A couple of interesting things happened 50 years ago this month. On Aug. 7, 1964, Congress passed the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution. Then, 20 days later, Walt Disney Studios released "Mary Poppins." The resolution, by allowing the Vietnam War to begin in earnest, fueled the growth of a counterculture of protest that characterized The Sixties. The movie, by celebrating those who challenge the traditions and rules of the established order, provided an early parable in support of that emerging counterculture.
The "Mary Poppins" books by P.L. Travers are about a magical English nanny and the little scamps in her charge. This is true of the movie, as well, but the movie is more about how this nanny and these kids subtly convince the kids’ father, a stodgy subject of the British Empire, to tune in, drop out, and do his own thing, man. He starts out as a banker; he finishes up well on his way to becoming a hippie. Surprisingly, the message of a Disney movie released in 1964 was perfectly compatible with the radicalized ethos of Berkeley or Columbia in 1968.
Dad is pure Establishment. He not only works at a bank; even his allegorical name, George Banks, labels him as a Big Capitalist. When composing the job description for someone to take care of his kids, he announces that a nanny “must be a general … who can give commands” because “the future Empire lies within her hands.” In his extraordinary opening song, he actually insists that a home must be run like a bank, with tradition, discipline and rules without which we will descend into disorder and anarchy.
While Mr. Banks is strutting around embracing the Old Order with lyrics like “It’s grand to be an Englishman in 1910/King Edward’s on the throne, it is the Age of Men,” his wife and kids are engaged in way groovier pursuits. Mrs. Banks is a suffragette, protesting ’60s-style with a group whose members get arrested for stunts like chaining themselves to the wheel of the prime minister’s carriage. (At one point she sings one of my favorite lines in all the body of feminist theory: “Although we adore men individually/As a group we all agree they’re rather stupid.”)
As for the kids, along comes Mary, who takes them on a series of trippy adventures that include self-cleaning bedrooms, dancing penguin waiters, flying carousel ponies and getting high (literally) while laughing uncontrollably. It may be 1910, but these kids are partying like it’s 1969. They’re also hanging out with Bert, a proletarian panhandler/chimney sweep who’s a lot more fun and interesting than Dad and the other stiffs who work at the Dawes, Tomes, Mousely, Grubbs Fidelity Fiduciary Bank.
And, of course, the children learn the central lesson of the film: It’s better to give your tuppence to the poor and the birds today than invest them – “prudently, thriftily, frugally” – for interest tomorrow. (Their nanny’s name may be Mary, but at times like this she sounds more like Jesus.)
Eventually Mr. Banks is converted. He learns to quit grinding away at the grindstone and spend some quality time with the kids. He learns to tell a joke, to tell off his boss, and that two pence can be used for something other than investments, like for paper and strings with which he can go find his kids and go fly a kite.
People often ask me to name my favorite movie, and my answer always differs according to who’s doing the asking and how badly I want to impress. In truth, though, my favorite movie is "Mary Poppins." When I saw it in a theater 50 years ago, it was the first movie I’d ever seen. I’d just turned 5. I didn’t know from The Sixties, but I liked the feel of the story.
Half a century later, I still do. I also still find Julie Andrews singing “Feed the Birds” to be one of the prettiest things I’ve ever heard. And, except for another George – George Bailey – I’ve never been particularly fond of bankers. It’s a dangerous movie, this one.
Robert Thompson is founding director of the Bleier Center for Television and Popular Culture at Syracuse University and a trustee professor.