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  • Writer's pictureKarey Pohn

Opening credits

Before the first words of the movie Mary Poppins are uttered, we already know a lot about what is happening.  Although it might escape conscious notice, there is a wealth of information in the opening credits.  Behind the credits, the scene is the twilight skies above  London, centering on Big Ben—perhaps a subtle allusion to the importance of time. Then the camera drifts to the left toward the setting sun, dusk (Herme's time) as the overture, a medley of some of the movie’s songs, plays as the credits begin to roll.  The haunting refrain of “Feed the Birds” is the first melody that we hear as the names of the four major stars of the movie are shown: Julie Andrews, David Tomlinson, Dick Van Dyke, and Glynis Johns. “Feed the Birds” is, according to songwriter Richard Sherman, the “heartbeat of the movie” (Stevenson, 2004, DVD), what the movie revolves around.  When the tune to “A Spoonful of Sugar” begins to play, we see the name “Mary Poppins” on the screen, and fittingly this is Mary Poppins’ theme song. The tune and chorus to “Chim Chim Cher-ee” plays as the credits for the Sherman brothers, who wrote the words and music appear; we are now above the middle of the Thames river, a very appropriate placement for this song that represents and liminality—it is Bert’s theme song as well.  Next, as the tune for “Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious” plays, we see, appropriately enough, the special effects credits appear, and then we zoom in on Mary herself, much of whose magic is made possible by the special effects wizards at Disney. 

Mary’s position, above the middle of the river, mirrors her role between the two Bankses (George and Winifred), too, as we will see.  Midway between order and chaos, Mary is structured and unruly at the same time.  The song changes back to “A Spoonful of Sugar” and we see Mary timelessly sitting on a cloud, with her umbrella and carpetbag at the ready, checking her makeup. 

Clouds symbolize many things, chiefly relating to either their "confused and ill-defined nature, or to qualities of apotheosis and epiphany” (Chevalier & Gheerbrant, 1996, p. 206).  For us they are Neptunian.  Chevalier and Gheerbrant, discussing the symbolism of clouds, note that the Sanskrit word for cloud is ghana, the compact and undifferentiated element, which is akin to the primal Embryo.  Similarly, in Islam, the cloud is the primordial, unmanifest unknowable state of Allah, and clouds are also walls that separate different cosmic levels. God took the form of a thick cloud when talking to Moses in Exodus. Traditionally, the Chinese see clouds as being symbolic “of sacrifices which the sage must make when he renounces his perishable being to gain eternity” (p. 207), while in Greek symbolism, clouds, especially rain clouds, are associated with fertility.  In addition to personified daughters of Ocean, clouds are also “symbols of metamorphosis observed not in any one of its states but in its fulfillment” (p. 207).  All of these meanings are appropriate for Mary Poppins, and metaphorically we already have an idea about who she is and what she represents.

Mist is also associated with clouds, and Bert sings about the mist in the context of Mary’s imminent and immanent arrival.  Mists represent the liminal phase, “the indeterminate . . . when shapes have yet to be defined or—when old shape are vanishing and have not yet been replaced by definite new shapes" (Chevalier & Gheerbrant, 1996, p. 661).  Chevalier and Gheerbrant note that mists are also symbolic of the primordial state prior to material creation. For the Japanese, horizontal and vertical mists denote a transition in timescale or a passing into a world of fantasy or wonder.  Mists are also associated with the Otherworld itself or the music of the Otherworld, which is also appropriate here in the overture. “Mists are also regarded as preludes to important revelations, prologues to manifestations,” (p. 661), which is precisely what we will see with Bert. 

The camera then pans down to the park at dusk, and Bert is performing the “Jolly Holiday” tune as a one-man band at the entrance to the park. Next, Bert switches to improvised verses, and during one of his verses, he goes into an “eerie introspection” (Kurtti, 1996, p. 86), to the liminal tune of “Chim Chim Cher-ee”: “Wind’s in the east / mist comin’ in / like somethin’ is brewing / about to begin. / Can’t put me finger on what lies in store / but I feel what’s to happen / all happened before.”  Bert has a twinkle in his eye and a look of wonderment.  The dog Andrew’s bark brings him back out of his reverie, and Bert finishes up his performance with a quick jaunty version of “Step in Time,” clownishly crashing the cymbal into his face as his finale—which elicits laughter and clapping from the audience.   “Chim Chim Cher-ee,” is Bert’s theme and is associated with liminality. 

The eerie introspection “I feel what’s to happen, all happened before” possibly alludes to the eternal return, and the primordial magical time of illo tempore.  In this way, Bert is setting apart the rest of the story from normal ordinary life.  Play is often set off this way: the “play frame,” announcing, “this is play”  (Bateson, 1990). This preliminary scene is similar to the separation phase in rites of passage, which focuses on clearly demarcating a space and time from the profane, or the construction of a cultural realm that was defined as out of time (V. Turner, 1982a, p. 24). Bert is a bricoleur, as his one-man-band shows, being a hodgepodge of instruments all put together. In his performance, Bert also “bricoled” together some of the movie’s music, which the overture did, too, subtly linking bricolage and liminality.  The character of Bert himself was bricoled together by Walt Disney from a number of different characters in several different Mary Poppins books (Stevenson, 2004, DVD).  After soliciting donations with his cap, Bert looks over to the camera and acknowledges us, the audience, and after putting words into our mouth, “Number 17 Cherry Tree Lane you say?” agrees to take us there.


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