The movie title of John Lee Hancock’s Tom Hanks vehicle had it right: Mary Poppins is all about saving Mr. Banks. But from whom? Who is this mortal man, Banks (David Tomlinson), and why should he raise such a hubbub in 1910 London, capital of the world? Why should Mary Poppins be involved?
Simple: The 1964 movie Mary Poppins is a retelling of the Bible. It’s a tale of the cosmic struggle between God and the Devil. Call it the Book of Job reimagined, or Damn Yankees, or any of those old stories where Good and Evil cleverly duel for a single man’s soul.
Begin with George Banks. Who is he? He tells us:
It’s grand to be an Englishman in 1910
King Edward’s on the throne
It’s the Age of Men
I’m the lord of my castle
The sovereign, the liege
I treat my subjects, servants, children, wife
With a firm but gentle hand
At the beginning of the film, Mr. Banks’ allegiances clearly tilt in favor of the bank. He adores his place in life (as a prominent financier) and he covets future position. Because he loves those trinkets, his boss Mr. Dawes Sr. has power over him. After all, George Banks has a position of some authority in the money industry, and he’s on the verge of being made partner. Mr. Dawes Sr. and the rest of the bank board have every reason to push George towards conformity. In turn, George Banks has every reason to comply, at the forfeit of his family and his soul.
Then this eccentric au pair from the clouds arrives. She descends without warning, as the bats do at the beginning of Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas. This changes everything.
We know who Mary (Julie Andrews) is. As Madonna put it, just like a dream, she is not what she seems. She comes from the sky; she literally sits on a cloud. She’s perfect, prim, unknowable. She has love for her new charges, the Banks children, but her doctrine is strictly enforced. She has all these rules for practically perfect people.
If that’s true, if the movie Mary Poppins is Biblical, and Mary is God, then it’s pretty clear who Bert (Dick Van Dyke) represents. Pleased to meet you, hope you guess my name—but what’s troubling is the nature of his game.
Our friend Bert gets around. He also takes the form of Mr. Dawes Sr., the film’s antagonist, but it’s always Bert’s charming grin, winking from behind the pasteboard mask. Bert is a walkin’ man, coming out of nowhere, like Randall Flagg, an ageless stranger. He holds no clear profession, save chimney sweep, and yet in his scenes, everyone tips their hat to this gregarious, rootless man, lord and lady alike. Bert could do anything; the Gunslinger could chase Bert through a hailstorm of bullets and the sweep would come out smiling. Stephen King once said, “I think the Devil is probably a pretty funny guy.” Bert’s popular, and why wouldn’t he be? Bert is the Prince of this World. It’s his place, after all.
Bert all but tells us:
Now as the ladder of life
Has been strung
You may think a sweep’s
On the bottommost rung
Though I spends me time
In the ashes and smoke
In this ’ole wide world
There’s no happier bloke
And then there’s a moment in the same song during which Bert is wistful about his exile from bliss, into this morally grey world that is his keep:
Up where the smoke
Is all billered and curled
’tween pavement and stars
Is the chimney sweep world
When there’s ’ardly no day
Nor ’ardly no night
There’s things ’alf in shadow
And ’alfway in light
Everything about him is designed to mock the celestial chorus: His accent is a comical put-on. His supposed profession is a heaven-aimed occupation, bathed in ashes and soot. Seen clearly, it’s a deliberate and clever gibe at the place from which he fell, never to return.
In the game of George Banks, neither Bert nor Mary can act directly, but they can move obliquely. Like Gandalf, Poppins is not above manifesting her power, even on petty occasions. During the film’s dance scene on the roof, to show off to the children she nannies (Jane, played by Karen Dotrice, and Michael) as well as to Bert’s legions, Mary Poppins activates twirl mode for a solid hour. Here’s spinning; that’s a good trick.
Still, given the seriousness of the occasion—the meeting of these two entities on this mortal plane to decide the fate of this man Banks—why are Bert and Mary so chummy? Why is there no obvious strife?
These are not human beings. They have a relationship that dates back eons—the two combatants are dear old frenemies and there are rules to this game. We, the viewers, come in late. We are witnessing a recent chapter of an endless tale. By this point, Bert seems to have accepted that he cannot challenge Mary’s dominion, but he relishes playing his part, as any good actor would. As far as their friendship goes, who can appreciate you better than those who have known you from the beginning?
Bert and Mary have been doing this—debating about mortals—for a very, very, very long time. This is the battle for the soul of George Banks, a successful man so complacent that he would make Bilbo Baggins blush.
Jane: Father? In a cage?
Bert: They makes cages in all sizes and shapes, you know. Bank-shaped some of ‘em, carpets and all.
Seen in this light, much of the film Mary Poppins makes more sense. “Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious” is a song about a magic word, a clever stand-in for the unpronounceable and unknowable true name of God. In the lyrics of the song, nobody really knows the word—and nobody should know it. “The biggest word you ever heard.” Bert knows the word, or thinks he does, however, and the ballad is the story of his Fall:
Because I was afraid to speak
When I was just a lad
Me father gave me nose a tweak
And told me I was bad
But then one day I learned a word
That saved me aching nose
The biggest word you ever heard
And this is how it goes
Much of the plot of Mary Poppins is obsessively concerned with George’s son, Michael (Matthew Garber), and his tuppence. What will Michael spend the tuppence on? Will he feed the birds, “tuppence a bag,” as Mary suggests? These are the same birds that neither sow nor reap, but gather around the old woman, who sits on the steps of the church named for the St. Paul, as…
All around the cathedral, the saints and apostles
Look down as she sells her wares
Although, you can’t see it
You know they are smiling
Each time someone shows that he cares
Of course, George Banks wants his son Michael to give his tuppence to the finance. Michael refuses, and there is a run on the bank. After the chaos, Michael hands the tuppence over to George.
Here we get to the heart of the movie, and our story: The tuppence represents George Banks’ soul. To spend his tuppence on the birds of the air, or the bank—that decision determines which eternal force has won.
In every way, George is a monstrous sham. His being belongs to Mammon. His last name is literally “Banks.” Indeed, he is pledged to the farcical Dawes, Tomes, Mousely, Grubbs Fidelity Fiduciary Bank. This is the bank headed by Mr. Dawes Sr., who, again, is clearly Bert in disguise. The bank is another one of Bert’s wily jokes: The root of fiduciary is “trust,” and the root of fidelity is “faith.” The end of his workplace could translate to “Faith Trust Bank”—”Trust faith, Banks.” But George cares more about his employer than his family.
About that employer, Mr. Dawes Sr: The old man is a coughing, wheezing, aged patriarch with a white beard. Clearly, Bert has designed his disguise to be a provocative, outrageous aping of God the Father. It’s another example of Bert tweaking Poppins: “See? Forget the spoonful of sugar. This is what you’re really like, Mary.” He’s teasing her. Poppins, understandably, rolls her eyes. Dawes and the rest of the bank executives sing a song about colonial exploitation, “Fidelity Fiduciary Bank.” The entire proceeding is a blasphemous hymn to finance which ends on the amen chord.
After this mishap, Banks’ trust in finance is shaken. Maybe he’ll turn back to his family, to Poppins. Bert sees that George is weakening, and knows he needs to scare him back to the fold. He taunts Banks:
Bert: [sings] You’re a man of high position, esteemed by your peers. And when your little tykes are crying, you haven’t time to dry their tears… And see their thankful little faces smiling up at you… ’cause their dad, he always knows just what to do…
George: Well, look—I…
Bert: Say no more, gov’ner. [sings] You’ve got to grind, grind, grind at that grindstone… Though childhood slips like sand through a sieve… And all too soon they’ve up and grown, and then they’ve flown… And it’s too late for you to give—just that spoonful of sugar to ’elp the medicine go down—the medicine go dow-own, medicine go down. [speaks again] Well, so long, gov’ner. Sorry to have troubled you.
Bert is on the move: He has George report to the banks’ creepy inner sanctum, in a spooky-as-hell midnight rendezvous. There, in the form of Dawes, Bert tempts Banks by scaring him, and making him beg for his job. George’s hat is punched through. “At last,” Bert-as-Dawes thinks, “I have you.”
Not so fast. At the final moment, Banks pronounces the magical word, here symbolically standing in for the true name of God—”Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious!”—and is wracked by giddy, fevered peals of disturbing laughter. Then he flourishes the tuppence, emblazoned with the sign of the King. His inexplicable liberation is at hand. George Banks tells an absurd joke about a man with a wooden leg and leaves.
Bert is dumbfounded. Poppins has beat him again! The Devil is so surprised, he forgets himself, forgets his mortal disguise. In a moment of weakness, racked with hideous laughter, he breaks gravity. Watch that floating scene again, and tell me it’s not straight from a ’60s Italian horror movie.
The next day, George spends the tuppence on a kite, here clearly a symbol for the immortal soul finding its way to heaven. We get a shot of Bert at the end. He’s still amused. Of course he’s selling kites; he’ll get a profit some way. The Devil always has an angle. Poppins has whupped him yet again, but that’s almost to be expected by now. These little contests are the moments of existence that Bert enjoys most. This game. In a sense, Poppins wins and loses: She cannot admit to feeling as humans do, and so she leaves ASAP, as soon as the wind changes direction. Bert wishes her farewell, knowing they’ll play again one day.
George: Will you be good enough to explain all this?
Mary Poppins: First of all I would like to make one thing quite clear.
Mary Poppins: I never explain anything.