Tuesday, October 8, 2013

Bert's Chalk Drawings in "Mary Poppins" (1964)

I don't know how tuned in you are to new movie releases, but this December, Disney is releasing a film about the making of one of my favorite Disney movies, Mary Poppins (1964). Specifically the film, Saving Mr. Banks, deals with the struggles between Walt Disney (played by Tom Hanks) and P.L. Travers (played by Emma Thompson). I've seen the trailer and it will prove to be a very enjoyable movie, I'm sure. 
The fact that a movie is being made about it, speaks to the timeless magic and entertainment found in Mary Poppins. Mary Poppins is obviously a classic. Between its stars, its songs, and its story, it includes all the elements of great family entertainment. In this film, which would prove to be one of Disney's largest successes, indelible images were sunk into our cultural identity. Images like Mary Poppins flying down on her magical, talking umbrella. Scenes like the chimney sweeps performing their awe-inspiring "Stepping Time" routine. Moments like Mary, Bert, and the children jumping into the chalk drawing.
It's that moment I want to focus on in particular. Mary takes the Banks children out for a walk in the park, and they come upon the multifaceted Bert at work on some chalk drawings. They admire the drawings and then, magically, at Bert's urging and Mary's magic, jump inside the drawing. The following scenes are some of the most entrancing of the whole film: the actors interact with the animated characters in such numbers as "Jolly Holiday" and "Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious" Eventually, it begins to rain, the drawings in the real world begin to melt, and the characters are forced back into reality.

There's clearly magic in this scene, which above all strives to capture the magic of a child's imagination. Who can say they've never imagined themselves into a picture? Disney seizes upon this universal child's tendency, that even adults can recognize, to use it as a framework for his animated montage. The animation illustrates the craziness and improbability in such imaginative notions, which for some reason, allows us to accept the scene as we do. If jumping into a picture were possible- it would look like Marry Poppins, wouldn't it?
I don't know who chalked these remarkable drawings, but they certainly are most interesting. Most likely, the director just ordered a bunch of low level animators to come down on the set and start chalking away. The scenes vary from the country scene, which they jumped into, to a river scene to an empty picture frame (just right for Mary Poppins head).
When I analyze a scene like this, I witness Disney's creative and commercial genius. I'm sure that Disney loved animation both because of the magic and the moolah that it brought. Mary Poppins could have easily been a solely live-action film, but introducing the animated scenes (much to Travers' dismay, by the way) makes the film much more interesting, fun,  (and marketable).
The chalk drawing scene in the film is based on scenes in the book which are based on real history. In London, during the Victorian and Edwardian eras, chalk artists, known as screevers, were common the street. They attempted to make some money for themselves as they exhibited their sometimes crude, sometimes, beautiful artistic talents. Travers (and later Disney) used these artists as frameworks and foundations for magical escapades. They literally provided a jumping point from reality to the magical realm of imagination.
I haven't the foggiest idea about the vast and intriguing world of pavement art. In fact, I turned to an unique blog devoted completely to this subject for some superficial outside information. It's called "All My Own Work" and its devoted to the history of pavement art, especially in London. It's a very specific topic, but he does an excellent job about it, and I highly encourage the read. 


  1. Those are my late grandfather's sidewalk paintings:


  2. Replies
    1. Your grandfather did AMAZING work!

    2. Yes he did. :) He also did all of the scenic artwork for Back To The Future.


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