Saturday, May 12, 2007


I went to see "Mary Poppins" on Thursday. Not the current Broadway musical, nor the 40plus year old Disneyfied movie upon which it's based.

This was a TV production, of course; presented as a live 'Studio One' production in 1949!

The recognizable names in the cast were Mary Wickes as Mary Poppins, EG Marshall as Mr. Banks, Tommy Rettig as Michael Banks (before he went on to fame in 'Lassie'), and a name recognizable to fans of character actors - David Opatashu, who played Bert the Match Man. (His chalk drawings were crude, without the benefit of Disney animation to bring them to life. But at least he didn't try to single-handedly destroy the Cockney accent, as Dick Van Dyke was once voted as doing.)

As this was a live production from the early days of Television, it looks very primitive and has several technical gaffes. The major glitch comes when Mary Poppins and the children visit Mary's cousin (not uncle), Albert Turvy. When they were supposed to magically end up on the ceiling, the camera shuts off, although the soundtrack continues. Mary and Albert scramble to improvise patter until the picture was restored.

And Tommy Rettig is constantly aware of the camera, exhibiting the early warning signs of tele-cognizance!

P.L. Travers, who wrote the original stories, came to my children's lit class at UConn back in the mid 1970s as a guest lecturer. I don't remember what she thought of the Disney movie*, but I know she did hold off his pestering for the rights to film it until 1961. And then only after securing script approval rights.

I'm not sure how Worthington Miner got her to sign off on this production for TV, unless she was just as strict with her demands. As such, I think she must have approved of Mary Wickes as Mary Poppins. Who doesn't love the late Mary Wickes? She came far closer than Julie Andrews to the image of the nanny, as seen in the illustrations by Mary Shepard. And she better fit the spirit of the novel's Mary, with her acerbic, stern demeanor.

There were plenty of times when I wondered if she was perhaps related to Miss Elvira Gulch of Kansas (as played by Margaret Hamilton in 'The Wizard Of Oz')!

At one point, there was a slight turn of her head caught at the right moment by the camera, when her expression reminded me of someone whom I had seen on TV recently. A second later and it was gone. It took me until several hours later, once I got home, before I hit on the answer: Rachel Griffiths, of 'Brothers & Sisters' and 'Six Feet Under'. It got me thinking that perhaps "Mary Poppins" might be a role she could take on someday!

The one character who did give me the creeps was an old woman and an associate of Mary's who peeled off the fingers of her left hand to give to the children as treats. I'm glad I wasn't around back then to see this as a kid; I would have had nightmares for weeks!

Having read two of the "Harry Potter" books and seen all of the movies, I know that JK Rowling has taken inspiration from plenty of other sources and given them her own twist. (Fluffy the three-headed guard dog for instance - I wonder if the pedigree can be traced straight back to Cerberus?)

So I think her candy treat of the beans of many flavors was inspired by the type of medicine given out by Mary Poppins. All I remember from seeing the movie forty years ago was that "a spoonful of sugar helps the medicine go down". But if the TV adaptation was following the book closely, the medicine tasted differently to each recipient. For Michael, it was a lemon ice; for Jane, it was a strawberry cordial. I can't remember what it tasted like for Mary - I think it would have been in keeping with her nature for it to be a draught of beer!

Taking the technical crudities into account, it was an enjoyable hour spent at Number Seventeen Cherry Tree Lane. And it provides Toobworld with its own version of Mary Poppins, yet another literary figure, like Hercule Poirot and Sherlock Holmes, to take up residence in the TV Universe.

Toby OB

*The only thing I remember to this day from that class with P.L. Travers is that she had this disgusting physical tic that one might expect from one of the Visitors on "V"......

And now I can't get it out of my mind...... damn!

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