'Mary Poppins': THR's 1964 Review
On Aug. 27, 1964, Disney unveiled its 139-minute family film Mary Poppins at its Los Angeles premiere. The blockbuster went on to earn 13 Oscar nominations at the 37th Academy Awards, winning 5 honors including best actress for Julie Andrews. The Hollywood Reporter's original review is below.
Walt Disney's Mary Poppins is the kind of film that creates not fans but evangelists. Singlehandedly it might well make repeat moviegoing a national habit. The question is not: Have you seen Mary Poppins? The question will be: How often have you seen Mary Poppins?
Mary Poppins will be one of the years' box office champions, and a hardy perennial as popular and welcome as Santa Claus. The film makes major stars of its two leading players, Julie Andrews and Dick Van Dyke. It makes everyone connected with it bigger and more important. Bill Walsh was the co-producer. Robert Stevenson's direction makes Mary Poppins the greatest musical of its kind since The Wizard of Oz. The Buena Vista release is an irresistible picture.
Bill Walsh did the screenplay with Don DaGradi, from the Mary Poppins books by P.L. Travers. In some ways it resembles Peter Pan, except that it's better. Someone once said that Peter Pan was not only about a little boy who wouldn't grow up, but sounded as if it were written by a little boy who wouldn't grow up. Mary Poppins is not in that category. There is a child's magic about Mary Poppins, but also a tart realism that rescues it at every turn from cuteness.
The title character, played by Julie Andrews, is a governess in an English family, circa 1910. The family is a disorganized one with father scrabbling for money, mother agitating for women's votes and the children occupied in establishing their independence through the demoralization of a succession of governesses. Mary Poppins, clearly a figure of supernatural power, is first seen sailing serenely over London sitting primly on a cloud. She descends to earth, like some Edwardian Superman, to take charge of the family. Trim, neat and efficient, she makes work into fun, and fun into hilarity. Her approach, like that in Oz and Peter Pan, and indeed all the great children's classics, is to open the mind as an entrance to the imagination.
Mary's charges flip into a cartoon world. They see real men and women flying through the air with the ease of pigeons. Tucked away in the midst of these high-flying dreams and Technicolor fantasies, is a theme: that daddy should not sacrifice his family to his work; that mother should attend to home and hearth. Not earth-shaking, but heart-warming. And accomplished with so much skill and novelty and joyous good spirits that it seems as bright as tomorrow.
The impressive thing about the conception of Mary Poppins is that Disney, Stevenson, Walsh and DaGradi apparently decided what would be right, not feasible, and then set the many departments to work creating without reference to the impossible. As a result the film is loaded with unusual cinematic skills. There is the combination of live and animated figures, done in such sequences as Van Dyke dances with four penguins. There is repeated use of "flying," done so wonderfully that the mechanics never shows. None of this is done simply for novelty. It is done for total value, and the sequences are unfailingly good, not just trickery. The scene, for instance, in which Mary Poppins teaches her children how much fun it is to clean up their room, in which objects whisk magically to their appointed places. It is funny and capped with a good gag.
Since these artists usually don't get full credit, credit should go to animation director Hamilton S. Luske, animation art director McLaren Stewart and the gifted men who assisted them. Cotton Warburton's editing is the key to much of this, and he has given the film itself a tempo that is matched, with both assisting the other, by the music.
Miss Andrews and Van Dyke are the pinwheels of the action. Miss Andrews is sweet and pert, with her crystalline voice enchanting on the songs. Van Dyke demonstrates comedy gifts, and dancing and singing, he has only partially unveiled in the past. He is tremendous. And for good measure, plays a second role, an elderly man who is extremely funny and totally different from his principal role.
David Tomlinson is fine as the father, the very model of a harassed bank official. Glynis Johns is endearing as the mother, happy as a lark at getting chained to a lamp post for the cause — women's rights. The construction of Mary Poppins uses songs for exposition and action, never simply diversion, and both Tomlinson and Miss Johns come in strongly as singing actors.
Karen Dotrice and Matthew Garber are the children, and they are splendid, precocious but utterly beguiling. Ed Wynn is in for one fine scene, where everyone floats on the ceiling. Hermione Baddeley and Reta Shaw are strong as the family's servants. Elsa Lanchester is amusing as a defeated governess. Arthur Treacher has an amusing bit as a constable. Reginald Owen is thunderous as a somewhat loony retired admiral. Arthur Malet contributes ably, and Jane Darwell lends wordless radiance to a lovely musical number.
The songs are by Richard M. Sherman and Robert B. Sherman. There are about a dozen of them, and they are all good. Some are certain to be classics. Irwin Kostal did the arranging and conducting and has made the score varied and meaningful. Edward Colman's Technicolor photography is as lively as a child's imagination, and the color soft as a dream. Colman's lighting is notable, such as on the rooftop ballet sequence, where the sooty figures of the chimney sweeps must be distinct but a pattern, not standouts, but phrases in a score.
The sets are by Carroll Clark and William H. Tuntke, with set decoration by Emile Kuri and Hal Gausman. They have created a rich atmosphere of security and a free flow of fantasy, simultaneously. Also some nice sight gags. The dances are spectacular, the work of Marc Breaux and Dee Dee Wood. Untrammeled by problems of gravity and the capabilities of mere humans, freed by "flying and cartooning, Breaux and Miss Wood have created dances that are dimensional and soaring. Also, on occasion, very funny. Tony Walton was costume and design consultant. Bill Thomas executed the meaningful, colorful costumes. Makeup by Pat McNalley is especially remarkable in the transformation of Van Dyke into an aged curmudgeon. Sound by Robert O. Cook and Dean Thomas is a balm to the ear.
Mary Poppins is a picture that is, more than most, a triumph of many individual contributions. And its special triumph is that it seems to be the work of a single, cohesive intelligence. — James Powers, originally published on Aug. 28, 1964.