“Mary Poppins” celebrates its 50th anniversary in 2014, and thanks to a new Blu-Ray treatment and resurgence of attention due to the release of the making-of film “Saving Mr. Banks,” the enchanting nanny remains, for her legions of admirers, practically perfect in every way.
“I never put those Mary Poppins memories away,” says Julie Andrews, thinking back on Walt Disney’s now-iconic 1964 musical fantasy that brought author P.L. Travers’ famed creation to magical life on the big screen.
Not only did the film – which came about after much wrangling between Disney, eager to adapt his daughters’ favorite books, and Travers, disdainful of the Disney style but in need of the substantial paycheck – became an instant, audience pleasing classic with its mixture of memorable songs by brothers Richard and Robert Sherman, Andrews’s pitch-perfect performance, charming clowning by her co-star Dick Van Dyke and a then-groundbreaking blend of live-action and animation.
“I owe Mr. Disney so much,” says Andrews, who made her film debut in “Mary Poppins" and won the Academy Award and Golden Globe for Best Actress and would go on to a storied career in film, television and music. “He made so many people in the movie suddenly famous – and not just me. My ex-husband Tony Walton, who did the costumes and sets, the choreographers shot to fame, including work on ‘The Sound of Music, and the Sherman brothers to a certain extent – Walt had that special knack. He was a very lovely guy.”
“I don't have a vivid memory: every day was vivid,” recalls Van Dyke, who played the dancing, singing jack-of-all-trades Bert, of making the film. “Every day was fun. It just rolled by, as hard as we worked – and we worked so hard.” Van Dyke says that the playful chemistry between Andrews and himself “seemed to work right away because she had a background in British musicals. She had started out that way, and I'm that kind of a performer myself, so we just said, 'This is British musical. That's what we're doing.’”
“I'm very, very proud of it,” says Van Dyke of the film’s enduring legacy. “We knew we had a good, good, movie, but who thought it would last 50 years? We're on our third or fourth generation of kids who like this movie. That feels really good."
Van Dyke remembers marveling at the cutting edge technique Disney and his team were employing to seamlessly allow him to dance on screen with animated penguin waiters and the like. “Walt was way ahead of himself with the live-action and the animation and the blue screen – that was the very beginnings of that kind of stuff, and he did a good job, too.” But the actor also admired the lighthearted approach Disney took to his projects. “Walt kept kind of an atmosphere: It was always up. Nobody ever had any trouble. It was just always a joy, even when the hard work was going on. But every minute, it was never work – it was always play. That's all we felt like we were doing.”
“Seeing Uncle Walt come down to the set just about daily and the crowd of people growing behind the camera, that was kind of awe-inspiring,” says actress Karen Dotrice, who at eight years old played the Banks’ daughter, Jane. “People walking around the lot singing the songs – it was like, 'Whoa! This is something special.' Even as an eight year old, you did feel excited.”
Dotrice still has vivid memories of her adult co-starts. “Everybody thinks that Julie is like this really proper person – she's not!” she laughs. “She's a silly girl, and back then she was just very naughty: she swore in front of us, and smoked cigarettes and all that. And Dick Van Dyke was a complete loony tune, fresh off his own show and just as goofy. He'd be behind the camera at my eyeline, and I'd be trying to say something serious and he'd be crossing his eyes and sticking his fingers up his nose or whatever, just totally sending us up and making life fun”
Over five decades, Dotrice has remained close to her film family (though co-star Matthew Garber, who played Michael Banks, died of pancreantitis in 1977 at age 21). “We're all neighbors in LA: They live around the corner from me, and I see them all the time in little local farmer's markets and in our little supermarket here,” she says. “And we socialize: Richard Sherman who wrote the songs with his brother, he's a jolly good friend, and he and his wife Elizabeth come over for dinner, literally, almost every month, and he'll play the piano. And if Julie's there, she'll sing. You can't stop them at all – it's like a high school reunion. We all fall back into our own little patterns. And so I end up being the eight year old, and they're all 30 again. It's pretty cool.”
The allure of “Mary Poppins” has proved potent to successive generations – including the Hollywood players involved in “Saving Mr. Banks.”
“This movie meant a lot to me growing up,” says Jason Schwartzman, who plays Richard Sherman in the new film opposite Tom Hanks as Disney and Emma Thompson as Travers. “When I got the part in the movie and I started looking through archives and photos, and you'd see all these behind scenes snap shots of the movie being made, and it was only then that it occurred to me that it was shot in Burbank. Because I experienced it as a young person thinking it was in England, and it was only recently that I realized that it was all made up. That's how deep into my body it had gone and how much I believed that it was all real. And in many ways, I wish I hadn't ever seen those photos. I wish I'd never seen Cherry Tree Lane on Burbank Blvd.”
“The film is a massive part of my childhood,” says “Saving Mr. Banks” screenwriter Kelly Marcel. “As a child I was like, 'Oh my God, it's so brilliant because the nanny comes and then you can sing and have tea on the ceiling. Now, I watch it and just sob because I realize that it's about something completely different, and so the movie has taken on a completely new life for me. And I think I love it more because it's a deeper experience watching it now when you know what you know if you've seen ‘Saving Mr. Banks.’”
“The magic in children is really what this movie portrays,” says Dotrice. “My greatest fans are the kids. I feel very sorry for them because they're looking at this 58-year-old broad, and they can't possibly think that I'm Jane Banks. But after their parents tell them to come over or what have you, it's so cute to see the magic in their eyes and how excited they are, and how much they love it after that.”
Van Dyke says he counts “Poppins” as his proudest career accomplishment – and Bert the character he feels closest to. “Yeah, I would say so,” he says. “There's a little bit of an actor in everything they do, especially me. I'm really the best at playing myself, so it was a lot of me in there. A lot of people had a few jokes about my Cockney accent, but I understand,” he chuckles.