In The Best Sellers, I’m reviewing the best selling albums in the United States from every year since 1956. With this column, I’ll be examining the music that Americans have made popular over the years analyzing the musical and societal trends that influence what people want to listen to.
1965: Mary Poppins (Original Motion Picture Soundtrack)
When it comes to entertainment in the mid-’60s, you couldn’t get any hotter than Julie Andrews. Andrews had become an instant breakout star on Broadway in the ‘50s and early ‘60s with her roles in big musicals My Fair Lady and Camelot whose soundtracks were also big sellers. By 1965, Andrews was quite possibly the biggest movie star in the world and it had only been a year since her big-screen breakthrough.
It was in 1965 that Andrews starred as Maria von Trapp in the film adaptation of The Sound of Music which was an instant blockbuster upon release becoming the year’s highest-grossing film and eventually the highest-grossing film of all time. Her film breakthrough the year before as the titular nanny in Mary Poppins was another blockbuster. That’s quite a run for someone just starting out in movies. Is there any other actor that’s had this huge of a breakthrough?
The impact extended to the Billboard charts where American record buyers in 1965 couldn’t get enough of the music from both films. Despite being the more recent movie at the time, the Sound of Music soundtrack wound up at #3 on 1965’s best-seller list. Record buyers were still going crazy over Andrews’ year-old movie about a lovable British nanny with that one very long song title. The Mary Poppins soundtrack spent 14 weeks on top of Billboard’s album chart managing to outsell everyone else in 1965 even the Beatles.
Mary Poppins is a movie that famously took a long time to come to fruition. Its origins date back to 1926 when author P.L. Travers introduced Mary Poppins as a short story before publishing it into a full book eight years later. It was the first of what would become an eight-book series on Mary Poppins lasting until 1988. The first book centers on the Banks family at 17 Cherry Tree Lane in London consisting of Mr. and Mrs. Banks and their four children: Michael, Jane, as well as twins John and Barbara. When one of the nannies walks out, Mary Poppins magically comes in when the wind blows east. While harsh, Mary Poppins makes good with the children especially Michael and Jane who immediately adore her. Throughout the story, Poppins and the kids go on various adventures together bringing joy into the kids’ lives until she leaves at the end when the wind blows east but promises to return.
The Mary Poppins books quickly attracted fans in the daughters of Walt Disney who wanted their father to adapt Mary Poppins to the big screen. For Disney, Mary Poppins represented a big opportunity for him to go into live-action films in addition to the animated work he had made his name on. Early attempts from Disney in adapting Mary Poppins went nowhere as Travers was adamant against having her series adapted into a movie. Travers was worried about Disney sweetening up Mary Poppins and the story to make it more palatable to a mainstream movie audience. It would take over two decades of convincing for Travers to finally allow Walt Disney to adapt her series in 1961. As part of the deal, Disney hired Travers as a film consultant.
Getting Travers’ permission didn’t calm her objections surrounding the adaptation. Travers hated everything that Disney and the studio came up with for the film. She didn’t like toning down the harsher elements of Mary Poppins, the animation, the house, the change of setting to the Edwardian era, the Sherman Brothers’ compositions preferring period setting music, the casting, turning Mrs. Banks into a suffragette, etc. Bad vibes all around. She even cried during the film’s premiere vowing to never have her books be adapted again. This conflict would be depicted in the 2013 Disney film Saving Mr. Banks starring Tom Hanks and Emma Thompson.
After considering Hayley Mills and Mary Martin for the role of Mary Poppins, Disney picked Julie Andrews after catching her on Broadway in Camelot considering her perfect for the role. Andrews was pregnant at the time leading to self-doubt about the role but Disney assured her they would wait until she gave birth to start filming. Before Poppins, Andrews had been considered for the film adaptation of My Fair Lady to play Eliza Doolittle, the role she originated on Broadway. But the head of Warner Bros., Jack Warner, passed on Andrews believing she wasn’t big enough of a name to carry a big-budget movie with the role of Eliza going to Audrey Hepburn.
Dick Van Dyke, the film’s other headlining star, was chosen for the part of Bart after Disney liked his work on The Dick Van Dyke Show, the CBS sitcom he was starring in at the time. Once given the part, Dyke pressured Disney to give him the part of the bank chairman Mr. Dawes Senior only getting the part after passing a screen test after Disney thought Van Dyke was too young for the part. Van Dyke would later portray Mr. Dawes’ son, Mr. Dawes Jr., in the 2018 Mary Poppins sequel Mary Poppins Returns this time as an actual old man.
The film takes place in London circa 1910 where we see the Banks family of Mr. Banks, a worker at London’s Dawes Tomes Mousley Grubbs Fidelity Fiduciary Bank, Mrs. Banks who is involved in the local suffragette movement, and their two kids Jane and Michael. The Banks’ nanny walks out after the kids run away when they lose their kite. Just as the family searches for a new nanny, Mary Poppins flies in among a gust of wind immediately getting the job. Poppins presents herself as a firm nanny who’s able to bring magic and joy to the Banks kids.
Together, they meet up with Bert as they go on fun adventures like transporting themselves into one of the drawings Bert creates and a floating tea party. Mr. Banks brings his kids to the bank giving them money to put into an account with Michael rebelling causing a bank run. The children run away where they run into Bert who with Mary Poppins go onto rooftops and ending up dancing with chimney-sweepers. From the incident, Mr. Banks gets fired and realizes he needs to spend more time with the kids. The film ends with Mr. Banks and his kids going to the park to fly a kite all while Mary Poppins leaves when the wind changes promising to return again.
Upon its release in August 1964, Mary Poppins garnered immediate critical acclaim and became a major box office hit going head to head with My Fair Lady. My Fair Lady also went head to head on the album charts placing at #4 on Billboard’s 1965 best-seller list. Some sources put Mary Poppins as the highest-grossing film of 1964 though others put My Fair Lady. Apparently, no one was keeping track of the highest-grossing films of 1964. Either way, Mary Poppins was a success quickly establishing Julie Andrews as a movie star netting her an Oscar and a Golden Globe for Best Actress. When accepting her Golden Globe, Andrews thanked Jack Warner as a sort of fuck you for being passed over for My Fair Lady.
A lot of the movie’s strength easily comes down to the performances especially Julie Andrews. It’s hard to imagine anyone other than Andrews in the role of Mary Poppins. Andrews brings the same warm and sunny delivery that she brings to everything which fits well with the character and the family-friendly image of Disney. She’s easily the best reason to watch Mary Poppins today. At age 84, Andrews is still around continuing to be a ray of sunshine in the world. Just last month, she and her daughter launched a children’s reading podcast called Julie’s Library. So if you’re looking to pass time during this quarantine than listen to Julie’s Library.
Another thing that helps the movie is the strength of the musical numbers. Like a lot of musicals and musical films, you are most likely familiar with some of the songs even if you’re not familiar with the movie. The three songs from Mary Poppins that are probably best remembered today, “A Spoonful of Sugar,” “Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious,” and “Chim Chim Cheree,” remain immortal standards to this day. If you need some happiness in your life you can’t go wrong with the music of Mary Poppins. A spoonful of sugar you might call it to make the medicine go down.
All of the music was written by the Sherman Brothers of Robert and Richard Sherman. Before Mary Poppins, the brothers had had some pop chart success as Tin Pan Alley songwriters before Walt Disney hired them. One notable hit they wrote was the creepy Johnny Burnette 1960 hit “You’re Sixteen” which peaked at #8 on the Billboard Hot 100 though you’ll likely know it more from Ringo Starr’s even more creepy 1973 cover which became a #1 hit in January 1974. The success with Mary Poppins led to the Sherman Brothers working on more Disney and non-Disney related projects like The Jungle Book and Chitty Chitty Bang Bang.
Both brothers stated they took inspiration from Edwardian era music for Mary Poppins. I’m not much familiar with that era so I can’t say for sure how representative it is. But I can say the songs do give off a very old-timey feel while giving it the Disney touch with sweet-sounding strings and horns. It’s definitely the work of professionals. What also helps with the music is everyone here sounds like they’re having fun. Even on the ridiculousness of “Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious,” the cast makes the most enjoyment of it. Dick Van Dyke’s Cockney account is famously considered one of the worst accents ever in movie history but despite that, it lends a certain charm that you can’t help but enjoy like in “Chim Chim Cher-ee.”
In terms of why the Mary Poppins soundtrack resonated with so many in 1965, the most obvious would be because of the massive phenomenon it was at the time. Another theory I have for its success is the British Invasion explosion that was still going strong in pop music in 1965. Obviously, Mary Poppins has absolutely nothing to do with the newfound rock and roll excitement going on at the time but its British setting was probably attractable enough to many Americans. Plus, My Fair Lady also had a British setting set within the Edwardian era so something was in the air. And from what I’ve learned, the ‘60s were a very good decade for British set films so the obsession with all things British wasn’t just limited to music.
For a lot of us, Mary Poppins is a movie so ingrained into the fabric of our lives along with its music. That’s certainly true of my experience with Mary Poppins. My music teacher in elementary school would often show Mary Poppins in class alongside other classic musical and Disney films. It’s still fun to think back on and re-watching the movie for this review was no different. Mary Poppins still holds up as a fun musical escape as well as looking great for the time being one of the first major films to combine live-action and animation. It’s hard to see Mary Poppins as anything but a force of good in the world. As long as we’re still here, Mary Poppins and its music will always have us feeling supercalifragilisticexpialidocious.
Next time: I try to understand the massive appeal of Herb Alpert & The Tijuana Brass and their brand of chintzy elevator music as I review Whipped Cream & Other Delights