Out on home video this week is Saving Mr. Banks, about the making of Mary Poppins and the battle of wills between keeper of the kingdom, Walt Disney and intractable author P. L. Travers. This year marks the 50th anniversary of Mary. I was eight-years-old, and an avid regular at our local suburban Chicago movie theatre, my beloved Alycon.
I looked it up: 1964 was a good year for movies: The Americanization of Emily; Dr. Strangelove; Goldfinger; Nothing But a Man; The Pawnbroker; A Shot in the Dark; Topkapi, The Umbrellas of Cherbourg; and Zorba the Greek, among them.
But it was especially good if you were eight-years-old, and paging through my mental scrapbook of movie memories recalls a bygone era of Saturday matinee fare. We rode our bikes to the Alcyon or our parents dropped us off to see movies that were just for us, the kids; that year, movies like Hey There, It’s Yogi Bear, Robinson Crusoe on Mars, Flipper’s New Adventure, and yes, Santa Claus Conquers the Martians. Jerry Lewis, our Pied Piper, who turned 88 this week, delivered with The Disorderly Orderly and the less kid-friendly The Patsy.
It was a particularly prolific year for Walt Disney Studios, which at that time was more invested in live-action family films than animation. In addition to Mary Poppins, there were The Misadventures of Merlin Jones, costarring Annette Funicello at her most Annette-ness, The Three Lives of Thomasina, A Tiger Walks and the more mature “The Moon-Spinners (“A surprise in suspense,” the ads promised, and they weren’t kidding. My first shock at the movies and it was in a Disney film, when a bloodied hand suddenly jutted into the frame, terrifying Hayley Mills and me).
There were signs that the times they were a changin’. Elvis Presley’s films that year, Kissin’ Cousins, Viva Las Vegas and Roustabout paled next to the high spirits and vitality of recent American invaders, the Beatles in A Hard Day’s Night. Kids and teenagers were lined up around the block for this one and they drowned out all the dialogue. Some Chicago theatres had adults-only screenings to keep the screamers out.
There were films we saw as a family, such as the musicals My Fair Lady, The Unsinkable Molly Brown, and Robin and the 7 Hoods, a guilty pleasure if only for Frank Sinatra’s signature ode to Chicago, “My Kind of Town” and Sammy Davis Jr.’s’ rat-a-tat “Bang Bang” number. And every once in awhile, my parents would expose their children to more deep dish stuff like “Becket,” which to an uncomprehending eight-year-old was what WTF looked like in 1964.
My parents did think I was old enough to see “Goldfinger,” my first James Bond movie. The Aston-Martin ejector seat, that laser, and Odd Job made more of an impression on me than Pussy Galore.
I’ve got no ending for this and no deep thoughts. Whatever else its merits, Saving Mr. Banks, in its chronicle of Mary Poppins, rekindles memories of a year at the movies that found me wide-eyed in my Alcyon seat, eagerly awaiting the coming attractions to see what wonders I would see next.