The 1960s were the Golden Age of children’s movie musicals with the likes of Mary Poppins, The Sound of Music, and Chitty Chitty Bang Bang. All three were choreographed by Marc Breaux and Dee Dee Wood, who got their break into film when Dick Van Dyke, who had never trained as a dancer but had worked with them on an Andy Williams TV special, recommended them to Walt Disney for Mary Poppins.
Besides the choreographers and Van Dyke, Mary Poppins and Chitty Chitty Bang Bang also have in common music and lyrics by brothers Robert and Richard Sherman. All three of these common elements are on full display in the justly famous Step in Time from Mary Poppins and the similar Me Old Bamboo from Chitty Chitty Bang Bang.
But my focus here is how a bit of darkness and melancholy makes the happy parts of a musical that much brighter. I love how Bert foreshadows the arrival of Mary Poppins:
Although not used in the Scary Mary parody, it would work there. And the bit about “what’s to happen all happened before” echoes the first line in Disney’s Peter Pan, “All this has happened before. And all this will happen again.” That line had a far more ominous meaning in the re-imagined Battlestar Galactica, something made clear, if only by the title, in this ominous video mashup.
Walt Disney’s favorite song from Poppins was the melancholy Feed the Birds, and he insisted on bringing character actress Jane Darwell, who had played Ma Joad in The Grapes of Wrath, in from the old folks home to play the bird lady in what would be her final film role.
Think how much brighter Let’s Go Fly a Kite is because it is preceded by Feed the Birds. The sad song, based on one of the disparate tales in the original Mary Poppins books, provided Walt Disney and the Sherman brothers with the story arc needed to make the film not only successful but meaningful: Mary had come to teach not only the children, but also the parents, about the importance of family and charity.
Chitty Chitty Bang Bang has the cloying Hushabye Mountain to provide its melancholy note:
But this later film lacks the character development and meaningful story arc which makes Mary Poppins more successful and treasured. Its zany adventures don’t allow the characters to grow, and need I point out how the relationship between Potts and Scrumptious is pathetic when compared to the powerful love story of Captain Von Trapp and Maria in The Sound of Music?
Rodgers and Hammerstein knew the importance of melancholy, of course, and equipped The Sound of Music with Edelweiss:
But even cloyingly sad songs have power. Listen to Hushabye Mountain removed from its context as performed by jazz singer Stacey Kent:
Can you see how a bit of darkness brightens my day?