Friday, September 23, 2011

Mary Poppins: Frankenstein & Animal Farm

Julie Andrews in her Oscar-winning role as Mary Poppins.
One great work of art invokes another,... and then another. In  the 1964 film Mary Poppins, the stability of the British Empire is challenged even as it is re-enforced: the same forces which created both the Elephant Man (The Ugly Face of British Imperialism: The Elephant Man) and the two anonymous, upper-class girls in Leisure Hours (Leisure Hours and Victorian Consumption) are also at work in Mary Poppins and threatening--not only the Banks family--but the whole Empire as well, and at a precarious moment. Two important works of British art are cited in Mary Poppins: Frankenstein and Animal Farm, with the intent of demonstrating that the lessons from those works have been heeded and the ills prophesied have been overcome. 
It's the opening sequence of the credits which alert the viewer to the dire state of the Empire's heart: London. The fog hanging over that most ancient and glorious of cities is nostalgic and symbolic of the stupor over the Empire itself; if the panoramic view of London isn't sufficient, Bert (Dick Van Dyke) slips into an unconscious moment and describes the mist that is coming: the mist is coming over us, the viewers, because we won't be able to “clearly see” all that is presented for our consideration, but there is the mist of acquiescence for the characters, as well, and they need to be awaken from their slumber. The film is wonderfully complex, and there isn't space to cover it all in one simple blogspot, therefore, thereby and therewith,... we will focus on two characters and one song: Katie Nanna, Admiral Boom and A Spoonful of Sugar.
Elsa Lanchester in her iconic role as the "Bride" with
Boris Karloff as the "Monster."
In my post Cowboys and Aliens: the US-British Alliance, I detail how we are always bringing our baggage with us: there are certain things the makers of art and films know about us, and they use that knowledge to their advantage, because the deeper they can forge a bond between us and their art, the deeper will be our love for that art. Katie Nanna is one such example. Played by the great Elsa Lanchester, her iconic role as the bride in James Whale's 1935 classic The Bride of Frankenstein not only brings into play everything we associate with the Frankenstein monster, but everything which culture has left to our imaginations about the failed relationship with his so-called bride. (The original Frankenstein was written in 1818 by Mary Shelley). An iconic role can haunt an actor all their days, because it's nearly impossible for the audience to get it out of their heads that part which the actor played, and "the Bride" was that role for Ms. Lanchester.
Seeing this nanny of the Banks' children, a Gothic monster, makes you ask, would you leave your children with her? And that's rather the point, isn't it? A nanny is a "mercenary mother," paid to do a job that can really only be done from the heart: motherhood. We start to see the undermining of the British Empire: the Banks (and other families) are so wealthy, they can afford to pay someone to raise their children for them: the financial success of the Empire means that the future (children) are not receiving the love and care they require, which will be its undoing (like the two upper-class girls in Leisure Hours), i.e., success is its own downfall. When writing an advertisement for a nanny, Mr. Banks sings, "A British nanny must be a general, the future Empire lies within her hands," without realizing that the future Empire lies within his and his wife's hands. But a "general," as Mr. Banks calls her, doesn't possess the correct "virtues" to "mold the young breed" as the future leaders of Empire, and Katie Nanna, importantly, demonstrates that.
Mary Poppins arriving at the Banks' home, #17 Cherry Tree Lane.
We, the audience, can know that Katie Nanna is an unintentionally bad influence on the Banks' children because the very ideals and virtues of “Englishness” which had given birth to the great world leaders, now gives birth to little monsters. Jane and Michael Banks are in the park chasing their kite. Two important symbols are in this simple scenario: the park representing Eden, the idyllic and the kite, their wishes, aspirations, hopes, goals, ambitions, anything that fills the heart and guides us through our life. Ellen (the Banks' maid) frets that the children were playing by the lion's cage and that tells us that they have been led by their animal passions instead of something lofty and ideal. The kite “gets away” from the children because it's not constructed very well: a dream is a dream, but it exists within a concrete reality so it can be realized, hopefully, for the good of all, and this is where parenting comes in: Mr. Banks doesn't interest himself in the children and neither does Winifred Banks. In the father and the mother we see the driving forces of the Empire: commerce and politics (the bank and "votes for women"), and the future of Britain (the children) will just have to fend for themselves.
Mary Poppins arriving with Jane and Michael's advertisement for a nanny. The important difference between the "mother" figure that the children want and the "general" which Mr. Banks wants lies in the conflicting image of Queen Victoria: some see her as a successful monarch because of her being a "mother"; others see her as successful because, in spite of being a mother, she managed to be a monarch. Likewise, Mr. Banks imagines that, in spite of being human beings, Jane and Michael can manage to be British soldiers. The differences in the wording of the advertisements illustrates what the father wants his children to grow up to be and what the children want their parents to be.
Let's turn our attentions to discuss Admiral Boom (Reginald Owen). He was a member of His Majesty's Navy, and at the regular intervals of the day, he releases a time-gun to keep London punctual. When he does so—and this is a real gem—the residents of London take their “posts” to secure their valuables against the shock of the gun: there is a vase on the piano (which no one knows how to play), two paintings on the wall, a gilded vase with crystals, on another wall are five more paintings, another vase, a curio cabinet with china and figurines... this is the accumulation of wealth as a result of Empire, and they have to be protected, as a result of Empire.
The more one has the more one has to protect.
Bert and Mary overlooking London from the rooftops. Having this unique view is rather topsy-turvy: those on the bottom of the social ladder (a chimney sweep, a nanny and children) are able to see from the "top of the ladder." Their position "above everyone and everything else" in this scene re-enforces that we, too, are going to be shown a unique perspective but only because of the grime and soot we take on can we be cleansed of the ills we are going to be shown.
There aren't any religious rituals in the family, but there are material rituals. Because this moment is so amusing, we tend to overlook the seriousness of it: as a result of the time-gun going off, a gilded mirror sways upon the wall as Mr. Banks attempts to straighten his tie. The mirror is a symbol of interior reflection, his tie is a sign that he is a gentleman, but the "unstable" measure by which he knows he is a gentleman (the swaying mirror) is off balance and so, he, too,therefore is off balance and everything he does as a result of that (there is no stability to anchor his perceptions).
Bert leading the chimney sweeps in song and dance. The explanation of the folklore that chimney sweeps "are lucky" comes from Bert's own song: chimney sweeps are considered at "the bottom of the social ladder," so to be courteous to a chimney sweep is a blessing because you are showing kindness to one who doesn't have much in the world. Admiral Boom's blasting of the chimney sweeps acts as a reprimand that the Royal Navy (of which Boom is a symbolic representation) not being kind to those on the bottom of the social ladder, but treating them according to their social stations, is its own punishment in not recognizing the value of all people.
Admiral Boom, then, is an important character because as he represents the Navy, he is both the "force" that allowed citizens to amass their wealth and a "force" which threatens that wealth. There is another important item to be discussed regarding Admiral Boom: Hottentots. When Bert and the chimney sweeps dance on the rooftops of London and Admiral Boom sees them, he calls them "Hottentots," after the Khoikhoi people of southern Africa and orders "a double-charge" in the gun. With his brush, Bert takes aim at one of the "fireworks" and "hits it back at Admiral Boom"; this is no accident. Admiral Boom's attack on the Hottentots displays Great Britain firing upon their own people, that the Khoikhoi and others "displaced" by Imperialism are as deeply human and a part of the British Empire as the chimney sweeps of London, and the attacks upon them are attacks upon Great Britain itself (the firework coming back to attack Admiral Boom). This scene is "double-charged": the Navy is charged with being murderous, but it confesses it's learned the lesson. 
Mary Poppins arriving with Jane and Michael's "things," their coats and hats. Symbolically, the children must be "prepared" for the adventure they are going on or the lessons will be lost upon them.
Now we can slowly turn our attention to the last item for this posting: A Spoonful of Sugar.
When Mary Poppins hops on the banister of the stairwell, the act of going up the stairs symbolizes the upper or higher regions of our thought, and she does it with ease. She goes into the room that will be hers and begins to unpack, mysteriously bringing things out of the carpet bag that don't seem possible: her carpet bag symbolizes history, and each item represents lessons that only history can teach us. Because a hat refers to the head, which symbolizes our reason and governing functions, the first item Mary Poppins pulls out is a hat stand, the right place and way to take off her hat--free her of the constraints of reason--but then take it back up again when necessary. That Michael and Jane can't find anything in the bag is accurate: they are too young to appreciate the long, rich history of Great Britain and what it can teach them.
The discipline Mary Poppins insists upon upholds British virtue, but she has the wisdom to balance it with the warmth of love and the understanding of what the children really need and are missing from their lives.
She pulls out a large, gilded, ornately framed mirror so she can see herself: again, the mirror symbolizes interior reflection, so Mary Poppins is teaching the children to look at everything at once (not segment economic reports and poverty reports, upper-class education and lower-class education, but a holistic approach to Empire). The rubber tree plant she pulls out literally represents the prosperous rubber industry which Great Britain had profited from, so that the children know "a thing of beauty," not only the beauty of creating industry and inventing, but the items that come from industry. The floor lamp is illumination, shoes symbolize the will, the hand mirror is personal meditation on one's own individuality and calling in life.
Tidying up the nursery and singing A Spoonful of Sugar.
The next lesson follows suit: tidying up the nursery. One might say the entire movie centers upon this theme. We know from Mr. Banks that it's 1910 and King Edward VII is on the throne. Because we have seen the cherry trees blooming on the street we know it's spring, so King Edward literally has weeks left to live until his death on May 6 when his son King George V will take the throne and World War I will begin in 4 short years. Tidying the nursery is imperative at this point in time because "the wind is changing," and the Empire itself must be prepared for what is to come. (Consequently, Mary Poppins was released in 1964 and just a few months later, in January 1965, the great Winston Churchill himself would no longer be alive). “Tidying up the nursery,” is the same as “putting one's house in order,” and this is what Mary Poppins is teaching the new generation to a song called A Spoonful of Sugar (helps the medicine go down). To decode this song, we need ask only one question.
Where does sugar come from?
A sugar plantation, run and worked by slaves.
Surveying her room as if it were the Empire itself.
Mary Poppins tells the children, "A job well begun is half done," and she explains, "In every job there is an element of fun. Find the fun and snap, the job becomes a game," which is a clear reference to Game Theory and the "games of the political world," which the future has to learn. Specifically, it's the game involving a "spoonful of sugar," which is the reference to the great abolition of the slave trade in the British Empire. In the video link below, historian Simon Schama details how, after the great revolutions for freedom and liberty which Britons had won for themselves, they then turned around and enslaved the rest of the world. The point of Mary Poppins' song, Spoonful of Sugar, is that the reward of freeing the slaves was the sugar, and not the tangible product from sugar cane to be traded and exported. Upon this predicate rests the greatness of the British Empire: they put their house in order. Just as Jane and Michael Banks' nursery is a mess, so, too, at times is the "House of Government" a mess, and needs to be put in order, and there is its own sweetness to that job well done.

Simon Schama: History of Great Britain "Queen Sugar"

What is interesting--but consistent--with the rest of the film, is that there is an abundance of "cleaning up" the children do, there is a bit of craziness (too much of a good thing which will be repeated when they laugh so hard they fly up to the ceiling), but Mary Poppins allows them to do what they are going to do, this is her parenting strategy to allow this and then put a stop to it when it becomes nonsense, going against English reasonableness.
Winifred Banks who "doesn't change" throughout most of the film.
Mary Poppins and the children sliding up and down upon the banister of the stairs illustrates the ease of reflection which the children are gaining: a stairway (going up) symbolizes a higher level of thought to be attained; going down to a main level symbolizes that application of higher wisdom attained into one's daily life. (When Mr. Banks has been sacked [he got sacked when he was going to sack Mary Poppins] he had spent the night in the cellar fixing the children's kite; the cellar symbolizes that he went deep within himself, the "night" symbolizes that dark spell of uncertainty and the fixed kite represents his understanding of what really made the British Empire and the British people, great). When they slide past Ellen the maid dusting the banister, it illustrates the differentiation being made in "work": Ellen's work is rather tedious and bears no fruit but the children have done what used to be a tedious job, tidying up the nursery, but have acquired a deeper understanding they will carry with them for life. 
Series of Mary Poppins and the children "entering" the world of art.
When Mary Poppins, Bert and the children jump through the painting, it is the entering into the world of artistic rendering, literally. Mary and Bert sing “It's a jolly holiday," and that holiday is the peace of 1910 and again in the 1960s (given the facets of the Cold War, it was relatively peaceful). And, I would like to add, it's possible because of the U.S.-British Alliance (I refuse to miss a chance to celebrate that! Please see Cowboys and Aliens: the US-British Alliance and Captain America: A Movie of Movies).
Since he was an American, Dick van Dyke playing Bert, could symbolize America in this film, and Mary Poppins having to "haul him over the stone fence" could be a sign that Americans weren't paying as close attention to the political dangers of the 1960s as the Brits were. Yet the "jolly holiday" Britain and America enjoy at this time results from a (relatively speaking) stable world peace.
The odd thing about this “adventure” in the painting is they stop in a farmyard. Of all the places they could imagine to go, and they go to a barnyard... because of the great work of British art, Animal Farm. Just as Mary Poppins demonstrates its self-awareness about the dangers of the Empire becoming a monster as presented in Frankenstein, so in this barnyard scene, it also invokes the great British novel by George Orwell and the dangers he prophesied within it. It's important that the animals sing in unison, and then the pig snorts at the end by himself, because in the “noise” of the pig (recall, please, good reader, that the pigs—being the smartest of the animals—took control of the farm) is the encoded language of, “Four legs good, two legs bad.” The 60's in Great Britain saw dramatic challenges of radical political "isms"—not to mention the threats of the Cold War—and in the simple barnyard, the great political fears of the Empire have been put to rest.
Mary Poppins as the winner of the horse race.
Lastly, the great horse race Mary Poppins wins: it's very simple symbolism for the nuclear arms race in the 1960s against the Soviet Union and China, and the carousel horses they ride invokes, again, the Game Theory of world politics. The supporting "material" for this interpretation within the film comes from the famous word, "Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious." As the word to say "when you don't know what to say," it acts as a "mask" for what one truly feels, just as the mask of The Elephant Man covers his face and the screen "screens out" anything undesirable for the two girls in Leisure Hours,  "supercalifragilisticexpialidocious," is a statement of Super-powerism, and the might of the British Empire, because those are sentiments which cannot be expressed in plain terms, hence, it must be expressed in artistic terms. There is a part of the song where Mary Poppins sings, "It can save your life," and a male band member interupts and says, "For example, one night I said it to me girl, and now me girl is me wife," and his much larger wife bangs him on the head with her tamborene. This situation for a "word" saving your life doesn't make sense, unless, we examine the power of supercalifragilisticexpialidocious in terms of the British-US alliance during World War II. If the small man could be taken from Great Britain--fighting for its life against the Nazis during the Battle for Britain, than the US (significantly larger in size than Great Britain in terms of land mass) could be the woman, who hearing the great orator Sir Winston Churchill (the rallying speeches calling American's to arm) finally entered World War II and through resources saved Great Britain; what was just a "friendship" between the two countries became a political marriage.
George Banks in the uniform of a British citizen and, by attacking his "uniform," his employers at the bank are attempting to strip Banks of his identity. But this is where the play on words comes in: as Mr. Dawes Sr. (Dick van Dyke) says, "As long as the banks stand, England stands," but in the greater view, we should see that as the "Banks family," of George, Winifred, Jane and Michael, and when they fall, England will fall.
For example, when George Banks is sacked by the Bank because of the run on the bank his son has caused, he says "the word," but what he is really saying is that I am more than my job, and I am more than your expendable employee; it's a sad fact of linguistics, that often, our poor, fragile language doesn't communicate the great truths as accurately as it should, and so, there are words like "supercalifragililisticexpialidocious" to express that for us.
"Feed the Birds," symbolizes the "feeding of our spirits and souls," so we don't become automatons like the orderly and efficient bureaucrats in Banks' bank.
There is a problem: when the children are returned to the nursery and can't go to sleep because of all the excitement, it appears that Mary Poppins denies that she had won the horse race, and she's right to do so. Like with the carpet bag, the children only saw a horse race, but it was the greater arms race that Mary Poppins won, not a mere race around the track; the children, at this point, still haven't learned all their lessons.
The wind has changed, but all is in order.
In conclusion, there is far more to discuss with this film than what I have space for (although, as usual, I have made a posting too long anyway). Mary Poppins presents another example of adjustment and self-correction, utilizing art which has shaped the British Empire, recognizing dangers and self-correcting and why the Empire has continued as long as it has.