My great-uncle was crazy about the Disney movie “Mary Poppins.” So much so that he went to see it again and again. (It came out in 1964, long before videotapes and VCRs brought movies into people’s homes on their own schedule.) At first I did not understand why he, a man of advanced years, was such a big fan of a kiddie movie. As time passed, I began to get it.
In “Mary Poppins,” the British Edwardian time period is pictured as idyllic. That brief ten years after Queen Victoria died and before her eldest son also died (King Edward VII inherited the throne at age 59) has often been romanticized as a last moment of innocence, especially if one is an Anglophile. One pictures genteel young girls and boys being raised on great estates, imbibing healthy country air and memorizing lines from “Alice in Wonderland” and the Romantic poets. Which they did, before the Great War, aka World War I, dragged them all into the gritty reality of the 20th century.
The world of “Mary Poppins” is pre-war, but not truly aristocratic. The father is solidly middle class, not a gentleman of leisure. And he is oppressed by his job at a stuffy bank that takes his time from his family, usually with his complicity but not entirely. He eventually realizes that he is missing out on his children, but he sees no way of changing things. Does this sound like the lament of the middle-class American organization man of the 1960s? It should.
Meanwhile, the mother is played as rather frothy and silly, and part of that silliness is her campaigning for votes for women. When I first saw this movie, I thought Disney had it in for women because the mother is pretty consistently mocked. And she only gets one gown to wear, a far cry from the elaborate wardrobe of a fashionable city lady. On both counts, I think I was right; the mother gets slighted. Probably because she isn’t obsessively maternal in the American manner. This mother hires a nanny, and goes off to her own entertainments, while Mary Poppins, the super nanny, gives the children plenty of structure and fun in their lives. Hmm…what did this mean? Probably that Mother Should Stay at Home, a very typical message in America in the 1960s. (Heavy-handed and pointless disapproval, nonetheless. A movie wasn’t going to stop the rising tide of feminism.)
So, the parents are distant, the father irritable and the mother amiable. The neglected children are running wild until Mary Poppins brings order and fun to their lives. Mary Poppins pays attention. Mary Poppins knows lots of interesting people. Mary Poppins insists on rules. Thereupon, the children begin to fully enjoy their lovely life. And it is a very good life indeed: They live in a nice house on an exceptionally clean street, there are servants, and the children’s lives are full of safe little adventures. That is, once Mary Poppins shows them around. Think of her as the gifted teacher who opens a child’s eyes to literature, drama, or history.
And as a final bit of education, Mary Poppins shows the children that their father has a heart. And that while he plays the autocrat at home, at work he has to kowtow to bosses. Armed with the new concept that their father is a real person who has feelings, and that their mother is even willing to give up her entertainments to be part of a closer family unit (she puts her suffragette ribbon on their kite), the children are ready to safely cross over from completely self-involved childhood into the next stage of maturity.
But the majority of the movie, and the reason my uncle watched it again and again, is the depiction of the fun and games of a safe childhood. The movie successfully recreates an idyllic moment in youth, and pegs it to a romanticized period in history. It must have reminded my uncle about his own youth, and of all the promise of being young and having a future. Before the World War changed the culture. Before the worldwide flu epidemic killed his sister. Before he discovered he wasn’t brave enough to face his family’s disapproval and marry the actress he loved.
“Mary Poppins” speaks to any child who gets cranky from lack of parental attention but who also really just needs a little bit of it to be fine, ready to start off on another safe adventure. But “Mary Poppins” also speaks to any weary adult who would like to see the world as safe and pleasant, filled with good people, fun, and love. It is a romantic movie in the sense that ordinary life is viewed with rose-colored glasses. Magical things keep happening. Fantasy is put on an even standing with reality. Life is filled with possibilities. And aren’t these elements the core of romance? Possibilities? Magic? Optimism?
Romance isn’t so much about sexual attraction as it is about hope. That’s why this movie meant for children, whose adults behave in a completely chaste manner throughout, is nevertheless a strongly romantic movie. In creating a mood of romantic optimism, “Mary Poppins” is practically perfect in every way.