he 1964 world première of “Mary Poppins” was held at Grauman’s Chinese Theatre in Hollywood, and it was the kind of spectacle for which the Disney organization had become famous. Throngs of screaming fans were greeted by Mickey Mouse, Goofy, Snow White and the dwarfs, as well as by entertainers who gestured toward the movie’s Edwardian setting: a twelve-piece pearly band, chimney-sweep dancers, valets dressed as bobbies, and a bevy of pretty Disneyland hostesses, whose traditional uniforms (kilts and black velvet riding helmets) suggested a general Englishness. Hollywood luminaries arrived in chauffeured automobiles, the women in ball gowns and mink stoles (Angie Dickinson, Maureen O’Hara, ...view middle of the document...
Neither was the case. The picture, she thought, had done a strange kind of violence to her work. She would turn the personally disastrous première into a hilarious dining-out story, with Disney as the butt of her jokes. But she had a premonition that the movie she hated was about to change everything for her. Writing to a friend, she remarked that her life would never be the same.
Travers’s dreams of becoming a famous writer were realized because of Disney’s movie, but its scope eclipsed everything else that she had or would achieve. She spent the rest of her long life (she died in 1996, at the age of ninety-six) linked artistically and personally to Mary Poppins. It was a persona—spinsterish children’s author, creator of a spinsterish character—that overshadowed the more complicated identity she had devoted her life to creating. The movie also left a deep impression on the generations of children who saw it during its three theatrical releases, in 1964, 1973, and 1980. These were children who grew up in an America in which nannies were as unfamiliar to middle-class neighborhoods as Jaguars and Martians. But they would become adults in an America that had invented a new nanny culture. To an astonishing extent, the way they came to think and talk about their employees was shaped by the movie they had seen so many years earlier.
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Nannies have become a force in American life because of the three-decade-long influx of middle-class mothers to the workforce, and the more recent wave of cheap female immigrant labor. “She’s the Guatemalan Mary Poppins!” a working mother will happily announce of her new employee—or the Colombian or the Caribbean one. It’s hard to find a book or an article about hiring a nanny that doesn’t make mention of the old girl. And even though the culture and experience of a Third World child-care provider are as removed from those of an Edwardian nanny as it is possible to be, we understand what the reference means: the nanny is good, she’s kind, and her ability to transform a chaotic household into a place of order and contentment verges on the supernatural. What people remember about the movie is that the family finds happiness and the nanny is magical. What they misremember is that it’s a film with a surprising moral: fire the nanny. In a sense, “Mary Poppins” is an anti-nanny propaganda film, the “Reefer Madness” of the working-mother set.
The script for “Mary Poppins” was written by a group of men in Burbank in the early sixties, and it is set in London in 1910, in the household of a martinet banker (Mr. Banks), a suffragette (Mrs. Banks), and their two young children, Jane and Michael. But the Bankses’ story opens with an entirely contemporary predicament: a mother with tons of work being blindsided by a crisis more terrifying to the maternal soul than infidelity or financial reversal—nanny trouble. When first we meet Mrs. Banks, she is dancing along the...