Tim here. Saving Mr. Banks opens in New York and Los Angeles today, and Mary Poppins made its debut on Blu-ray this past Tuesday in a "50th Anniversary" edition bumped up a year for maximum cross-promotion effectiveness. Doubtlessly, neither of those events was timed to coincide with the birthday of Mary Poppins co-star Dick Van Dyke, who turns 88 years old today, but the confluence of events was just too perfect to pass up. Let us then spare a moment to thank one of the greatest avuncular figures in American pop culture in this moment when his most important film role has been brought back into the limelight so enthusiastically (though Van Dyke, as a character, is barely a blip in the context of Saving Mr. Banks, taking the form of an unbilled performance by Kristopher Kyer).
In truth, Van Dyke was never as big of a deal in the movies as he was on the five seasons of The Dick Van Dyke Show, which remains one of the most lively and watchable of all classic sitcoms. That’s certainly not least because of its star’s bumbling charm that takes some of the starch out of his fatherly competence. For all his attempts to bring a version of that persona to the big screen, there was something about the intimacy and familiarity of the television that fit Van Dyke better than the heightened polish of cinema.
Still, he has at least three more-or-less classic movies to his name from his period of greatest activity in the ‘60s (he made twice as many films between 1963 and 1971 as he has in the 42 years since, and in larger roles too). His very first movie, made two years into The Dick Van Dyke Show’s run, was the musical adaptation Bye Bye Birdie, in which he reprised his career-making Broadway performance. The film is strained in a lot of ways, crudely retrofitted into an Ann-Margret vehicle and flattened by the camera, but Van Dyke himself is probably its single best element, doing his flustered Everyman routine with the surgical precision of a great comic who has perfected every detail of his characterization. Five years later, he headlined the much-loved family film Chitty Chitty Bang Bang, a well-executed Disney clone produced by Bond series impresario Albert Broccoli. It’s not a difficult role to play, and Van Dyke certainly isn’t pushing himself, but it’s pretty perfect casting that finds the actor’s usual tricks well-played in service of a charming if deeply overloaded story.
The big deal, though, the proverbial One That We Remember Him For, was as Bert the jack-of-all-trades in Mary Poppins, a role that made excellent use of Van Dyke’s rubbery limbs and gift for physical comedy. And made… some kind of use of his vocal skills, anyway. In truth, I find the infamous pseudo-Cockney accent Van Dyke got stuck in on this film to be so terrible that it’s cute and endearing. Given the gravely silly tone that the whole production takes on, I think a more authentic accent wouldn’t serve much use anyway, and would probably take away from the film’s obviously stagebound and artificial appeal. But whatever the case, it’s not worth getting hung up on. The performance is as much about dancing and kineticism as anything, and in that respect, he’s one of the most joyful and memorable elements of a deservedly legendary film. It’s the best translation of his spry energy to movie screens, and a great legacy for a man who full deserves his status as an American icon.