Wednesday, August 11, 2010

The 100 Best Movies: #11

11. Mary Poppins (1964)

Walt Disney had proven over and over that his studio was the best at animated feature films and in 1950 the studio produced its first live-action film with Robert Louis Stevenson's Treasure Island. After multiple successes that ranged from adventures (like Treasure Island and 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea) to heartwarming dramas (like Old Yeller and Pollyanna) to even screwball comedies (like The Shaggy Dog and The Absent-Minded Professor), Disney wanted to try his hand at a live-action musical. He had been in love with P. L. Travers' storybooks about the magical nanny and the adventures she has with her wards since the 1930's (when he broke ground in animation). But Ms. Travers was very wary of film studio politics and refused to waive creative control. After years of painstaking negotiations, he finally got the chance to make Travers' Mary Poppins adventures a film reality. The crucial part then became casting. Once he saw Broadway star Julie Andrews in the great Lerner and Loewe musical Camelot in 1960, Disney knew he had found his "Mary." Even though she told him she wanted to wait to hear from Jack Warner if he would allow her to repeat her stage triumph in the film version of My Fair Lady, Disney insisted, promising he would wait for her to be available. Warner never called (more on that later in the countdown!), and the rest is part of the House of Mouse's (and American film) history.

Andrews was "practically perfect in every way" in the titular role of the nanny who could do anything with the snap of her fingers (literally!). Set in London in 1910, the Banks family household is in upheaval. The father (the charming David Tomlinson) is always working at the Bank of London. The mother (the enchanting Glynis Johns) is always off at Suffragette meetings and rallies. The household staff (Disney character actors Hermione Baddeley and Reta Shaw) are too busy to pay attention to the children. And the most recent nanny (Elsa Lanchester in a great cameo) has just quit. In order to help their parents, Jane and Michael (Karen Dotrice and Matthew Garber, respectively) write up an advertisement for a new nanny: "One with a cheery disposition." Enter Mary Poppins and she shows the children a world of magic and heart all at the same time, to the chagrin of the stalwart father. Poppins is helped by her jack-of-all-trades beau, Bert (Dick Van Dyke in an endearing, if albeit dreadfully accented, performance). This film was one of my favorites to watch as a child. I knew every line, every scene and every song by heart, backwards and forwards. And what a song score! The Sherman Brothers were Disney's best in-house songwriters and their score for this movie included their best numbers (like "A Spoonful of Sugar," "Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious," "Jolly Holiday," "Feed the Birds" and the Oscar-winning "Chim-Chim-Cheroo"). It was a gamble that paid off becoming a massive success for the Disney studio (despite Ms. Travers' reservations, which subsided when she saw the box-office royalties) and won multiple Oscars including Best Actress for Julie Andrews (in a bit of sweet revenge, but more on that later!).

Next Post: #10

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