WATERTOWN, NY— There are a lot of lessons to be learned from the movie Mary Poppins. Mary Poppins provides strong guidance for almost every aspect of modern life.
Family? It’s a core theme. So is finding joy in life. Environmental stewardship? Look no further than a certain fox-hunting scene. The role of military in society? Admiral Boom and his roof-top ship cannon have the answers.
So many deeper themes run throughout Marry Poppins– everything from responsible citizenship in a free society to why no one told Dick Van Dyke that his cockney accent might constitute a hate crime is covered. There is one aspect of Marry Poppins that shines much brighter than any other though, and that’s charity.
Mary Poppins is undoubtedly a movie about the merits of charity. Consider Mr. George Banks, Esq. The harried father of the movie’s precocious children and employer of the titular nanny, Mr. Banks is a walking metaphor for modern society. His only concerns as a father and as an English gentleman are acquiring comfort. His awareness extends only the boundaries of his household and the bank he works for.
This is most clearly demonstrated in one of the movies earliest songs. The musical number “The Life I Lead” is an ode to middle class complacency. Mr. Banks desires nothing more than his pipe, his sherry and his consistent schedule. While not malevolent by any stretch, Mr. Banks’ concerns are limited and shortsighted. Mr. Banks’ concern for anything but creature comfort is at this point non-existent.
Enter Marry Poppins. While this magical nanny has many important lessons to impart, a key tenant of the Mary Poppins lifestyle is charity. Nowhere is this more apparent than with the song “Feed the Birds (Tuppence a Bag).” The song brings up a few good points, such as just what is a “tuppence?” and how best to use our money when we have it. It turns out that a tuppence it is two English pennies and that the best use of excess revenue is charitable giving.
Young Michael Banks, the male half of the two Banks family children in the film, has tuppence that his father wants him to give to the bank. Mary Poppins has different ideas, recommending that Michael instead spend his tuppence on some bread crumbs to feed the birds. This is clearly a song about giving of one’s self for a higher cause. While the literal interpretation of the message is a little silly, the underlying message is hard to ignore. What’s two pennies worth of breadcrumbs versus the very idea of giving charitably?
Every other song on the Mary Poppins soundtrack is light, fast paced and fun. “Feed the Birds” is slow, somber and reverent. The difference in melodic theme puts a special emphasis on this song above all others. According to Robert Sherman, one of the song’s two creators, “Feed the Birds” was also the favorite song of Walt Disney himself. It’s only natural then that one of the greater themes running through the course of the movie would be the most clearly represented by the most important song. While it lacks the peppy exuberance of “Supercalifragilisticexpialidoc
The bird woman from “Feed the Birds” is depicted as a noble figure and a force of good. By feeding the birds really what Michael is doing is making an active decision to put his money to a good cause. Juxtapose this to his other option: giving the tuppence to the bank, specifically the “Daws, Tomes, Mousely, Grubbs Fidelity Fiduciary Bank.” In the similarly titled song “Fidelity Fiduciary Bank,” the institution is depicted as coveting Michael’s tuppence with the sole desire to use it to make more money.
The scary elderly gentlemen who run the bank aren’t depicted as being concerned with using the money for anything particularly useful. Rather, they want money for the sake of amounting wealth. The bank desires nothing but money for money’s sake. Remember that the elderly bank owner “Elder Mr. Dawes” (Dick Van Dyke with a much more manageable old man accent) snatches the tuppence just as soon as young Michael opens his hand just the slightest bit. These bankers are of the greed and avarice variety.
In the third act climax of the movie, Michael’s tuppence trades hands twice. Michael gives the money to his father George thinking that it will make him happy. We know already that this isn’t the case, but young Michael isn’t so sure. It’s only when George wanders around nighttime London and reflects on the bird woman at the steps of St. Paul’s cathedral that he realizes that the money is not important. He ends up giving the tuppence to the bank, but it’s a symbolic move that demonstrates his release of a pursuit of material goods and creature comfort in favor of a better and kinder life.
There are many lessons to be gained from the Movie Mary Poppins. First, reflect on the fortuitous fact that Dick Van Dyke is remembered for bringing joy into the lives of millions through cinema instead of his ability to imitate an accent; because otherwise he might have spent the rest of his natural life in prison. More importantly, reflect on the nature of money and how it works in service of people, not the other way around. When your options are pointless accumulation of wealth versus doing good works with your resources, please “Feed the Birds.”