Wednesday, August 6, 2008

Feeding the Birds

I mentioned a few posts ago that Loretta and I watched Mary Poppins (1964) last year. There were, for her, a couple boring stretches (mostly where the main plot advances), though not many, and she loved the animated portions, the dance numbers, and the general silliness of floating to the ceiling, shooting up chimneys, racing carousel horses, and so forth. Especially catchy was the chimney sweep number: as I mentioned, we were stepping in time for, well, quite some time.

The portion of the film that permanently embedded itself in our lives, however, was the second lullaby, entitled “Feed the Birds” (otherwise known as “Tuppence a Bag”). I remembered it from my own childhood and Loretta was entranced immediately—it didn’t hurt that we have a large photograph of St. Paul’s Cathedral hanging above our television, with various other photos of London hanging around the living room. So, ever the excellent father, I watched it a few times to get it down and integrated it into our bedtime repertoire; repeated requests have made it a standard, sung at least two out of three times that I put her to bed. A few nights ago she sang along, verbatim, and it was adorable, at least to this daddy. The song is sweet, soft, and sentimental—all basically good things for a lullaby (though it covers quite a few octaves in range). It can seem a bit long when you’re in a rush, but the only time it’s actually come back to bite me was in the daytime, outside, when Loretta actually wanted to stop and feed all the darn pigeons in Fort Tryon Park. That seemed taking it a bit far, but indeed it is the very point, so we did in fact share our squirrel bread with them. (Andrew Blechman  and Mo Willems would be proud.)

So that’s the parental plug. Here’s some cineaste material. Like most Disney songs from that era—the last years of Walt’s life—it was written by the Sherman brothers, Robert and Richard.

The Sherman brothers have been incredibly prolific, and decorated, songsmiths, working up to the present on, for instance, The Tigger Movie and West End adaptations of their film musicals. They’re best known for Mary Poppins, The Aristocats, The Jungle Book—anyone who can get Louis Prima to scat is a winner in my book—and Chitty Chitty Bang Bang. They also wrote “It’s a Small World,” which I guess you either love or hate but you’ll never forget. They won two Oscars for Mary Poppins—the Best Song award went to “Chim Chim Cher-ee”—and it represents some of their best work. On the recent DVD’s bonus features Richard recalls the strength of “Feed the Birds” in general and for Walt in particular: he would ask for Richard to sing it, in private, whenever he (Walt) was feeling particularly strained. And it is, as Richard notes, a beautiful song in its subject matter as well as its musicality: many, many songs are about love, or heartache, or personal growth, etc., but this one is about charity. “That’s what it’s all about,” we are told Walt said.

The role of the bird lady went to one of America's greatest actresses, Jane Darwell. Mary Poppins was her last film—the DVD bonus features, again, tell us that Walt personally went to beg her out of retirement. She's probably best known for her role as Ma Joad in John Ford's 1940 The Grapes of Wrath (seen below), but prior to Mary Poppins she'd been in nearly two hundred films (following imdb), starting in 1913. Her role for The Grapes of Wrath, which won her an Oscar, is remarkable. I've seen her in a few other things as well and they always stand out. Because I've studied Mormon cinema I've seen Henry Hathaway's Brigham Young (1940, a busy year for her), where she played Eliza Kent, a stoic and eventually saintly pioneer mother, and a decade later in a smaller but no less remarkable John Ford film, Wagon Master (1950). Here she was given an opportunity to display her broad comic talents, blowing her trumpet in Ward Bond's face with all the gusto in the world. But she was again a strong matriarchal figure.

The gravitas that Darwell's face brings to the bird woman role—the combined effect of all her previous work, now embodied in this little, disheveled bag lady—makes her appearance a powerful moment. She is admittedly given virtually nothing to do but speak in a mediocre British accent, but just her presence, her face, weathered by years, bring to mind all that Ma Joad, Eliza Kent, and her other roles stood for. This combines with the Shermans’ lyrics to make her brief appearance the moral center of the entire film. I would go so far as to say that all of Mary Poppins hinges around this song and Darwell's appearance in the subsequent scene. Feeding the birds is, after all, exactly what Mary Poppins does throughout the film, and when she can show Mr. and Mrs. Banks how to do so as well, her work is done.

Speaking of Mary Poppins, there’s also Julie Andrews in her cinematic debut, about whom I won’t even start. When I was in graduate film school in London one faculty member criticized Andrews’ films (apparently meaning this and The Sound of Music, basically) as being too idealistic and disconnected from reality. The Head of Studies simply replied that anyone who disparaged Julie Andrews had no business in a cinema. Enough said.

So after all that ado I thought I’d include her performance followed by the song’s lyrics. The song’s not perfect, nor is it my favorite in the whole world, but it’s certainly been a hit in our house. (Tuppence, by the way, is two pence, or pennies.)

Early each day to the steps of St. Paul’s
The little old bird woman comes.
In her own special way to the people she calls,
Come, buy my bags full of crumbs.

Come, feed the little birds, show them you care.
And you’ll be glad if you do.
Their young ones are hungry,
Their nests are so bare.
All it takes is tuppence from you.

Feed the birds, tuppence a bag,
Tuppence, tuppence, tuppence a bag.
Feed the birds. That’s what she cries
While overhead her birds fill the skies.

All around the cathedral the saints and apostles
Look down as she sells her wares.
Although you can’t see it, you know they are smiling
Each time someone shows that he cares.

Though her words are simple and few
Listen, listen, she’s calling to you.
Feed the birds, tuppence a bag,
Tuppence, tuppence, tuppence a bag.

(Instrumental bridge)

Though her words are simple and few
Listen, listen, she’s calling to you.
Feed the birds, tuppence a bag,
Tuppence, tuppence, tuppence a bag.

On another note, we're going on a little vacation--the first since 2005--back west to see family for a week or so, so I'm going to take my first official blog hiatus until about the 20th. Be sure to catch the season premiere of Wow! Wow! Wubbzy on the 18th.