable tries to talk with him, George lets his obliviousness prevent him from interacting with the man:

    CONSTABLE: Ah, that's the ticket, sir. Kites are skittish things. Why only last week with me own youngsters—

    GEORGE: I'm very grateful to you, Constable, for returning the children. And I'm sure that if you go to the kitchen, Cook'll find you a plate of something.

    Wow. Somebody needs a refresher course on how to make friends and influence people.

    Mr. Uptight

    Fortunately, Mary Poppins changes all that. She manages to be a good nanny, teaching the kids valuable lessons, but with love instead of strict discipline. This shows George how to do it: it proves that his whole attitude is misguided. The house starts functioning well, and everyone's happier.

    This irritates George because it's proving him wrong—but it's also making him jealous. This is a good thing: he should be jealous. He ought to be doing the same kind of thing Mary does, but he can't find the time.

    The movie also picks fun at George's stuffy attitudes. For instance, after Mary takes the children into the animated world existing inside a chalk drawing, they babble to George about their adventures. George can't say he approves of jumping into magical worlds, but he does like the fact that the children participated in foxhunt (though they actually helped save the fox). In Britain, foxhunting is a traditionally upper class activity—so the movie's poking fun at George's snobbery and affectation.

    George's attempt to teach the children his own values, actually ends up torpedoing those very values. At Mary's urging, he takes the children to the bank, where catastrophe strikes: Michael refuses to put his tuppence in a savings account, causing customers to think that something is wrong. They launch a run on the bank. George's humorless boss, Mr. Dawes Sr., has him fired.

    A Fortunate Fall

    But, surprisingly, George discovers that this catastrophe was exactly the thing he needed. It totally cracks through his shell and makes him feel great—he didn't really want to be this stuffy dude, obsessed with banking at the expense of everything else. He starts remembering the things Mary and the kids have told him, repeating their charmed word:

    GEORGE: Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious! Mary Poppins was right, it's extraordinary! It does make you feel better! Hee hee hee hee!

    DAWES SR.: What are you talking about, man? There's no such word!

    GEORGE: Oh yes! It is a word! A perfectly good word! Actually, do you know what there's no such thing as? It turns out, with due respect, when all is said and done, that there's no such thing as you.

    Aww. George has finally learned about what's really important—he's learned how to deliver that "spoonful of sugar" to help the medicine go down, and show kindness to his kids and have fun with them. After he returns home, he takes them to fly a kite—and Mrs. Banks comes along too. Since George has learned his lesson, Mary Poppins can depart.

    To sweeten the deal, Dawes Sr. dies—having laughed to death at a joke George told him— and his son, Dawes Jr. follows up on his dad's parting wish. He re-hires George as a partner at the bank—an even better job than he had before.

    So, all's well that ends well: George learns to show his love for his kids, and avoids having "Cat's in the Cradle" played at his funeral.

  • Jane Banks and Michael Banks (Karen Dotrice and Matthew Garber)

    Despite their notorious rep, these kids aren't juvenile delinquents drinking moonshine in the graveyard and tripping old ladies. No. Jane and Michael are pretty good kids. They're just misunderstood.

    Their first nanny thinks they've "run away," at the beginning of the movie, and promptly quits her job. But Michael and Jane were just chasing their kite after it got away. These kids aren't bad eggs—they just really like their kite.

    Their father thinks that they need an even stricter nanny, an industrial-strength dose of nanny. This sounds like a bad idea, and Jane and Michael think so too. They just want a sweet, kind lady who will play games with them, and not be horrible. So, they write their own advertisement for a nanny:

    JANE: If you want this choice position
    Have a cheery disposition
    Play games, all sorts
    You must be kind, you must be witty
    Very sweet and fairly pretty
    Take us on outings, give us treats
    Sing songs, bring sweets
    Never be cross or cruel, never give us castor oil or gruel
    Love us as a son and daughter
    And never smell of barley water
    If you won't scold and dominate us
    We will never give you cause to hate us
    We won't hide your spectacles so you can't see
    Put toads in your bed or pepper in your tea

    That's pretty good amateur poetry for a duo of juvenile delinquents.

    So, interestingly, Jane and Michael actually know what's better for them than their father does. It goes against the whole "Father Knows Best" ethos of their time period. In fact, it's a little like what David Bowie said in "Changes":

    These children that you spit on / As they try to change their world / Are immune to your consultations / They're quite aware of what they're really going through. (Source)

    The Tuppence Comeuppance

    But George Banks isn't buying it. He tears up their note and chucks it in their fireplace—where it blows away and somehow reaches Mary Poppins, who does listen to the children and does value their ideas.

    So it's clear: these are good kids. They don't really need to change all that much. Rather, the adults around them need to change and re-evaluate how they're relating to them. Mary Poppins is the only one who really gets them.

    At the same time, Mary Poppins points out some of their flaws. Her magical measuring tape says that Michael is "extremely stubborn and suspicious" and Jane is "rather inclined to giggle, doesn't put things away."

    So, they're not perfect—and they need to learn find the fun in tidying up the nursery and all that stuff. Still, there's no major crisis in the souls of Michael and Jane—they just need more of their parents' love.

    They embrace Mary's lessons about lightening up and showing love. Her song about the old lady who sells seeds to feed pigeons for a "tuppence a bag," inspires Michael to cling to his tuppence when his father takes him and Jane to the bank where he works. Dawes Sr., head banker, tries to convince him to use his money to invest it in a savings account:

    DAWES SR.: And just how much money do you have, young man?

    MICHAEL: Tuppence. But I want it to feed the birds.

    Michael wants to feed the birds—not invest his tuppence in a savings account, clinging miserably to a tiny amount of money. When Dawes tries to seize the tuppence from him, Michael fights back, causing a panic in the bank. This leads to George getting fired.

    Fortunately, that works out really well for the kids. Michael and Jane's own tenacity, sticking to their own ideals and not letting adults boss them around, actually ends up being good for the adults around them. True, Michael accidentally helps gets George fired—but this is good for George, since it makes him reckon with his own relationship to his kids, and lighten up.

    So, the kids successfully convert their Dad into a fun-loving guy, who wants to fly kites with them. They help change him—and they find the strength and courage to do it with help from Mary P. As the British would say, "Good show, Gov'ner."

  • Bert (Dick Van Dyke)

    What with the way the economy is these days (or back in 1910), Bert's got to hold down three jobs: he's a one-man band, a chimney sweep, and a chalk-sidewalk-drawer-person. He's also someone who has the ability to speak directly to the audience, at least at the very beginning of the movie…and later goes into the kite-selling business. He's a jack-of-all-trades and a master of fun (hey-o!).

    Bert hangs out with Mary—who he already knows—and helps watch over the kids after they run away from the bank. He's generally a helpful, likeable character with a cockney accent. (Linguistic mini-lesson: cockney is a dialect commonly heard in London. For instance, the actor Michael Caine has a cockney accent). He's got a little less social status than the kids' back manager dad, but he's got the kind of personality Mr. Banks needs to learn to have.

    Bert isn't just a fun guy to be around. He's also a useful guide, explaining things, both to the audience and the kids. When the kids complain about the way they're treated, Bert tells them:

    BERT: Let's sit down. You know, begging your pardon, but the one my heart goes out to is your father. There he is, in that cold heartless bank day after day, hammed in by mounds of cold heartless money. I don't like to see any living thing caged up.

    Bert sees things clearly: he recognizes that the central conflict of the movie is taking place inside Mr. Banks. And he's helping Jane and Michael understand this. They need to help their father to change, because he's the one who's actually suffering the most. The story isn't just about them.

    But Bert exists primarily to entertain. He goes on an extended singing and dancing binge with Mary, when they enter the animated chalk-drawing world. It even seems to be a kind of…date. Yet, Bert is what you'd call a perfect gentleman, and it's hard to figure out if he's really trying to wife Mary up. At one point Mary sings:

    MARY: You'd never think of pressing your advantage / Forbearance is the hallmark of your creed.

    So, Bert isn't making any brash moves. He likes to take it slow—if he truly is Mary's boyfriend or whatever.

    Bert also participates in their adventures with Uncle Albert, and with the chimney sweeps who sing and dance to "Step in Time." He's a cool guy to be around—even if his nature is shrouded in mystery. Where does Bert come from? (Well, London, based on his accent). How come he's so unfazed by Mary's magic? How did he first meet Mary?

    It's possible we'll never know.

  • Mrs. Winifred Banks (Glynis Johns)

    Winifred Banks is a trailblazing feminist, who fights for women's right to vote…and ignores her kids, Jane and Michael. She can't even pick a decent nanny—all six of her former nanny choices all drop out. Yes, in this Disney movie, there's a not-so-subtle implication that Mrs. Banks should spend less time winning liberty and equality for all, and more time making sure her kids aren't shooting pigeons with B.B. Guns and smoking drugs. (They're not, but how does she know?)

    Winifred expresses her passion for the right to vote in song:

    WINIFRED: We're clearly soldiers in petticoats, and dauntless crusaders for women's a-votes! Though we adore men individually, we agree that as a group they're rather stupid.

    Obviously, making Winifred look especially neglectful demonstrates a kind of outdated attitude on the part of the moviemakers. Nowadays, it's not cool to suggest you should ease up on the whole women's suffrage thing and just relax. When, at the end of the movie, Winifred takes off her "Votes for Women" sash and uses it as the tail of a kite, that's so much to say—"Fine. I give up. Family is where it's at."

    On the other hand, maybe the movie is just suggesting balancing your schedule, but not completely giving up on women's rights?

    Interestingly, Winifred isn't really the main parent in the movie. The movie actually isn't suggesting that only the mother should spend more time with her kids—it's focusing on the fact that the father should.

    So, this actually goes against the 1950s and early-1960s era idea that the Mom should be supervising the kids, while the Dad goes out and conquers the world of banks. Winifred's character, instead, is pretty narrowly focused on suffrage. We don't really learn all that much else about her, beyond glimpsing this suffragette persona, and getting the sense that she does love Jane and Michael, despite not spending time with them, and continually rushing out the door to new meetings.

    In the end, Winifred goes along to fly a kite with George and the kids, and we get the sense that they're a family that really gels, that knows how to have fun and stick together. We can only assume they had a family game night in the evening, and all played Apples to Apples together.

  • Mr. Dawes Sr. and Mr. Dawes Jr. (Dick Van Dyke and Arthur Malet)

    It's all about the Benjamins for these two—or maybe we should say they're all about the Austens. (Fun Econ/Lit fact: Jane Austen appears on the ten pound note).

    Our point is, they like money.

    Dawes Sr. runs the bank where Mr. Banks works, and Dawes Jr. is his second-in-command. This father and son duo is the closet thing the movie has to villains.

    After George takes Jane and Michael to the bank for an education visit, trying to teach them about discipline and thrift, Dawes Sr. preaches his philosophy of avarice and conquest to Michael and Jane:

    DAWES SR.: If you invest your tuppence wisely in the bank, safe and sound, soon that tuppence, safely invested in the bank, will compound! And you'll achieve that sense of conquest, as your affluence expands! In the hands of the directors, who invest as propriety demands!

    That's putting a lot of importance on tuppence.

    Michael, quite reasonably, wants to use his tuppence to buy seeds to feed the birds, and puts up a fight when Dawes tries to seize his tuppence and forcibly put it in a savings account. This confuses the bank customers, who think something's wrong, and try to withdraw all the money from their accounts. Even though Dawes Sr. is equally to blame, he fires George from the bank because of what Michael did.

    But this is actually a blessing in disguise. Getting fired is the best thing that can happen to George, since it makes him pay attention to what's really important—loving his family.

    In the end, Dawes Sr. dies from laughing at a joke George told him. But, before he croaks, he tells Dawes Jr. to re-hire George as a partner in the bank, as his last wish. So, everything worked out anyway, thanks to the Daweses—they fired George, which turned out to be good for him, and then re-hired him after he'd learned his valuable lesson. George should probably send Dawes an Edible Arrangement as thanks.

  • Uncle Albert (Ed Wynn)

    Mary Poppins has an uncle, Albert. Who knew? We assumed that she was some sort of eternally existing god-being, who helped children throughout the ages. But, apparently, she's got an uncle.

    Uncle Albert loves to laugh. He can't help it. And it also makes him float in the air (like in Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory, except that was with soda). Mary, the kids, and Bert have to help him get down, but he keeps telling horrible jokes, which hold him aloft. Eventually, the kids and Bert start laughing and they float too.

    Mary acts like this is really irritating, yet, in the end, it turns out she can simply yank Albert back down out of the air through magic. But, if she'd done that in the first place, they wouldn't have gotten to the "I Love to Laugh" song. So, she has to wait for her cue.

    Albert fits in with the movie's whole theme about lightening up and letting "a spoonful of sugar" help the medicine go down. Life can't be all about discipline and rules. It has to involve the human touch, humor, and kindness.

    But, that being said, Albert's jokes are intentionally pretty bad. Not filthy bad—corny and lame bad. Bert gets in on the act as well:

    BERT: I know a man with a wooden leg named Smith.

    ALBERT: What's the name of his other leg? …Wasn't that funny?! What's the name of his other—

    So, you get the idea. These jokes are horrible.

  • Ellen and Mrs. Brill (Hermione Baddeley and Reta Shaw)

    Sweeping, dusting, and… breezily musing on someone's potential suicide? Such are the pastimes that occupy Ellen, one of the Bank's family's maids. (The other is Mrs. Brill).

    The maids don't play a huge role in the story, to be honest. Mainly, they offer up short comments on events—for instance, Ellen wrings her hands over Katie Nanna's departure, since she thinks the burden of looking after the kids is going to fall on her. And both maids are over-awed by Mary Poppins, who cheers everyone up.

    Yet Ellen has a dour and disaster-obsessed mind. When the children go missing, she says to Mrs. Banks:

    ELLEN: You don't think the lion could've got at them, do ya? You know how fond they was of hangin' around the cage [at the zoo].

    Later, when George goes missing after being fired, Ellen speculates that he might've committed suicide, telling Mrs. Banks, insensitively:

    ELLEN: Wouldn't hurt to have them drag the river. There's a spot there by Suffolk bridge. Popular with jumpers.

    So, Ellen seems to be mentally excited by possible chaos and bloodshed…dark. But Mrs. Brill doesn't say all that much, just comments from the sidelines like:

    MRS. BRILL: They're at it again!

    We don't really learn anything about her. Ellen's comments are enough to give us a glimpse into her heart of darkness.

  • Admiral Boom (Reginald Owen)

    This character is a one-trick pony. A retired navy admiral, he fires a cannon signaling the time of day from the top of his roof. This adds comic moments to the film as the Banks family scrambles to prevent vases and lamps from falling over in their house after the sound of the shot.

    And, oh—Admiral Boom is a racist. Can't forget that part.

    There's an example in Mary Poppins of the kind of racial humor it was hard to detect when you were a kid, but seems glaringly obvious as an adult (like the three black crows in Dumbo).

    During the "Step in Time" number, Boom sees the chimney sweeps dancing around on a nearby rooftop. Misunderstanding what's happening he says:

    ADMIRAL BOOM: We're being attacked by hottentots!

    The term "hottentots"—which is derogatory—was actually used to refer to a group of people from South Africa. And, since the chimney sweeps are covered in soot, the "joke" is supposed that Boom mistakes them for being black.

    Oof. Not so great, Disney.

  • The Constable (Arthur Treacher)

    The constable's a kind-hearted guy who's always looking out for other people. And—bonus—he knows how to score some free food. Gotta get that bangers n' mash, guv'nor.

    He brings Jane and Michael back to their house after they "run away" at the beginning of the movie, though the constable kindly explains that it was actually their kite which got away, and they were just chasing after it.

    We just get a short glimpse of the constable, who tries to chat with Mr. Banks. But Banks is so uptight, he acts stilted and formal throughout his whole interaction with the constable. Banks doesn't know how to talk to people who aren't from the same class background as him, although he does say that the cook will make some food for the constable.

    And free food makes up for anything.

  • Katie Nanna (Elsa Lanchester)

    This lady's had it up to here with Jane and Michael, despite how likeable they are. An uptight and evidently incompetent nanny, she abandons the Banks family at their hour of need, when Jane and Michael run off. Katie Nanna announces her departure to Mrs. Banks (once she can get her attention) and huffs out of the house. Lame.

    Even though Katie Nanna is a lousy, bargain-bin nanny who can't tell the difference between chasing after a kite and running away from home, she does one important thing: she provides the inciting incident for the whole movie. If Katie Nanna doesn't quit her job, then there's no reason to hire Mary Poppins. No Poppins, no movie.

  • Pigeon Lady (Jane Darwell)

    Bird woman isn't actually a part-bird, part-woman hybrid created by an evil scientist. And it's not a sequel to the film Birdman, either. She's just a woman who feeds the birds on the steps of St. Paul's cathedral.

    She doesn't actually say anything in the movie, but Mary Poppins uses her as a symbol of a simple and loving life in the "Feed the Birds" song. She finds joy in something small: feeding birds, and selling bags of seeds so other people can feed the birds:

    MARY: Feed the birds, that's what she cries, while overhead her birds fill the skies. All around the cathedral the saints and apostles look down as she sells her wares. Although you can't see it, you know they are smiling each time someone shows that he cares. Though her words are simple and few, listen, listen, she's calling to you. Feed the birds, tuppence a bag. Tuppence, tuppence, tuppence a bag. Though her words are simple and few, listen, listen she's calling to you. Feed the birds, tuppence a bag. Tuppence, tuppence, tuppence a bag.

    The point is: happiness isn't something flashy. You can get happiness from something as simple as using your tuppence to get a bag of birdseed.

  • Mr. Binnacle, Admiral Boom's Servant (Don Barclay)

    This guy assists Admiral Boom in launching his cannon. That's the only thing you can say about him, aside from the fact that he's probably a racist like Admiral Boom (see Admiral Boom's character section).