For this week, Nat over at The Film Experience is hosting a Hit Me With Your Best Shot for the all-time classic Mary Poppins. This was a movie I hadn’t seen in over a decade, though I remember watching it endlessly during my childhood. It’s a bit baggier than I remembered (mostly during the scenes that lack Mary Poppins herself, which is in itself a high compliment to Julie Andrews’ performance. Upon this viewing, it became clearer how adept Andrews is at fleshing out this “practically perfect in every way” character without stripping it of her inherent two-dimensionality. Her Academy Award win (thank you, indeed Mr Jack Warner!) is wonderfully baffling; is there a more anomalous Best Actress win? (That’s not rhetorical, I’m actually curious!)
My favorite number has always been “Step in Time” (though the singing and dancing penguins are a close second; in particular that fourth penguin who steals a Poppins kiss at the end!). But it is the chimney sweepers’ number which aesthetically and thematically sums up the very dark whimsy that runs throughout this seemingly saccharine Walt Disney production. While the technicolor “Jolly Holliday” segment of the film and the “Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious” number in particular get deserved props for being the heart of the film, I’m drawn to the smokey soot-filled London rooftop scene. Part of it is the joy in seeing the choreography at work — especially in this post-Rob Marshall snip-cut-cut filmed musical world we live in!
Look at the wide shots that stay with the dancers as the step in time and entertain Mary and the children. This really functions more as a dancing interlude than a scene proper.
As I was revisiting this scene, one particular shot caught my eye and while there beautiful ones throughout this scene (the silhouettes dancing on the chimneys, Bert, Mary & the kids going up the smoke stairs, London in its full coal-infested industrial revolution glory), it was this very simple shot of Mary’s shoes that stayed with me:
I love that Mary’s dress looks like a curtain among the black background (it’s a surprise it took Disney until 2006 to mount a full-scale Broadway production of such a stage-ready film, though this might have something to do with P.L. Travers’ own copy right strange hold on the property after the Disneyfied film stormed into silver screens in the 1960s much to her chagrin).
The shot is also delightfully weird; who other than Mary Poppins sits watching a dance sequence in first position? But of course, the film establishes this pose as the quintessential pose for the British nanny; we even get a reprise of the shot later when the chimney sweepers, Bert, the kids and Mary Poppins return to the house:
But throughout the “Step In Time” you can’t really miss the shoes. They’re a pop of color amidst the soot-colored evening scene, especially paired with Mary’s bright red dress. Among an army of undistinguishable chimney sweepers, the movie wants you to notice Mary and Mary alone. What I love about the shot is the way it galvanizes the character of Mary Poppins and her role in the film (and in turn in the Banks residence). The shoes, as we see, are sensible — great enough for dancing! — and in line with the no non-sense politics that Mr Banks demand. But of course, they’re also pink: they’re feminine in a scene that overflows with (albeit athletically and possibly sexually acrobatic) men.
It may be the “age of men” according to Mr Banks, but Mary — especially as the choreography moves to showcasing Julie Andrews impossibly twirling in the air and even being demanded an encore — but it is the female nanny which brings order to the house and brings the Banks closer together. The shoes are both those of a person who can “mold the the breed” of the British empire (much as she leads the men in the dance, and molds the Banks kids with a “spoonful of sugar”), but they also betray the “cheery disposition” Jane & Michael demand (the one that teaches them silly words and cheerily lulls them to sleep). No wonder that it’s Mary that we love!