In essence, magical nanny-of-the-ether Mary Poppins (played by the incomparable Julie Andrews) schools Mr. Banks, ahem, on the meaning of life, turning his “orderly” world upside down, and revealing to him in the process just how misplaced are his priorities.
The age of men!
At the beginning of the movie, Mr. Banks couldn’t imagine such a reversal, seeing himself on top of the world, rightly and justly reigning in “the age of men.” As actor David Tomlinson — superb as Banks — sings about his life, and his presumed beneficence, “I’m the lord of my castle, the sov’reign, the liege! I treat my subjects: servants, children, wife, With a firm but gentle hand. Noblesse Oblige!…Ah Lordly is the life I lead.”
Where would his family, and the future of England be without him?
Declaring his wife, who doubles by day as a women’s rights activist, incompetent at managing her children’s nannies, Mr. Banks vows to find a new nanny, one who is disciplined, who will run their home like a CEO runs a bank. Interestingly, he calls for the rule of law in that, else the world descend into chaos.
In seeking a new nanny, Banks dictates to his wife:
A British nanny must be a general!
The future empire lies within her hands
And so the person that we need to mold the breed
Is a nanny who can give commands!
Mr Banks: Are you getting this Winifred?
Mrs Banks: Oh yes dear, every word…
A British bank is run with precision
A British home requires nothing less!
Tradition, discipline, and rules must be the tools
Without them – disorder!
Anarchy – In short you have a ghastly mess!
Wall Street, take note.
His children, however, want someone a little more flexible. Writing their own advert for the position, the children declare about a nanny that, among more playful hopes, “If you won’t scold and dominate us, We will never give you cause to hate us.”
Their father is unconvinced. After sending them off to bed, he rips their ad to shreds and tosses it into the fire, where it, by some supernatural “change in the weather,” makes its way onto the wind.
And so enter Mary Poppins, the perfect combination of sobriety, discipline, order, obedience, playfulness, charm, intellect and above all, love.
Popping in and out of chalk pavement pictures
Befuddling Banks from the instant she arrives, Mary Poppins goes straight to work in running the nursery with Banks’s brand of precision. Yet she doesn’t forsake imagination or playfulness in the bargain.
Seeing children as children, and not as pint-sized adults, Poppins allows plenty of time for the development of the human spirit to shine, with its natural inclusiveness and generosity. Taking them on a daily adventure to match their youthful perspectives, she indulges in laughter, tea parties, kite flying, and the world of illusion, symbolized by the imagination’s ability to pop into and out of chalk pavement pictures without distinguishing between the world of “reality” and the world of “non-reality.”
And the moral of the story is…
Essentially telling the story of how people and experiences are more important than money, stature, and blinding self-importance, the film also covers women’s suffrage, the plight of the working class, and the role of the poor in society with the song “Feed the Birds, Tuppence a Bag.”
Using Mr. Banks’s arguments against him, Poppins turns him into the one who frees himself from a life that works on the surface, but not underneath. And with her simple openness to the variety of life, she symbolizes the need for love, connection, and imagination in enjoying existence outside the rigid societal box we’ve crafted.
The rest of the characters help her do that.
The time-keeping, cannon-firing Admiral Boom provides delicious foreshadowing of financial and familial trouble ahead that’s, as he would put it, “bang on the dot.”
Throughout the movie the Admiral’s commentary on the “rough weather” at the Banks’ Cherry Lane home reveals power’s finger on the pulse of the nation. The Admiral knows what’s what, but in part only so he can maintain the even more rigid order found in military discipline. Calling the “Step in Time” spirit of the chimney-sweeps the work of “cheeky beggars” and “Hottentots,” the Admiral brings the force of the naval canons on the sweeps to “give ‘em what for!”
Symbolizing the reliable but under-appreciated working class, the chimney sweeps perform one of the best men’s dances ever to be committed to film, with the agile comic actor Dick van Dyke leading the crew. At once showing their dirty appearance, fun-loving nature, larger numbers and organizing power, the chimney sweeps sing of their unity and call for “votes for women,” suggesting the common bond between various groups of the dispossessed — workers, women, children.
Money talks, and Banks walks
But perhaps its most telling song for today’s society and economy is the tune “Fidelity, Fiduciary Bank,” the song sung by Mr. Banks’s colleagues at the Dawes, Tomes, Mousley, Grubbs Bank in an effort to part young Michael Banks from his tuppence.
When you deposit tuppence in a bank account
Soon you’ll see
That it blooms into credit of a generous amount
And you’ll achieve that sense of stature
As your influence expands
To the high financial strata
That established credit now commands
You can purchase first and second trust deeds
Think of the foreclosures!
Bonds! Chattels! Dividends! Shares!
Bankruptcies! Debtor sales!
All manner of private enterprise!
See a video here:
But Michael isn’t convinced and the boy doesn’t want to join the bank’s “joyful family of investors” or part with his money. Instead he wants to feed it to the birds. When he tries to take his tuppence back from the greedy bankers, his pleas to “give me back my money,” causes a run on the bank, and its collapse, putting Mr. Banks out of a job.
In his “descent” to joblessness, Mr. Banks wavers between laughing and crying. Figuring there’s nothing left to say but the nonsense word “Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious,” Banks settles on a kind of enlightened laughter.
In this liberating nod to primal freedom, Banks finally gets it that work, however necessary, is an iron cage when its purpose is disconnected from one’s life force, and from the joy of life. All of the sudden he wants to go fly a kite, to play with his kids, to hug his wife instead of order her about, and to laugh laughs long suppressed under the pressure of a manly, orderly existence.
This classic movie offers myriad themes to discuss across a range of ages. It’s just dripping with potent symbolism of a world about to be turned upside down. Perfect for families who enjoy lively conversation. And perfect for societies that have had enough with a soulless paradigm.
–Lindsay Curren, Lindsay’s List