‘Mary Poppins,’ and a Nanny’s Shameful Flirting With Blackface
“Mary Poppins Returns,” which received four Academy Award nominations last week, is a delightfully derivative film that inspires our nostalgia for the innocent fantasies of childhood and the hilarious holidays that the first “Mary Poppins” movie conjured up for many should adult viewers.
Some of the new movie’s nostalgia, however, is tied to a blackface performance tradition that continues throughout Mary Poppins ‘canon, from PL Travers’ books to Disney’s 1964 adaptation, with disturbing echoes in the latest version of the studio’s material , “Mary Poppins Returns. ”
One of the more indelible images from the 1964 film is the blackout of Mary Poppins. When the magical nanny (played by Julie Andrews) accompanies her young protégés Michael and Jane Banks in her chimney, her face is covered with soot, but instead of wiping it off, she playfully powdered her nose and cheeks blacker. Then she leads the children with Dick Van Dyke’s sooty chimney sweep Bert on a dancing tour of the rooftops of London.
This could seem like a harmless comic scene if Travers’ novels didn’t associate the blackened faces of chimney sweeps with racist caricature. “Don’t touch me, you black pagan,” shouts a housemaid in “Mary Poppins Opens the Door” (1943) when a wave of his dark hand extends his hand. When he tries to approach the cook, she threatens to stop: “If this Hottentot goes down the chimney, I’ll go out the door,” she says, using an archaic sheet for black South Africans that is repeated on the page and screen.
The 1964 film repeats this racist panic in a farce. When the dark shapes of the chimney sweep onto a roof in time, Admiral Boom, a marine idiot, yells: “We are being attacked by the Hottentots!” and orders his cannon to be fired at the “cheeky devils”. We are involved in the joke as it is: these are not really black Africans; They are grinning white dancers in black. It’s a parody of the black menace; It’s even posted on a white nationalist website as evidence of the film’s racial hierarchy. And it’s not just fools like the admiral who invoke this language. In the novel “Mary Poppins in the Park” from 1952, the nanny herself tells an angry young Michael: “I understand that you are acting like a Hottentot.”
“Mary Poppins Returns” from the 1930s seems to offer a more racially broader vision of the London of the banks (at least among the working classes). But a key sequence in the film takes place in a much more engaging story from a suppressed part of Mary Poppins’ past.
[Read our review of “Mary Poppins Returns.”]
In Travers’ first “Mary Poppins” novel, published in 1934, a magical compass transports children around the world, including a stop where they meet a scantily clad “negro lady” who “has a tiny black pickaninny with nothing.” “handles. (“Pickaninny” has long been considered an offensive term for a black child.) She addresses Mary Poppins in the minstrel dialect and invokes the obscuration convention: “Mine, but they are very white babies. You want to use a bit of black boot polish on that. “
This episode proved so controversial that the book was banned from the San Francisco Public Library, leading Travers to drop the racist dialogue and transform the offensive caricature into an animal. (A number of British writers building on the tradition of turning American minstrels into animal fables: Beatrix Potter and AA Milne cited both Uncle Remus dialect stories, including “Br’er Rabbit” stories, as inspiration.)
In Travers’ 1981 revision, the “negress” became a hyacinth macaw who speaks elegant English. Travers, who was born in Australia to Anglo-Irish parents, claimed that black children loved reading the “Pickaninny Dialect” in her book, but she made the change because she didn’t want “Mary Poppins Hidden in a closet was ”From meddling adults.
I was surprised to see hyacinth macaws appear on Mary Poppins Returns. In the middle of a fantasy sequence, Emily Blunt’s nanny jumps on stage in a music hall to play a cheeky Cockney number with Lin-Manuel Miranda’s lamphead: “A cover is not the book,” which retells stories from Travers’ novels. One of these verses refers to a wealthy widow named Hyacinth Macaw, and the kicker is that she is naked: Blunt sings that “she only wore a smile,” and Miranda intervenes, “plus two feathers and a leaf.”
In the 1981 revision of Mary Poppins, her clothing is not mentioned. You would have to go back to the original from 1934 to find the “negress” with “a few clothes” sitting under a palm tree with a “crown of feathers”. There’s even a thatched hut behind Blunt and Miranda that mimics Mary Shepard’s 1934 illustration. (The hut was removed in the 1981 revision.)
The lesson from this number in the music hall is that “a king can be a crook,” an indication that Colin Firth’s kind banker could be more nefarious in the film. As Eric Lott and other cultural historians have documented, there was an important link between blackface performance and American and British working class audiences. Minstrels offered both the opportunity to define their white in contrast to black caricature and to sniff employers’ noses through the antics of minstrels.
When TD Rice, a popular white minstrel, crossed the Atlantic in the 1830s, his manager recalled inspiring chimney sweeps and apprentices who “turned and turned and skipped Jim Crow from morning to night to the annoyance of their masters, but the great joy of the Cockneys. “
Those chimney sweeps with minstrel dances were steps away from Dick Van Dyke’s soot-faced Bert, who pinned the admiral on the roof, or from Miranda’s lamphead in Mary Poppins Returns, who worked for Bert as a child. The Pickaninny minstrel stage convention turned black slave children into happy performers who, as historian Robin Bernstein argues, were “weirdly impervious to pain” caused by their work. Similarly, the dimly lit grin and unwavering footwork of the lamp headlights turn their dangerous work into a comic book game. “Smile and grin,” they sing, is Cockney, which rhymes with slang for “work”.
This minstrel story not only runs through Travers’ books; It’s also a mainstay of Disney musicals, including Jiving Blackbird, referred to as Jim Crow in Dumbo in 1941 (“I’m done with everything I see when I see an elephant fly”).
You could even say that Blackface Minstrelsy is part of Disney’s origin story. In an early Mickey Mouse short film, a parody of the 1933 anti-slavery novel “Uncle Tom’s Cabin,” titled “Mickey’s Mellerdrammer,” Mickey blackened his face with dynamite to play Topsy, a crazy-haired, ragged, comically unruly black kid from the book whose name had become synonymous with the Pickaninny stereotype.
In “Mary Poppins Returns” the name of the crazy-haired, ragged, comically unruly character (played by Meryl Streep) is also Topsy. It is a variation of a Mr. Turvy in the novel “Mary Poppins Comes Back” (1935), whose workshop is turned upside down.
Even if the common name of these characters is coincidental, it addresses a larger point: Disney has long evoked minstrels for its upside-down conversations – a nanny darkening, chimney sweeps mocking the upper class, grinning lamplights turn work into song.
In this latest version, Mary Poppins could serenade dated but strangely recurring Disney genres in the Oscar-nominated song “The Place Where Lost Things Go,” reminding us that “nothing is gone forever, just wrong Place”.