Analysing Mr Banks

The role of Mr Banks is central to Mary Poppins. This is the message of “Saving Mr Banks” but it is not necessarily the original message of the 1964 film and a good deal of re-packaging has gone on which, of course, has continued into the making of “Mary Poppins Returns”. It is not Banks who is central to the film but the bricolage of liberal Christianity and new technology. Banks is incidental.

The original Mary Poppins was set in the depression, at the time when the film sequel takes place. But Travers’ was not writing a piece of nostalgia. Her book has a contemporary feel about it because it was written in 1934, slap-bang in the period in which it is set even if she was to revise some of the characters later in 1967. Disney’s choice of pushing the setting back into Edwardian England has elements of whimsey to it, but it serves to make an interesting comment on the period from 1961-1964 when the film was in production. Mr Banks sets himself up as a model of the new economy, in a man’s world; he will also go on later to extol the virtues of Imperial commerce. But there is irony in his virtues as his world is will collapse in the war. His stiff-upper lip and patriarchal values are also directly challenged by Mary Poppins’ mixture of practical self-reliance and her virtues of helping the poor, responding to odd emergencies (even if that puts the day’s fish-mongering on hold) as well as honest escapism.

In America, the certainties of Eisenhower have given way to the Kennedy’s assassination and the rise of a flower-power revolt against Vietnam. Disney found a way to make a family film that implicitly questioned power and bizarrely reflected the age in which it was made. If Banks was blinded by jingoism, America was blinded by a Cold War ideology and a belief that it was still engaged in a conventional conflict that could be won.

More than that, Mary Poppins promoted change. At a time when the big studios were failing, Disney offered itself as the studio of innovation, developing a new travelling matte process to better any on offer in Hollywood, as well as providing a fresh take on genre when studio fare was stagnating. Disney mixed musical and comedy (done before) with animation; it embraced tv, creating a film star out of the tv sensation that was Dick van Dyke; it also mixed a film for children with a high-budget ritzy road-show premiere, generating a merchandise bonanza in brochures, dolls, rugs, jigsaws, comic adaptations and LP records. As a result of Mary Poppins, the bigscreen musicals had one last decade of success and the fantasy genre emerged out of both the new technology together with the Disney chutzpah of pumping millions into what would earlier have been dismissed as children’s entertainment. There would be no Star Wars were it not for Mary Poppins.

Mary Poppins also drew on a new form of Christianity ushered in by the pontificates of John XXIII and Paul VI and the Second Vatican Council. the new Christianity of personal freedom and social transformation are clear in Mary Poppins the Disney film. This is a film where the religious message transforms or irradiates the world.

The film opens with Mary Poppins seated on a cloud. The iconography is slightly undermined by rehashing an old Disney joke – the umbrella sinking into the cloud which is a visual borrowed from 1941’s Dumbo. She will call herself “practically perfect”, the Immaculate conception. Other women have succumbed to sin, she has not. Like Mary, she ushers in a new age, blowing away the nannies of the past.

Mary’s freedom is not without rules. She promotes personal responsibility (as in Mary Poppins Returns: “cleaning is not a spectator sport”) and whether work or play, everything is didactic. As with St Therese of Lisieux, one of the saints particularly promoted by the new Popes, the little acts of kindness, the incidental process of tidying up, what she calls “mundane acts of love.., the nothingness of here and now may be transformed into fire.” But there is more to Mary’s freedom. It is something that she presides over, but essentially again and again, it is the children, Bert, the domestics and so on, who are actually transformed by doing something. This is the laity in action, the message promoted by people like Francis of Assisi. It was also the ideology of Vatican II.

FRANCIS giotto copy by TIM.JPG

The film shows gives us a vision of a society that is accessible, that is on the edge of the sublime, that is in transformation, where reality is constantly tinged with fantasy. Finding God is about finding one another. there is a dissolve between the cathedral and Mary Poppins herself during the Feed the Birds song that sums up the message I think Disney was going for. The Christian message is transcendent and immanent at the same time. It is both architectural and personal. Mary emerges in this transition as a quasi-icon and if we wonder why only saints and apostles are mentioned in the song- and not angels too. Well, in this instance, Mary is the angel or at least the voice of an angel.

Francis is also there in the joy and music that surround Mary Poppins. He is there in the conversations with animals and particularly in the imagery conjured up in the song “Feed the Birds” which links the two themes- the stewardship of nature and at the same time, helping the poor.

Money is significant in the plot. Tuppence is used 4 times, first to feed the birds, then to invest in the bank, the foundation of capitalism and the Imperial vision George Banks has already given us at the start of the film, then it is redemptive when the children give their father the tuppence (the widow’s mite) and finally the tuppence is given to Mr Dawes as an apparent rejection of capitalism (Mark 12:17- render unto Caesar). The tuppence emerges again, of course, in “Mary Poppins Returns” as an improbable bit of economic magic, and a gentle dig at the parable of the talents.

When Winnifred joins the family again, and ties her banner to the kite, she is not really rejecting one life and taking up another. She is combining the two, and might even be anticipating liberation theology. This vacillation also proves to be the case with her husband too. His attempted rejection of mammon in the bank is thwarted by the death of old man Dawes and an opening for a new partner in the bank.

Mary leaves by talking umbrella, but she does not simply ascend. Instead, she travels across a london landscape like the spirit of manifest destiny spreading a little progress as she goes. The angel in the famous painting by John Gast was trailing an electricity cable- and no doubt Mary Poppins is leaving us a brighter form of technicolour.

“Don’t stay away too long” calls Bert. During production, Hitchcock was already using her technology to film key scenes in The Birds.

 

 

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Mary Mary quite contrary

Quite apart from the fact that she is first seen floating around on a cloud, the imagery of Mary Poppins is loaded with intense Christian symbolism. I was awoken last night by the sudden thought that “Feed the Birds” is fundamentally religious and the centre of the film itself. It is a metaphor of hope and love and she is still on the steps of St Paul’s as Jack speeds past in the opening song of “Mary Poppins Returns”. Richard Sherman says “He [Walt Disney] loved that song and knew it was the heartbeat of the whole movie”. He adds that it was “deeply spiritual.”

It is a song set around the Cathedral of St Paul’s with reference to the “Saints and Apostles” as well as references to charity/agape/caritas. But the image of the bird is loaded with more significance than twitter: the bird is not only a symbol of peace in a troubled world, it is the Holy spirit, the paraclete or comforter who remains with us after the ascension.

To check the significance of the “feed the birds” scene, I listened to the score again today- the composers open the film with the tune and it is this tune that underscores the sunset reflection before the children, Bert and Mary descend from their vision of London. It is played also as Tomlinson walks towards the bank to be sacked. It is the thoughtful heart of “Mary Poppins”.

Here’s a quick summary of the main religious features of Poppins.

1) She is a Virgin Mary figure, equipped even with the same name. The imagery of “white witch” which Travers provides is all but excised by Disney.

2) Her divine arrival (and later ascension) by umbrella on the East wind (matthew 24:27), her simple costume and nun-like demeanor; her poverty (she carries her life in a carpet bag that is apparently empty); her magic acts which are there to reassure the children that their belief in her is worthy. (like miracles); she consorts with the working class (chimney sweeps); she is led by her heart rather than by considerations of money.

3) She is victimised by the father who accuses her without reason (like Judas or the High Priest if she represents Christ, but simply recalling the gossipers who worried about her speedy pregnancy and questioned the legitimacy of Christ’s birth.) She turns dirt into hope and takes the Children from the fireplace/chimney/hell? upwards to a vision of London- “the whole world at your feet.” There is even a moment of communion over spoons of magical medicine (a few years’ later, the Scaffold did a song about “medicinal compound- most efficacious in every way”).

julie-andrews

4) She is not the prophet or the saviour- she points instead to others- in this case to the bird woman (Jane Darwell) who is surrounded by a nimbus on the steps of st pauls; but positive changes come over the whole household (beginning with the cook and maid)

5) She takes the children (and Bert) into an enriched vision of the world- an iconic landscape. A window into heaven, first in a chalk pavement picture and later in seeing reality transformed as the sun sets over the chimneys of London. Certainly enough for some serious thoughts about the theology of the icon as presented by St John of Damascus! When the children emerge from both ecstatic visions, they have a tendency to shake hands indiscriminately and use nonsense words – is this a reference to glossalalia?

Most importantly, the birds’ song recall the birds and lillies of Matthew 6:24-34

Pictures inspired by MARY POPPINS RETURNS

maxresdefault-e1537202370488Here are some sketches from watching the trailer of Mary Poppins returns along with two youtube links-

marypoppins 2 by TIM.jpg

Julie Walters plays Ellen

marypoppins 1 by TIM

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Mary Poppins provides some specific parenting advice- that a smooth house is based on order, that mavericks need a system which can be broken with some care- Mary Poppins is essentially two people- the disciplinarian and the mischievous fairy- when there is a clash she simply refuses to explain or denies that anything odd has ever happened. “Or I’ll call a policeman”. It is harder to pull off as an average mortal, but all children need both the boundaries and the experience of breaking those boundaries. I think it also helps if children have a wider circle of trustworthy adults they can consult, especially when things go wrong. The family sadly does not have all the answers all the time.

There is a similar wealth of good advice in Mrs Doubtfire.

 

robin_williams_
robin williams

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I love the “Step in Time” tribute in the trailers and also the 2d animation sequence.

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here is a picture of Mary Poppins’ arrival:

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