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Let a smile be your umbrella

Posted by on September 11, 2009

Katy and I went to the sing-along Mary Poppins at the Castro last night. I sometimes forget what a fantastic film that is. I memorized most of it before I understood it, so trying to parse it as an adult is kind of like trying to separate the words of the Pledge of Allegiance into sensible ideas. But I will try.

Even as a kid, you’re aware that the movie isn’t supposed to be about Jane and Michael, or even about magical Mary. It’s about the redemption of George Banks. Mary Poppins comes to the house to teach him how to be a human again, instead of a walking collection of comfortable habits, and of course she succeeds. You could say that Mary is the other side of George, the human, fun side he’s forgotten how to access. But because she’s so glamorous, you don’t spare much thought for him.

As an adult, it’s easier to see how Mary and George balance each other out. The iconic image of Mary flying into town under her umbrella for the first time is matched by the less-remembered but equally moving shot of George walking alone down an abandoned suburban street lined with bare winter trees, manfully going to meet his doom at the hands of his employers, though it is late at night and he has already had a very hard day. Even as Mary’s flying scene demonstrates everything you need to know about her — she’s magical, she’s whimsical, and very English with that sturdy umbrella — George’s scene tells you that he’s brave, he’s responsible, he’s courteous (he could have told his bosses to stuff themselves): that he’s worth saving from himself.

The umbrellas, too, are an interesting device. Umbrellas in Mary Poppins symbolize the umbrella owner’s fitness for his or her position. Mary Poppins, the perfect nanny, has a supreme umbrella which flies and talks. George, too good for the bank, has his umbrella destroyed when he is fired. He’s just had his epiphany about his love for his children and he’s no longer suited for his drone job. (Also, many of the nannies in queue have their umbrellas blown wrongside-out, because they’re not the right nannies. And Bert, being unfit to hold any one position for very long, has no umbrella at all and walks whistling through the rain.)

Of course, because it’s a children’s movie, the most important point is the way that Mary and George interact with Jane and Michael. Both are rather stern, both refuse to explain themselves, and neither one ever admits to loving the children. That’s why George’s kite scene resonates so much at the end — I mean, that, and the fact that he’s grinning for the first time in the movie. But it’s also because he’s actually done something explicitly for the children, which Mary never does. They get into all sorts of fun with her, but she always sort of grumbles her way through, or claims they’re forcing her into it. (“If we must, we must.”) Bert tries to do things for them, but all he can manage is to coax Mary into action. George is the first and only person in the film to actually give them something, on purpose. That’s how we (as eight year old viewers) are able to feel it’s okay that practically perfect Mary has to leave and slightly boring George has to stay. In the end, he’s more suited to being their parent than she is.

None of this addresses how the sing-along experience was, but it was great. They gave us little goody bags (poppers to set off when the Admiral blows his cannon, a glowstick to wave during the chimney sweep battle, etc.), and there were plenty of things to shout at the screen, and lots of singing. It was curiously less raucous than I expected a Castro sing-along would be — certainly less raucous than the Buffy sing-along — but probably that’s the difference between singing along with meh-voiced Sara Michelle Gellar and singing along with the divine Julie Andrews. All in all, I recommend sing-alongs to anyone who loves getting baggies of free stuff and seeing a great flick on the big screen.

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