Mary Poppins—song, dance and latent socialism
My daughter’s tiny school is staging a performance of Mary Poppins this coming holiday season and the rehearsals have begun in earnest (if there is a connection between Mary Poppins and Christmas or Hanukkah—or any other religious holiday for that matter—then it’s lost on me). The script that the school is using is adapted from the Disney film version that came out in 1964. Some may remember the film for its magic, fantasy, song and dance. But I was struck by the film's latent socialist ideas and its implied attack on bankers and investment.
As most of us know, Mary Poppins appears out of the sky to become the governess for little Jane and Michael Banks. Through force of will and wit she sidesteps the job interview and other formalities and before we know it she is pulling improbably big things out of small bags, neatening rooms with a snap of her fingers, and sliding up and down banisters with gravity-defying grace. Poppins seems to know the local street musician and sidewalk painter, Bert, and with him and the children they "jump into" chalk paintings on the sidewalk and explore fantastic worlds where they can ride merry-go-round horses across the countryside. In other scenes they float into the air with the power of laughter, and swish up chimneys to observe fantastical rooftop dancing.
Mr. Banks is a busy banker, striving for order and stability in his work and his home. Mrs. Banks is a suffragette, preoccupied with her marching and protests for women’s right to vote. Neither have time to spend with the children. Mary Poppins has ostensibly arrived on the scene to look after the children and assist with their education. Mr. Banks is frustrated with the frivolous ways that Mary Poppins entertains the children, so he brings them to the bank to see where he works.
Young Michael has two pence ("tuppence") that he hopes to use to buy some seed to feed the pigeons. But when the senior director of the bank gets wind of this, he’s told that he must invest the money, and not throw it away on making pigeons fat. What follows is a remarkable musical scene where the bank directors outline the exciting opportunities available through investment
You see, Michael...
You'll be part of railways through Africa
Dams across the Nile
Feats of ocean greyhounds
Majestic self-amortizing canals
All from your tuppence prudently invested...
Michael's response to all of this is clearly disgust, and he and his sister are slowly backed up (literally) against a wall as the bank's directors enthusiastically sing the merits of investing. When Michael shouts "give me my money" he inadvertently prompts a run on the bank.
What’s so striking about this scene is that it has the opposite effect of what I imagine was its original intent. All of those things that wise investments produce actually are exciting, and if presented appropriately, should fire the imagination of a six-year-old boy more than a clutch of dirty pigeons.
The creator of Mary Poppins, P.L. Travers, was not particularly political, but like many writers, artists and intellectuals between the world wars, was intrigued enough by Soviet communism to travel to Russia and visit factories, prisons and nurseries in an effort to learn about the gifts of collectivism (George Bernard Shaw, Theodore Dreiser, and Sidney and Beatrice Webb were among those that undertook the socialist "grand tour" as well).
Collectivism was not just political fashion, but heralded as the solution to a future of classless prosperity and financial stability. With the propaganda pushed by Russia and China, and the widespread infiltration of the Comintern throughout Europe and North America, communism increasingly came to be favoured by artists, writers and filmmakers. The criticism of the bankers and the celebration of the dancing chimney sweeps in Mary Poppins should be seen against this ideological background.