Wednesday, July 17, 2013

Hit Me With Your Best Shot: Mary Poppins (1964)

*This post is in participation with The Film Experience's Hit Me With Your Best Shot.*

One thing that I've loved about Hit Me With Your Best Shot is the opportunity to revisit films that I haven't seen in ages, especially films from my childhood (such as Beauty and the Beast or Fantasia). Obviously, at such a young age, I wasn't thinking critically about these films; "mise en scene" was nowhere near being in my vocabulary. But I have fond memories of enjoying this films, and on most of these rewatches, I've found myself enjoying them even more for their cinematic qualities beyond those that captured my young imagination.

This week's selection is another of those childhood favorites: Mary Poppins, Disney's classic movie musical based on P.L. Travers' books about a magical nanny who comes in to mend the fractured Banks family in Edwardian London. The film was apparently a passion project for Walt Disney, and was notoriously hated by the books' author (as will be documented in the upcoming film Saving Mr. Banks). For decades it was Disney's most successful live-action film, before Johnny Depp swaggered his way onto a pirate ship and launched a franchise that may never die.

But before we get to discussing the film itself, we need to take a look at the film's Oscar history. It was the only feature film Disney himself produced to score a Best Picture nomination, and to date it remains the studio's only live-action Best Picture nominee. 1964 saw a battle between two major studio musicals: this film and My Fair Lady, with the latter being the ultimate champion (interestingly, Julie Andrews only took the role of Mary Poppins after she was passed over for Audrey Hepburn as Eliza Doolittle). Both films together saw two of, in my book, the greatest snubs in Oscar history. Hepburn missed out on a Best Actress nomination, though no one but Andrews should have won the award (and in her film debut too!). She gives a fantastic performance: even though she maintains her distance from the children, she gives Mary Poppins (you must say the full name, after all) some subtle grace notes that show how much affection she has for them. It truly stands as the best work of her career.

The other, and more egregious, snub, came from this film: Dick Van Dyke missing a nomination for his tour de force performance as chimneysweep/chalk artist/kite salesman/one-man band/sidekick Bert (you could probably argue his is a lead role, but I personally would err on the side of supporting, since he's absent for long stretches of the film). Of course his British accent is atrocious, though I'm almost certain that was intentional. Van Dyke was at the top of his comedic game at the time, and he turned in an incredible, hilarious performance that never undercuts the authority of the Banks parents nor Mary Poppins. Indeed, he makes the role of sidekick - for that's what he essentially is to Mary Poppins, one-half of a team - seem not only noble but enormously entertaining, which is no easy feat. And this is to say nothing of the fact that he also played Mr. Dawes, Sr., in full old-age makeup. It's stunning to me that he was passed over (especially since this was a time when strong comedic work wasn't routinely ignored by the Academy, the way it often is today). 

Though it would be easy to make this a post all about how terrific Andrews and Van Dyke are, but since this is supposed to be about the "best shot," I want to highlight some unsung heroes of the film: director Robert Stevenson, director of photography Edward Colman, and the entire art department. A large part of the film's success rests on its imaginative visuals, particularly in scenes that mix live-action with animation. The film was shot entirely on soundstages in Burbank, California, making those painted London backdrops all the more impressive. Just see for yourself how beautiful these backdrops are:

(my choice for Best Shot)

Stevenson, at this point, had become the house director for Disney's live-action features, but he's never done better work than he has here. There's just the right touch of magical realism here, with the fantasy elements never seeming out of place within the reality the film is purportedly set. For example, just look at my choice for Best Shot above: Mary Poppins, sitting on a cloud above the London skyline. It's at once extraordinary and commonplace; she's positioned just left of the center and deep enough in the frame that she doesn't immediately call the viewer's attention. Or look at the evocative use of shadow and "mist" in the frame directly above, with Mr. Banks walking through the park. Or the use of warm, evening colors and cool, twilight shadows in the rooftop "Step in Time" sequence:

There's so much beautiful imagery in this film that I honestly could have just screencapped the entire thing and put it up here. Disney hasn't made a live-action film as visually sumptuous as this one since.

Other great shots:

For my money, "Feed the Birds" is the most beautiful song in the film. I love how Stevenson and Colman frame this sequence like a sumptuous dream, with the outside of the frame blurred, drawing attention to the Bird Woman. It's a simply gorgeous sequence in a film embarrassingly rich with them.

I love the lighting of this sequence: it makes the bank look so much more like a nefarious institution, even though it's run by a bumbling idiot.

It must be said that neither of the child actors are really any good. Karen Dotrice (Jane) is mostly wears a blank expression and recites her lines dutifully, but Matthew Garber (Michael) really overexaggerates everything - just look at his gape above in response to seeing the nannies being blown away.


Squasher88 said...

Great writeup and I share many of your sentiments. It's certainly an impressive visual feat.


love the point about the fantastical and the mundane in the same shot -- great choice

Jason H. said...

Squasher88 - The amazing thing, for me, was that I had never thought about how visually impressive the film is until this re-watch. Even though I could have easily listed any number of terrific images from the film off the top of my head. Thanks!

Nathaniel R - Thank you!