Tuesday, April 14, 2009

"Mary Poppins Was Right"

Mr. Dawes: “In 1773, an official of this bank unwisely loaned a large sum of money to finance a shipment of tea to the American colonies. Do you know what happened?”

Mr. Banks: “Yes, sir. Yes, I think I do. As the ship lay in Boston Harbor, a party of the colonists, dressed as Red Indians, boarded the vessel, behaved very rudely, and threw all the tea overboard. This made the tea unsuitable for drinking, even for Americans.”

Mr. Dawes: “Precisely. The loan was defaulted. Panic ensued within these walls. There was a run on the bank!”

The Elder Mr. Dawes: “From that time to this, sir, there has not been a run on this bank. Until today! A run, sir, caused by the disgraceful conduct of your son. Do you deny it?”

Mr. Banks: “I do not deny it, sir. And I shall be only too glad to assume responsibility for my son.”

The Elder Mr. Dawes: “What are you waiting for? Get on with it!”

Mr. Dawes: “Yes, Father.” [Ceremoniously removes and tears apart Banks’s red lapel flower; unbuttons Banks’s umbrella.]

Banker 1: “No, not that!”

Banker 2: “Steady on.”

[Dawes stretches the ribs of Banks’s umbrella backwards, making it useless, then punches a hole through the top of Banks’s bowler hat.]

The Elder Mr. Dawes: “Well, do you have anything to say, Banks?”

Mr. Banks: “Well, sir, they do say that when there’s nothing to say, all you can say … [Removes from his pocket the tuppence his son Michael gave him to cheer him up—the earlier row was due to Michael’s wanting to use the money to buy crumbs to feed the birds and his father and the other bankers’ pressuring him to invest it “prudently, thriftily, frugally” in the bank.]

The Elder Mr. Dawes: “Confound it, Banks! I said, do you have anything to say?”

Mr. Banks: [Giggles.] "Just one word, sir."

The Elder Mr. Dawes: “Yes?”

Mr. Banks: “Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious.”

The Elder Mr. Dawes: “What?”

Mr. Banks: “Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious. Mary Poppins was right. Extraordinary. It does make you feel better!”

The Elder Mr. Dawes: “What are you talking about? There’s no such word.”

Mr. Banks: “Oh, yes. It is a word. A perfectly good word, actually. Know what there’s no such thing as? It turns out, with due respect, when all is said and done, that there’s no such thing as you!” [Pointing to Dawes and the other bankers.]

The Elder Mr. Dawes: “Impertinence, sir!”

Mr. Banks: “Speaking of impertinence, like to hear a marvelous joke? A real snapper!”

The Elder Mr. Dawes: “Joke? Snapper?”

Mr. Banks: “Yes. There are two wonderful young people, Jane and Michael. And they meet one day on the street, and Jane says to Michael, ‘I know a man with a wooden leg named Smith.’ And Michael says, ‘Really? What’s the name of his other leg?’” [Breaks out into laughter.]

The Elder Mr. Dawes: “The man’s gone mad. Call the guard!”

Mr. Banks: “Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious. I’m feeling better all the time!” [Approaches Dawes, extending the hand with Michael’s tuppence in it.]

Mr. Dawes: “Banks, don’t you dare strike my father!”

Mr. Banks: “There’s the tuppence. The wonderful fateful supercalifragilisticexpialidocious tuppence. Guard it well. Goodbye!”

The Elder Mr. Dawes: “Wait! Where are you going?”

Mr. Banks: “I don’t know. I might pop through a chalk pavement picture and go for an outing in the country. Or I might seize a horse off a merry-go-round and win the Derby! Or I might just fly a kite! Only Poppins would know!”

The Elder Mr. Dawes: “Poppins?”

Mr. Banks: “My nanny. She’s the one that sings that ridiculous song: ‘A spoonful of sugar makes the medicine go down, the medicine go down, the medicine go down …’”

From the 1964 Walt Disney film Mary Poppins, perf. by Arthur Malet, David Tomlinson, and Dick Van Dyke


Needing a spoonful of sugar today, with tax day tomorrow and all the rest of the banal aggravations of adult life, I rewatched Mary Poppins, my favorite movie when I was eleven, with a performance by Julie Andrews that, more than ever before, seems Oscar-worthy to me, though the film's special effects look less snappy now than they did in the sixties.

Even as a child, I sensed that this movie was a diatribe against the funless, sterile stinginess of capital investment, male hegemony, and the bourgeoisie, though, at eleven, I would not have known to put it that way.

(And, as the dialogue above indicates, it is a gentle reminder—with nationwide tax-day tea parties tomorrow planned by libertarians of different stripes, along with a tagalong crew of anxious Fox-TV Republicans empty of ideas of their own—that the colonial patriots of Boston were not protesting taxes simply so that they could keep every last cent of their earnings. Tossing English tea into the harbor was, in fact, an act of some significant sacrifice for the colonists—greater than the tax money owed and representative of a willingness to reduce substantially the quality of their lives. It was a gesture as much of magnanimity as of independence and entitlement.)

No doubt the lesson I learned from this movie—that tuppence can be saved in a bank or, better yet, spent on breadcrumbs to feed the birds or to buy string and paper (the Financial Times, it would appear) to make a kite of—has not altogether benefited my savings account or station in life. But I would have to say my life’s happier and better for my having had this movie’s influence at a young age.

I would hope that the financial crisis would lead us to distrust the practical wisdom of authority figures and regain a sense of the value of a song, a dance, a good joke (or even a bad one), awareness of the plight of the poor (Poppins makes a point that Banks passes the little old bird-woman every day and fails even to see her), tidiness and self-discipline, laughter, a little rum punch, young people, and imagination.

As far as I’m concerned “supercalifragilisticexpialidocious” was Disney-speak for “fuck it all.” But I may push the movie’s rose-colored themes too far. So be it. I’m better for it, I think. There is, I think, a way to balance altruism, the pleasure principle, and good sense—not through mindless escapism, longings for the past and cheap sentiment, or the pursuit of new heroes to follow, but through clear-eyed assessment of what really matters in life and willingness to move on.

As Poppins herself moves on, at the movie’s end, having performed her duties at No. 17 Cherry Tree Lane and taught her lessons well, she says, “Practically perfect people never permit sentiment to muddle their thinking.”

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