Mary Poppins: A Woman of Many Personalities

May 17, 2012
“If you want to find Cherry-Tree Lane all you have to do is ask the Policeman at the cross-roads. He will push his helmet slightly to one side, scratch his head thoughtfully, and then he will point his huge white-gloved finger and say: ‘First to your right, second to your left, sharp right again, and you’re there. Good-morning.’” (Travers 2). These are the directions any regular nanny would follow. However, in the case of a certain Mary Poppins, air is the most suitable path to 17 Cherry-Tree Lane. She knocks on the door only to be greeted by a gruff Mr. Banks. Four children run hectically behind him. A charismatic screever, Bert, draws life-like illustrations on the pavement if the weather is fine or sells matches if the weather is bad. How Mary Poppins interacts with each of these characters varies depending on the adaptation of the story. Her actions and interactions also help to set the mood and tone of the adaptation. In P.L Travers’s novel Mary Poppins, the titular character is portrayed as a grim, ugly old woman. However, in the film and stage adaptations of the story, Mary Poppins is portrayed in a different light. Like her personality and appearance, Mary Poppins’ relationship with the children, Bert, and Mr. Banks varies in the three works which results in significant differences between the adaptations.

Mary Poppins’ most notable relationship is that which she has with the children. In the original book, Mary Poppins is portrayed as an ugly, older woman who denies she is magical but does not try to hide it at all. She is known by other magical creatures as “The Great Exception” because she maintained the magical abilities all children have. For example, she is capable of communicating with animals. When the children mention her magical powers, Mary Poppins denies them sternly and punishes the children when they acknowledge them. In the book, there are four children: Jane, Michael, John and Barbara. Mary Poppins only takes Jane and Michael on her adventures because the twins, John and Barbara, are too young. She later brings the twins with her, Jane, and Michael on their adventures in the second book, Mary Poppins Comes Back, which was published a year after Mary Poppins in 1935. However, in the film and stage adaptations, there are only two Banks children: Jane and Michael. Unlike her stern personality in the book, Mary Poppins is stern but still maintains a gentle and admirable disposition. Jane and Michael, prior to Mary Poppins’ arrival, sing a tune outlining the perfect nanny. They sing:
Have a cheery disposition. Rosy cheeks. No warts. Play games, all sorts. You must be kind you must be pretty, very sweet and fairly pretty. Take us on outings, give us treats. Sing songs bring sweets. Never be cross or cruel. Never feed us Custer oil or gruel. Bleh! Love us as a song and daughter and never smell of Farley water… Hurry nanny. Many thanks. Sincerely, Jane and Michael Banks. (Sherman)
Mary Poppins is firm when the children misbehave and try to take advantage of her. However, when they are not feeling their best or just need a little magic in their life, Mary Poppins’ lively personality comes to life in musical numbers such as “A Spoonful of Sugar”, when the children refuse to take their icky medicine, and in “Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious”, when the children jump into a dreamland through one of Bert’s street illustrations. Mary Poppins’ personality becomes a mix of both that of her book and film character in Mary Poppins: The Musical. In the stage adaptation of the book, Mary Poppins is a self absorbed, loving nanny who wants nothing but the best for the two Banks children, Jane and Michael. She thinks herself as “practically perfect in every way” (Sherman) as she states in the catchy song “Practically Perfect”. The children in this adaptation have worse behavior than they do in the film. Unlike in the book and film, Mary uses her magical powers to punish the children. She does so in “Temper, Temper (Playing the Game)” when she brings Jane and Michael’s toys to life that they have been mistreating to teach, through fear, them to treat their toys with care. These are few of the many examples of how Mary Poppins’ relationship with the children is different in the book, film, and stage adaptation.

Another relationship that is evident in the book, film, and stage adaptation is that between Mary Poppins and Bert. In the original book, Bert is Mary Poppins’ best friend and one of the few people she is nice to, the others being Mrs. Corry and Nellie-Rubina. Bert is a charismatic screever and Matchman. When the weather is nice, he draws life-like illustrations on the pavement and when the weather is bad he sells matches off of street corners. It becomes evident that Bert has feelings for Mary Poppins when they go out together on her second Tuesday off. However, after that they never go out together again. In the film adaptation, Bert’s affection towards Mary Poppins is first made clear in the second song, “Jolly Holiday”, in which he sings:
Ain’t it a glorious day? Right as a morning in May… I feel like I could fly. Have you ever seen the grass so green or a bluer sky? Oh it’s a jolly holiday with Mary. Mary makes your heart so light. When the day is grey and ordinary, Mary makes the sun shine bright. Oh happiness is blooming all around her. The daffodils are smiling at the dove. When Mary holds your hand, you feel so grand. Your heart starts beating like a big brass band. Oh it’s a Jolly Holiday with Mary. No wonder that it’s Mary that we like. (Sherman)
At the end of the song, Mary Poppins sings back to him telling him that “though you’re just a diamond in the rough Bert, underneath your blood is blue”. These are the first few hints the audience gets that there is something more than just a friendly relationship between Mary Poppins and Bert. The song introduces that Mary Poppins and Bert have already known each other for a while. Later, in “Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious”, Mary Poppins and Bert are playful and flirtatious. They are also somewhat affectionate in “Chim Chim Cher-ee”. Unfortunately, Mary Poppins and Bert are never more than friends in the film. In the stage adaptation, Mary Poppins is quite aware of Bert’s feelings for her. They still sing “Jolly Holiday” together as one of the first songs during Act I. Throughout the musical, it is evident that Mary Poppins is aware of Bert’s feelings for her. She ignores his affection throughout the entire musical. Many audiences like the idea of Mary Poppins and Bert together as a couple but evidently Mary Poppins does not.

Mary Poppins also has a very subtle relationship with Mr. Banks, more notably in the book and musical than in the movie. Mr. Banks’ personality remains consistent throughout the three adaptations. He is a disciplined man who works at the Dawes Tomes Mousley Grubbs Fidelity Fiduciary Bank in London and would probably be known as a Type A personality in modern times. He lives at 17 Cherry-Tree Lane with his wife and children. He dismisses the “Votes for Women” movement that his wife is an avid participant of and treats his wife, children, and servants as assets rather than people. He makes these opinions known in his song “The Life I Lead”. His ideas were portrayed in the musical in “Being Mr. Banks”. The relationship between Mary Poppins and Mr. Banks changes as Mary Poppins’ personality changes. In the book, as well as the musical, Mr. Banks had a vicious nanny, known as Mrs. Andrews, tortures him through his childhood and turns him into the man he grows up to be. When Mary Poppins’ personality is revealed in the book and stage adaptation, it seems that Mr. Banks was looking for a nanny who resembled his childhood nightmare so that his children would, hopefully, grow out of their troublesome behavior and into a more disciplined one, much like that of his. Mrs. Andrews is present in the musical but is only mentioned briefly in the book. She is never mentioned nor is she present in the film adaptation.

Mary Poppins’ personality changed subtly, but enough to affect the plot, in the three adaptations of her fun and magical story: book, film, and stage. She is gruff and cruel in the book. She is kind and gentle, yet stern, in the movie. She snarky and narcissistic with hints of gentleness in the musical. These different personalities affect the different ways in which she interacts with the Banks children, Bert, and Mr. Banks in the book, film, and stage adaptation. So that leaves the question: who is the real Mary Poppins? Is she the gruff woman thought up by P.L. Travers? Is she sweet and kind woman written up by Walt Disney? Or is she the self-absorbed sweetheart adapted to the story by Julian Fellowes. That is a decision left to the audience.?





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