'Mary Poppins Returns' and the Legacy of the Housekeeper

Julie Walters' Ellen shows up in the sequel and is a reminder of a longstanding movie archetype: the irreverent servant.
Jay Maidment/Disney
Julie Walters in 'Mary Poppins Returns'

[This story contains spoilers for Mary Poppins Returns.]

It's not just Mary Poppins (Emily Blunt) who comes back to #17 Cherry Tree Lane in Mary Poppins Returns. In addition to the now grown-up Banks children — Michael (Ben Whishaw) and Jane (Emily Mortimer) — the housekeeper Ellen (Julie Walters) also appears once more. While Ellen's character is very rarely discussed, considering she is a supporting character generally absent from the magical adventures featured in both films, it's worth taking a moment to appreciate how she is the latest entry in a long-lasting and widespread character archetype: the irreverent servant.

It tends not to get much attention in comparison to several others (the mad scientist, the femme fatale, the "chosen one"), yet it has a similarly long and fascinating history in film, theater and literature. The astute yet comic servant was a key player in commedia dell'arte, the highly popular form of comedy theater that originated in Italy in the 16th century that featured loose, largely improvised narratives involving an established roster of visually codified stock figures and has consistently been a popular character ever since.

One of the most fascinating aspects of the irreverent servant archetype is that it presents more or less the antithesis of the traditional ideal of how a good servant is supposed to behave, and yet these characters are almost always shown in a favorable light. Where the traditional ideal of the domestic worker is someone passive yet diligent, who is both efficient and effective while requiring minimal instruction — being invisible is the goal, as evidenced by the secret doors and hidden passages built into manor houses and palaces for servant use — the irreverent servant has strong opinions and enjoys sharing them even, and in some cases especially, when they are not asked to do so. Furthermore, when their housekeeping skills are even addressed at all, they are more often than not depicted as only taking the incentive to pick up a feather duster when the chore will put them in a prime eavesdropping location with a ready alibi.

However, the use of the irreverent servant archetype is not about throwing in a lazy servant stock character for a cheap laugh — admittedly, plenty of stories do that, too, but it is a gimmick, so there's not much there worth analyzing. Instead, this character tends to serve a hugely important but largely unacknowledged role as a sort of counterbalance.

Consider Gone With the Wind. Of course, Hattie McDaniel's Oscar-winning performance embodies the reductive and fundamentally racist mammy stereotype that unfortunately lingers today (e.g. The Help). Setting aside everything that is problematic about the character, the simple fact is that without her presence as the voice of reason, Scarlett O'Hara's (Vivien Leigh) self-centered dramatics would be unbearably annoying. Mammy's common sense counterbalances Scarlett's deluge of narcissism to the point where the latter can be entertaining instead of irritating.

This same basic dynamic can be seen in a different context in Ingmar Bergman's Wild Strawberries in which aged science professor Isak Borg (Victor Sjostrom) goes through an existential crisis. The celebrated cinematic meditation on the subjects of time, memory and growing old, Wild Strawberries manages to stay on the good side of the fine line between introspective and navel-gazing with help from the character of Agda (Jullan Kindahl), Borg's housekeeper. When Borg is wallowing in self-pity, she gives him a piece of her mind about "selfish, crabby old men," providing a much-needed second opinion in a film otherwise largely filtered through Borg's perspective. She also brings an element of humor to the film — after Borg snappishly remarks that she's not his wife after she tries to give him some advice, she turns his attempt at a snub back against him, replying, "I thank God for that every night."

The irreverent servant is a fundamentally grounding figure and often fills this role in two ways, first by counterbalancing the melodramatics of other characters. In addition to the examples mentioned above, this can be seen looking at Ellen's character. In the original Mary Poppins during the "Step in Time" number, for instance, she serves as the middle ground in terms of how she handles the scenario of being in a house suddenly overrun by a crowd of singing chimney sweeps, panicking at first but then joining the fun. Her reaction counterbalances both the incredible non-reaction of Mrs. Banks (Glynis Johns), who barely seems to notice anything out of the ordinary, and Mr. Banks' (David Tomlinson) stunned disapproval.

The second way the irreverent servant serves as a grounding figure is by being an audience proxy. When other characters say or do something that leaves viewers thinking "that's ridiculous," irreverent servants tend to give voice those sentiments. Turning to Ellen again, this time in Mary Poppins Returns, one can see an example of this in the role Ellen plays in the budding romance between Jane and charming lamplighter Jack (Lin-Manuel Miranda). Her wheedling and general nosiness regarding their relationship adds some dynamism and interest to what is otherwise a rather uninspired meet-cute followed by equally forgettable flirtations. When Jane tries to bashfully deny Jack's interest in her, Ellen's unabashed disbelief hits the right note because she represents the audience, who already knows beyond a doubt how their story is going to play out.

Even while frequently coming across as eccentric themselves, irreverent servants bestow stories, especially more fantastical ones — an over-the-top romantic melodrama, an impressionistic stroll through the reminiscences of an old man, a musical about a magical nanny — with an added degree of verisimilitude just by being relatable in narratives otherwise populated by extremes.