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« Teen Wolf in... a Hospital ☑ a Bank ☑ a Motel ☑ | Main | Remember the Stanwyck »
Wednesday
Jul172013

Best Shot: Mary Poppins Makes Your Heart Feel Light

Let me make one thing perfectly clear: Mary Poppins never explains anything! That's true of both the character and the film, actually. There's no back story (Hallelujah!) and no fussiness about the how and why of her "magic". (Sadly, this movie would never be made today when the mystery is drained from everything). More surprising for a family film there's very little overstating of its message (though Dick Van Dyke does a little bit of singing it directly to Mr. Banks just to make sure he's clear). If you don't believe me, really watch it again. Despite the imposing length (2 hours and 20 minutes) it's structurally smart and so light on its feet that it simply blows in on the East wind and then floats away when the super nanny's mission is accomplished. Like its heroine, the movie is practically perfect in every way.

"Cheeky" - my favorite shot of Julie Andrews in the film

I'll do my best to emulate her and keep my "best shot" explanation brief -- if only I could sing it! though it's a bittersweet task since, if I was choosing a different shot, I'd get to talk at length about how brilliant Julie Andrews is in the movie. Her Oscar win is one of the most unusual choices the Academy ever made for a Lead Acting trophy (no histrionics, no "clips", nothing one might define as Oscar-Bait) and one of their smartest, too. But I'll have to wax rhapsodic about Julie another time and jump right to my choice for Best Shot.

When I was a kid my favorite song in the movie was "Jolly Holiday". I'm not sure if it was because I wanted to dive into the chalk paintings or if I just found it catchy or if I just loved that incredibly funny moment when all the barnyard animals get solo lines and they each sound EXACTLY like a singing version of that animal should. As an adult I still love the song mostly because its such an accurate description of how one feels in Mary Poppins presence: light and grand... your heart starts beating like a big brass band.

Best Shot -- I wish I could see this on the big screen!

But, as anyone familiar with Mary Poppins know, there's a beautiful melancholy undercurrent to the plot and the feeling which is why I'm choosing this moment, right after the chalk painting adventure when Mary and the children have left Bert in the park. It's gray and stormy now but Bert's mood is unaltered. He keeps dancing in the rain, still enjoying the imagined holiday as the colors lose their shape but glow like memories.

This visual motif with a man in near silhouette with a telling splash of color is repeated again (only more empathically) in both the showstopping "Steppin' Time" number (blue) and when Mr Banks is fired from his job (red) but here is where it most beautifully summarizes the film's smart disposition (both firm and truthful but  loose and magical) and the color Mary brings to people's lives.

When the day is gray and ordinary
Mary makes the sun shine bright!

Mary Poppins warns us over and over again -- though not in hamfisted redundant ways -- that all things are temporary. One day childhood will end. Very soon the chalk paintings will wash away. As soon as the wind changes Mary herself will vanish. Mary Poppins would never say anything as mundane as "seize the day" but in her cheeky way she's making sure that we get that each day counts. She recommends feeding birds, flying kites, and a spoonful of sugar to help the medicine go down.

Best Shot Steppin' Time
Antagony & Ecstasy - on Julie Andrews' brilliant star turn
Allison Tooey - the feeling it gives
Encore Entertainment - Mary Poppins needs you to get your act together
Entertainment Junkie - on magical realism
Film Actually - defying logic, physics, and gravity
The Film's The Thing - a familiar silhouette
Manuel Betancourt - Julie Andrews Steppin' Time
Stale Popcorn - actually hates the movie!
Serious Film - praises David Tomlinson's Mr Banks
Victim of the Time - the measure of a woman
We Recycle Movies -on childhood nostalgia

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Reader Comments (32)

Absolutely brilliant piece.

July 17, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterPeggy Sue

peggy sue -- thank you. that was easier to write than they have been lately. can't wait to read these other ones. starting.... now...

July 17, 2013 | Registered CommenterNATHANIEL R

Terrific choices, one and all, and I can't argue with any of them. However, I'd argue for two exquisite shots that, as one of the commenters posters mentioned, reinforce Robert Stevenson's ability to hold a shot just that much of a second longer, and thus make it that much more powerful.

The first is near the beginning, when all of the scary nannies are lined up to interview for the position, and are slowly, mercilessly blown away by the east wind. This sequence, shockingly, isn't in the books, but it's something primally wonderful--whimsical, yet terrifying, yet delicious. The various women put up umbrellas, cling to fence-posts, to no avail; the wind takes them all away, in a fluttering storm of black and dark colors, and then...just as Jane says, "Michael, look..." Mary Poppins slowly, slowly lowers herself from the sky over London, headed with perfect precision and grace towards the Banks house. And instantly, the viewer knows, something wonderful is about to happen.

My other favorite is when the chimney sweeps spill madly into the street from the Banks house, still caroling "Step in TIme!" They dance, spin around each other, run in all directions...and, just like the evil nannies, they're suddenly as gone as if they'd never been there, and Stevenson holds for just an extra beat or so on the empty street and the park at dusk. Just a lovely, lovely moment.

I'd also make an argument for the chimney sweeps popping down the chimneys and popping back up with brushes, silhouetted against a deep-blue evening sky, or Mary, the children and Burt climbing the smoky "stairs" up into the sky. Whatever P.L. Travers' reservations about the film, you can't say that the Disney team didn't bring every bit of their magic, ingenuity and taste to the adaptation.

July 17, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterDback

Dback -- that's so true. and i love the held shots too. It's why i chose this moment as my "best". most filmmakers (at least modern ones) would have ended the scene with Mary's exit but it only has that extra special tail of feeling if you let the camera stay.

and i'm crazy about the empty street after the chimney sweepers so thanks for reminding me of it.

July 17, 2013 | Registered CommenterNATHANIEL R

Hey Nathaniel, what's next up for "Hit Me"??

July 17, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterSquasher88

Hey Nathaniel, what's next up for "Hit Me"??

July 17, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterSquasher88

what is up with the weird shot of Julie in the mirror? (never seen the movie).
It does remind me of the spooky mirror images in Black Swan.

July 17, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterMark

squasher -- next week no movie (i'm travelling that week) but i'll announce the rest of hte season soon. we usually end in august

July 17, 2013 | Registered CommenterNATHANIEL R

Mark -- how can you have never seen this? RECTIFY IMMEDIATELY!

July 17, 2013 | Registered CommenterNATHANIEL R

I love this movie so, so much - my favorite movie of all time for a very long time, and still my favorite Disney movie of all time. Wish I'd participated in this blogathon, but...dumb technical question...how do you capture a screenshot?

July 17, 2013 | Unregistered Commenterprincesskaraoke

This is the movie that I first remember seeing in a theater. Grandma took me to see it at the Palms Theatre in Phoenix. It was one of those old gorgeous cinema houses with curtains in front of the screen.

Mary Poppins was great, and probably led to my lifelong love of musicals. The music, the dancing, and the performances still make it a wonderful movie.

July 17, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterErin

I kinda wrote something: http://dancindanonfilm.blogspot.com/2013/07/mary-poppins-step-in-time.html

Not really a traditional Hit Me... article, but I did pick one (sorta)!

July 17, 2013 | Unregistered Commenterdenny

My choice is the hazy shot of Jane Darwell's bird woman while Mary Poppins sings Feed the Birds, I think because the song and her presence on the steps across from the bank are a catalyst for a lot of the story towards the end of the film and that conveys it so simply plus I love that song.

There are many other fantastic shots though and any could easily be the best, the chimney sweeps on the roof, Mary's initial approach, all that happens in the sidewalk drawings and on and on. Great movie.

July 17, 2013 | Unregistered Commenterjoel6

joel6 -- i love when people choose one even if its only in the comments so thank you

denny -- i shall look it up

princess karaoke -- i use CAPTURE ME which is free to download. It doesn't work on every computer (new macs seem to block it which is so annoying) but there's also shortcuts to screen capture that work with some dvd programs but not with others. command|shift + 4 works on macs to do a screenshot too

July 17, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterNathaniel R

Wonderful piece of writing! "Mary Poppins'' is really a masterpiece and the great Julie Andrews is perfect in the title role. Her performance is definitely Oscar-worthy and the Academy did the right thingby giving her this much deserved award - time has shown that - for Julie Andrews's brilliant work has made the film a joy to watch through generations. Curiously, I have always felt the same melancholic feeling you mentioned, and that's what makes this film special. It really touches our hearts..The songs Feed the Birds and Stay Awake sort of contribute to that, besides the scenes you described above. The dialogues are so witty, and Mary makes such an impression, not only on the Bankses but also on audiences, as well. The word supercalifragilistiicexpialidocious is amazing, as it is used to say what can't be expressed in words.In short, Mary Poppins is more than a family film, it is a work of art and its star is an inspiration. No wonder that it is Mary - and Julie - that we love!

July 18, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterWaldemar Lopes

A little late to the party, but I couldn't resist joining in. I've posted my choice for best shot at my journal under the title of "Childhood Magic", because it really is magical, isn't it?

Looking forward to see what other people chose!

July 18, 2013 | Unregistered Commenterallisontooey

Mary Poppins was my grandmother's absolute favorite movie. One of my earliest film-related memories is sitting on her lap in her old house watching and singing along with Mary Poppins, Jane, and Michael. I'm so glad you chose it to be part of this series!

My favorite shot is Mary's entrance, flying in on the wind with her umbrella and handbag. To me, it's an iconic image that perfectly captures the wonder of a "practically perfect" nanny.

July 18, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterJonny

As far as capturing screengrabs: the media player VLC, which is the one you should be using anyway, has an extremely straightforward capture function. Shift + s on the PC version, I forget right off what it is on Mac, but it's equally as simple.

Back on topic, this was far and away the most fun HMWYBS to do this season. Not that the rest haven't been great, but there's something so alarmingly smart about the way Mary Poppins was put together, Disneyfied soundstages and all, that it's such a real pleasure to write about.

July 18, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterTim

I watched it for the first time every today, and I hated it.

http://stalepopcornau.blogspot.com/2013/07/hit-me-with-your-best-shot-mary-poppins.html

July 18, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterGlenn

First movie I was taken to a tiny child in the previous century. Thank you for remembering.

July 18, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterHelen Sharp

Glenn,

Every today???? What did you mean to say???

July 18, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterMark

Mark, there's a hysterical scene in the nursery where Julie Andrews-as-Mary is getting ready to go out, and passes her reflection in the mirror. At first this is no big deal, but then the reflection begins to harmonize with her on the song; then, as Mary turns away to put on her jacket, the reflection continues to sing an ascending scale with smug aplomb. Mary, momentarily stupefied, turns back to the reflection and snaps, "Cheeky!" and exits; the reflection, still there, winks at her departure.

Quoth Lucille Ball: "Is Julie Andrews a (great) comedienne? Oh yes, she is!"

July 18, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterDback

Glenn, I respect people's differences of opinions on movies (I can only tolerate "Moulin Rouge!" in small doses, whereas some people claim to have had their lives changed by it). However, I think your comment about comparing "Poppins" to "West Side Story" is a teensy bit unfair, in that "West Side" was largely shot on location, and thus brought a new sense of "realness" to musicals that had previously largely been untapped. And sure enough its director, Robert Wise, then decided to shoot "The Sound of Music" on location with...Julie Andrews, and of course the verisimilitude of the setting kicked the movie onto another plane. (Think about Streisand criss-crossing New York while singing "Don't Rain On My Parade" in "Funny Girl" climaxing with the infamous tugboat finale--after that, was a soundstage enough for most musicals?) "Mary Poppins" was created completely on the Disney lot, but its artificiality IMHO lends it a charming storybook quality--unlike "My Fair Lady," which aside from the sumptuous costumes is almost completely housebound and has almost no choreography or vim approaching "Mary Poppins"'s level; only the Covent Garden "morning scene" and the gloriously over-the-top costumes of the racetrack scene rival anything for the imagination on display in "Poppins."

However, many moviegoers when looking back at the early 60's don't look at any of the big, splashy period musicals--they go straight to the black-and-white, shot-on-the-fly "A Hard Day's Night," which almost explodes off the screen with the Beatles' energy and youth. And it was only eight years later that Bob Fosse set the bar even higher with "Cabaret." (Hope you've seen that one!) Musicals, even more than comedies or action films, are tricky beasts to compare, based on the style of music, the eras in which they are made, and the "realness" factor (or lack thereof--how often do people burst into song on the street?).

July 18, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterDback

I'm not sure I can choose a specific shot, but my favorite scene in the movie is George Banks walking to the bank at night and passing the cathedral on the way out, underscored by Feed the Birds. I always thought David Tomlinson was incredibly underrated in this movie (his George Banks is the story's protagonist after all, which is why the climax scene involves him). Tomlinson says it all with his face and even though it might be obvious what we're seeing, it's a powerful moment.

Also, I think that scene that Time chose for his Best Shot is Julie Andrews' Oscar clip, or at least it should be. I also love her line reading of "What would happen to me, may I ask, if I loved all the children I said goodbye to?" Such a brilliant line, because it gives us a glimpse into how lonely it must be to be Mary Poppins. We may not get a backstory on her (which, like everyone, I'm happy we don't, she's only practically perfect as long as she remains a mystery, vanity and all), but it works so well because we get a feeling for who she is, if not how she got there. To me that's what elevates Andrews' performance from perfect characterization to Oscar-level. She gives Poppins an inner life....

By the way, the Mary Poppins show has been running here in Mexico with Bianca Marroquín as Mary Poppins (Nat, have you heard of her? She was Roxie Hart on Broadway until not too long ago), so this story has been coming back to me in a big way. The play is somewhat more explicit about its themes and has a couple of new songs that feel incredibly on the nose, but it still maintains the cheeky charm of the movie and Poppins remains a mystery, just the way we like her.

July 18, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterRichter Scale

I love this movie so much. When I was young, the Disney Channel showed great Disney classics like MP, Swiss Family Robinson, 20000 Leagues, The Parent Trap over and over and over. And I couldn't get enough! These movies stand the test of time - my children love them as much as I did.

July 18, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterSawyer

My best shot is Mary, Banks children and Bert walking up the smoke staircase.

July 18, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterSawyer

Dback, I'm not a fan of OLIVER! or MY FAIR LADY for similar reasons. I haven't watched GIGI because I fear that one, too. I don't like THE SOUND OF MUSIC either, but that's for different reasons altogether.

I *love* artificiality in musicals (hell, in films in general) and realness has never been a factor that, but it basically just all looked so dusty and unexciting compared to what had come earlier. Plus, I actually found the Americanised version of England to be quite off-putting. Dick Van Dyke especially. My family is ol' fashioned cockney and they don't like Mary Poppins either. I *love* WSS, Funny Girl, Cabaret... I just can't quite jive to the child-eyed sweetness of this one. I found it neither charming nor cute, but grating and cloying.

July 18, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterGlenn

Oh Glenn, definitely hit "Gigi." Chunks of it were also shot on location in Paris, which definitely gives it a special sparkle (although you can't miss the matte painting during "I Remember It Well"). But the story, being adapted from Colette, has some definite bite to it and some very sharp lines, as well as a rather unflinching look at what life might be like for a girl with few options who doesn't WANT to be a courtesan. (Well, there is a happy ending, but along the way Grandmama and Aunt Alicia have some pretty acidic exchanges--to say nothing of Eva Gabor's character, who apparently keeps trying to commit suicide and the Parisians mostly treat it as a delicious joke.)

Oddly, "Mary Poppins" and "Gigi" were two of the only VHS tapes my high school library had that were films, not documentaries, so on occasion I would hide out in the video room and watch them over and over after school, so in my mind they're inextricably linked. :) Funny that we're having this conversation some 25 years later!

July 18, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterDback

I am reeling and rolling in joy over the loverly accolades Julie's getting in these posts. She is one of the most underrated actresses ever, and has been snubbed for BA several times. As Nathan has astutely noted previously, she makes it all look so damn easy that she doesn't get the credit to which she's entitled. I have read so many historians' comments that Julie did not deserve this Oscar. Well, that's a big pile of penguin feces. Not only is she a brilliant actress, but a lot of the time she's doing it while she's singing. The ability to express honest emotion while singing is almost nonexistent in the cinema...but Julie does it; hell, she does it everytime she's on screen.

July 18, 2013 | Unregistered Commenterbrookesboy

I am reeling and rolling in joy over the loverly accolades Julie's getting in these posts. She is one of the most underrated actresses ever, and has been snubbed for BA several times. As Nathan has astutely noted previously, she makes it all look so damn easy that she doesn't get the credit to which she's entitled. I have read so many historians' comments that Julie did not deserve this Oscar. Well, that's a big pile of penguin feces. Not only is she a brilliant actress, but a lot of the time she's doing it while she's singing. The ability to express honest emotion while singing is almost nonexistent in the cinema...but Julie does it; hell, she does it everytime she's on screen.

July 18, 2013 | Unregistered Commenterbrookesboy

My best shot is Julie Andrews singing SUPERCALIFRAGILISTICEXPIALIDOCIOUS - nobody else could sing it as beautifully as she did, with such energy, enthusiasm and great sense of humor- besides speaking the word backwards! A second best shot is when she first appears - first flying, and then entering the house, looking so self confident and determined. How gorgeous, elegant and magnificent Julie Andrews is!

July 20, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterWaldemar Lopes

Most beautiful lady from my view..

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