The Ellenshaw Paintings in the "Chim Chim Cher-ee" Rooftop Adventure of "Mary Poppins"
A few weeks ago, after watching the fabulous Saving Mr. Banks, my family had the strongest urge to watch Mary Poppins again, after all these years. I doubt that we were alone in our inclinations. Anyone leaving Saving Mr. Banks has the strongest urge to re-watch the perennial classic again after renewed interest. Besides, those catching Sherman Brothers songs are so easy to get stuck in your head... So, we watched the film and delighted in it anew. But, later that week, I found out that my littlest cousin had never seen the film. So, I took it upon myself to educate her for the better and show her what real entertainment is. Which meant I watched Mary Poppins twice in one week- which means I wake up to the soundtrack- which means, I can't stop thinking about the film. And in all honesty, I don't want to stop thinking about it.
Mary Poppins is the classic Disney film. Because, perhaps more than most Disney film, it's magic is so timeless and its message is so potent. I have the warmest place in my heart for Bedknobs and Broomsticks. I love that movie to bits. But I can't help but acknowledge that not only is Mary Poppins the better film, it is one of the best films. Not best Disney films. Best films. Period. I dare you to contradict me.
Mary Poppins continues to succeed in entertaining because of the pure quality of its production. It had everything going for it to succeed. A warm-hearted story (strung together from P.L. Travers' excellent concept) paired with great music. A great cast, led by the beloved Julie Andrews (who never appears more sharp and beautiful or... practically perfect) and Dick Van Dyke who could charm the very birds away from St. Pauls' bird woman (despite and because of his occasionally terrible Cockney accent). Not to mention a terrific supporting cast and those marvelous children. Furthermore, the film is beautiful to behold. And one of the many reasons it is such a lovely picture is the fantastic special effects (which consequently won an Academy Award in 1964).
A chief contributor to the magic of Mary Poppins was the famous Disney artist Peter Ellenshaw who painted over "one hundred evocative" mattes of London. Ellenshaw was esteemed artist of his own rights, but is best known for his work for Walt Disney. He worked on Treasure Island, 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, and, most famously, Mary Poppins. His work for Mary Poppins is exceptionally beautiful. In particular, I'm going to focus on one particular sequence that was composed almost entirely of mattes that Ellenshaw painted. As a quick aside, it is important to recognize the level of excellence found in the matte paintings of Mary Poppins. Many of the film's iconic sets of London were composed of equal, if not greater, artistry of the animation sequence ("Jolly Holiday").
I feel that the most visually beautiful and stunning scenes, and likewise, the most beautiful mattes of the film, are in (what I refer to as) the "rooftop adventure" scene. Soundtrack wise, it is nestled between (most of) Chim Chim Cher-ee" and "Step in Time." Mary, Bert, and the children trek through the jungle of chimneys and rooftops. They reach a final point, where Mary creates the "smoke staircase" and they climb up to a church steeple, where they are greeted with a sweeping view of London, dominated by St. Paul's Cathedral. In a brief, but stunning moment, the sun seemingly goes down and London by evening is transformed in London by night. And that beautiful scene is due to the work of Peter Ellenshaw.
Ellenshaw, who painted most of the London mattes, was most prolific (in my opinion) during this sequence. London never looked more incredible and impressive than from his brush. I am not exactly sure how he achieved the sunset effect. He could have painted a number of contrasting London skylines, which transitioned into each other, or he could have subtly changed one. I am in the opinion that it is multiple paintings. In the "Making of Mary Poppins" special feature, he explained how he poked small holes through the paint, so lights could shine through the glass gradually, achieving the effect of London's lights being slowly turned on as the sun goes down. The effect is achieved so successfully, that one can't help but feel you are enjoying a bird's eye view of Edwardian London, despite the impossibility of it.
In my opinion, the painstaking and meticulous matte paintings of Peter Ellenshaw are just as convincing than the computer graphics of today. And more than that, they are assuredly more beautiful, especially when you realize the lengths that Ellenshaw went to create a realistic and magical world for us to enjoy. Ellenshaw's paintings of London have been described as slightly impressionistic and I'm inclined to agree with them. Impressionism is about light and color and how light plays with color, the magic within color and light if you will. The world of Mary Poppins is real, but it's not completely realistic because of its quintessential magic, just as impressionism is real, but is not quite completely real. And it is certainly beautiful and fantastic world.