With yet another live-action update of a Disney classic searching for a port in the storm this past weekend, I wanted to take the opportunity to review the beginning of the Disney live-action project. Not the for-real beginning proper, mind you, but the first time a live-action Disney film meant much more than a paycheck.
Disney Studios’ live-action film division was more or less a fifteen year old bastard child in 1964, a comic sans rebuttal to the commercial floundering of the company’s proud, boldface animated films. It’s no secret that most of the earliest Disney animations, perpetually misfiring box office affairs that typically left the company in a state of near implosion, were pet projects of Mr. Disney himself, much to the chagrin of his inner cold-hearted capitalist. His inner child and his cutthroat business man were always at odds, and, in the ‘50s, the carefree, easy-to-produce live-action films essentially slid into the role occupied in the ‘40s by the animated package films: cheapies meant to tide the company over while Walt ushered out all the money as quickly as it went in, perpetually striving to finance whatever his latest personal fascination was.
Essentially, the live-action films were artistic afterthoughts, more or less the microwavable box office conquerors, or at least box office dependables, an ancillary obelisk of money the company stood on and conscripted while chasing genuine art, ever to their corporate mortification. Near the end of Walt Disney’s life, though, something in the water changed, and the steady stream of mild, indifferent live action trifles exploded at the box office once, and maybe only once, just in time for Uncle Walt to see his company conquer the world one more time before his death. The accidental films of necessity had mutated, briefly, into the company’s raison d’ etre. For a little while, animation would cease being the company’s animating principle.
The film in question was Mary Poppins, and now that this picture is considered required reading for Childhood 101, it’s excusable to pass over how shocking it was in 1964 that Walt Disney himself was immersing himself in a live-action Disney film in hopes of melting the hearts of the masses. But in 1964 this level of handicraft to the live-action Disney edifice was anything but expected. Sure, the film is sacrosanct now (as we can tell from Saving Mr. Banks, which smoothes over the rough shrapnel of the battle between the film’s head creators). But in 1964, it was essentially the first live-action film Disney himself had exerted any effort toward at all, the first one meant to incarnate that brew of wistful romanticism and artistic experimentation typically reserved for the animated features.
More or less retaining the toppest of top soil structures from the series of PL Travers books upon which the film is based, the idea may be the same, but everything else, especially the temper of the film, is redistricted toward the needs of the Disney machine. Although mystical netherworld nanny extraordinaire Mary Poppins (Julie Andrews) still massages the wealthy Burns children into shape (now with the help of her … let’s call him partner Bert (Dick Van Dyke)), the tenor of Travers’ famously prickly piece is now a salve for the children in Papa Disney’s unmistakably soothing tones. A slightly watery salve as well; Poppins isn’t immune to the foibles of either of its two genres. A mid-film excursion to the two dimensional realm is slightly compromised by the scratchy Xerox animation style the company was in an exclusive relationship with around this time. And, on the musical front, the 140 minute runtime that pushes the film beyond the margins of acceptable decency is the most common source of animosity toward the ever-ballooning run times of American cinema in the ‘60s.
But the flaws also stimulate other wellsprings of beauty out of the film, in this case beauty of the tarnished, tested, and politicized variety. The shipwrecked length only abets the winds of messiness to carry the film toward glimpses, secrets even, of social upheaval; without the distended length, we wouldn’t have time for the feints toward fatalistic Western economics and gender relationships that populate the film, glimpsed as glimmers that won’t gift themselves fully to us. It’s much like a child (or two) catching a flutter of worldly woe on their way to adventure. In fact, in Mary Poppins, it’s exactly that.
But we’ll get to the turmoil of the real world in a bit. First, adventure, and how! Lavish but bespoke, Poppins’ slightly maddened adventures are boldface but variegate, prismatically wafting from impressionistic near-watercolors to childrens’ paintings to soot-caked London otherworlds where capitalist fog becomes something to acknowledge and pervert rather than merely overlook. Filmed in gratifying medium and wide shots rather than close-ups that might circumscribe the imagery and brazen defiance of reality, director Robert Stevenson doesn’t exhibit a rapturous command of the visual lexicon, but he organizes the screen like clockwork.
And he makes room for a sense of real-world place, and real-world conflict, without which the film might have mushroomed into a syrupy husk of grotesque sweetness. Sure, Edward Colman’s cinematography can abstract itself into proto-pop-art flavored glory, but it also retains a faded texture that slithers us into the surprising mordant melancholy of a nominally high-flying production that actually tackles questions of social role-playing, gender roles, and the public-private divide. The same applies to the cabal of art directors and Tony Walton’s exploratory costume design, both of which stimulate a pastel-infused, fictive London where outré fantasy is but a perceptual shift away. But they do so without sabotaging the forlorn, slightly tattered world beneath the vistas, intimating the harsher, more ambivalent textures of the politicking that erects such a cheery façade to cover its tracks.
In Poppins’ hands though, cheery facades can not only mask social tension but overturn, or reconfigure it. Divinely played as an amalgam of feminine and masculine features by Julie Andrews, an actress who impales us with glances in every scene, Poppins awakens a reckless lightning bolt of vitality in the production. More than that, she brandishes a philosophy of folding carefree jest and stoic steadfastness, work and play, into one another, such that the capitalist boundaries between the two are no longer rigid. Her relationship with Bert creates a kind of impromptu stepparent construct for the children, reaffirming Disney’s cherished nuclear family but also slackening the nuclear grip by unbottling ecstasy while also bottling away romance. Love more or less irrelevant for the two, Poppins and Bert certainly form of sort of satire of parental relationships, a duo who pull life out of a handbag but don’t subject happiness and passion to the traditional, unmalleable edict of male and female romantic love found in most every other Disney film.
Although some boundaries cannot be nullified in a Disney film, this impromptu couple dissolves as many walls as they upkeep. Trumpeting a sort of personal fluidity – the ability to freewheel from quixotic imagination to hard-luck pragmatism – the couple seemingly can be anything. Even Bert’s two dollar cockney accent always threatening to unglue right in front of us repositions him as a fellow figment to his friend Poppins, like a mythic figure whisked in from America who can play any part, be it chimney sweep, street musician, or a Brit.
Strict and old-fashioned but modernist and assertive, subject to whims and digressions but never losing sight of the trouble afoot, and generally letting loose cunning shards of dispassion toward the British elite and social propriety, Andrews’ Poppins is much like the film itself. The character is a totem to the film’s dialectic between syrup and spice (or medicine) that very much reflects the production battle between Travers, a prickly Australian-English woman of thorny wit and even venomous incisiveness, and Disney, a countrified round blob of saccharine self-esteem. Travers’ dignified sense of self-respect sculpted her into a cone pointed at Disney’s throat, a capricious angle rounded off with Mr. Disney’s trademark cuddliness. And the film bears the obvious disharmonious harmony of the two like a battle of fascinating counterpoints inflaming each other. Although bubbly, the film still retains a clipped, snarky element in Andrews’ collected portrayal of a woman unshackled from the world and masculine edicts, free to arrive on her own terms, liberated to flow in and out of the world, and not indebted to motherhood or any male. When she floats in, initially, the children ponder if she is “a witch”, and this indecorous woman, full of know-how and even cold metallic precision, certainly does disrupt classical notions of womanhood where the use value of women is dictated by their subservience to a man.
Throughout, the film intakes alarms of gender and class conflict, balancing the roaring, warming fire of the visuals with an imbalanced depiction of a world always askew with social shifts and the need for change. Poppins’ wind blows away the classical female types at the film’s onset, mutating the idea of childcare away from classical feminine subservience by introducing a dose of working-class imagination (and she and Bert are distinctly of a working class milieu, as opposed to the detached aristocratic types Mr. and Mrs. Burns). Exhibiting a reticence toward explaining herself and a casual command of Mr. Burns’ edicts (which she flips around and whisks to her liking rather than obeying), she negotiates questions of gender and class like a thorny corker of frivolity.
Mary Poppins doesn’t conclude with the titular character though. As a corollary, Mrs. Burns is unshackled from her children to emphasize her suffragette movement, to institute the social change that Poppins seems to embody in her very personality as an assertive woman sure of herself and vaguely introverted, as if her true identity is all her own (it’s not for nothing that one of the sharpest sequences, her and Bert alone with a group of animated penguins, is child free). Both of the biological parents harbor self-delusions; papa bear is an ineffectual banker hiding under ersatz notions of paternalism to assert his authority, and Mrs. Banks is publically assertive to cope with her acquiescent private life. Yet only Poppins, who dissolves traditional gender dichotomies, feels like a complete person, which is itself troubling. Mrs. Burns’ suffragette movement occasionally descends into parody, the film suggesting that public rights for women can buckle childhood development by forcing women to choose between the private and public sectors. The film’s answer, tentative though it may be, is Poppins, who casually dissolves public and private and opens up the channels of imagination so people can conceive of public work like suffrage to assert social good in the first place.
A little batty and a lot untidy, the gender roles are a knot, and unpacking them only knots them further, perhaps because, in this film, gender is more a weapon to be wielded for entertainment on a scene by scene basis than a cogent philosophy, the film supporting a broad reading but not a longform argument about the tensions between public and private life. Released in 1964, it’s perhaps fate that the film can’t massage out a stable perspective; the times were unstable after all, and the film’s attempts to engage with the nitty-gritty complications in political change of a shifting moral landscape undoubtedly produce a work unsure of itself, yet perhaps more lucidly self-aware and eye opening for that lack of assurance. Less prescribing an argument than describing a world in flux, uneasily stitched together, and altogether imbalanced, the film at least rescinds the obvious offer of equivocating Mr. Burns’ public bank work with Mrs. Burns’ suffragette movement. Mr. Burns capitalist turmoil is distinctly the moral concern here, the film asking him to spend more time with his children; Mrs. Burns public life as a suffragette has consequences (the need for external parents for the kids), but consequences the film suggests are ultimately necessary for the moral good of women’s rights.
A slightly too-manicured world it may be then, but although you wouldn’t call it disobedient, the film remains a fascinatingly hybridized kaleidoscope between the boisterous wide-set musical of the early ‘60s, the animated lightning bolt vitality that was Disney’s speciality, and an oddly conflicted social treatise. If the film dazzles, which it does, it is only to cast light into darkness, not to elide or conquer the darkness, but simply to glimpse it. The shimmering visuals fluttering from Technicolor brilliance to a more overcast mire that requires cleansing, this diamond is not only radiant but a prism for refracting social perspectives, shifting glances of social roles, and innocence and hard-won social change compromised by fallout and consequence. Fittingly, it’s a two-fer of sugar and medicine, the former casual sweetness mollifying the life-lessons of the latter, and the latter bulking up and undercutting the sugar by sliding in near-clandestine fears the children feel toward adulthood, a world of compromises and unfulfilled expectations. If a spoonful of sugar mutates into medicine of its own, the medicine itself also buttresses the sugar with spice and grit.
Although a flamboyant fantasia, then, the film also bears the homey, refractory quality of a cabinet of curiosities more than a rainbow; the beauty is always a lens for the world, the caricature always cutlery into the soul. The overall tone is a restless tenderness, with the Sherman Brothers’ divine songs like “Chim Chim Cheree” revealing melancholic, even disenchanted imagination as a necessity to cope with worldly strife, and, also, to furnish an understanding of that strife. While Mary and Bert are singing and modeling parenthood or platonic friendship seemingly untroubled by love (although Bert intimates otherwise in one particularly sly lyric), the obelisk of male patriarchy comes crashing down in this lovely tarnished beauty.
And suddenly, rather than nagging little perennials like the travelling circus, the live-action department was now the big tent. Animation wasn’t dead, but the company’s only surefire achievement throughout the decade was the peppy One Hundred and One Dalmatians which managed to kill Disney’s slumbering pretensions with a jazzy, modernist punch of naughty, perverse tuneage and scraggly steel wool animation like a beat-era pencil sketch. But The Sword and the Stone mined similar territory for lesser results, without the conceptual clarity of matching a jazzy setting to the rougher, improvisational animation. After that, The Jungle Book didn’t have a clue how to marry its foreground characters to its backgrounds, and the bottom fell out on The Aristocrats and Robin Hood, two of the drowsiest, most artistically impoverished Disney animated films ever released. It feels like sacrilege to suggest that Disney’s acme throughout the entire ‘60s, a tumultuous decade in the world and cinema, was a live-action feature. Until you watch the feature, and the word “sacrilege” fades from your memory to make room for more pressing vocabulary like “supercalifragilisticexpialidocious”. It needs the room.