The death this week of composer Robert B. Sherman at the age of 86, one half of the famed Sherman Brothers, is a tremendous loss for the world of music. The name might not immediately ring familiar, but his body of work certainly would. Beginning in 1961 with The Parent Trap, Sherman’s prolific collaboration with brother Richard was the soundtrack for millions of childhoods – films like The Jungle Book, Chitty Chitty Bang Bang, Bedknobs and Broomsticks and most famously, Mary Poppins. Kids learned Sherman Brothers songs along with “Mary Had a Little Lamb” and “Old MacDonald.” They were catchy, upbeat and relentlessly optimistic – songs that just made you feel good and want to learn all the words. This was all the more remarkable given Sherman’s service in World War II, and that he had led Allied forces into the Dachau concentration camp in 1945 shortly after it had been abandoned by the Germans. To have seen such horror and to come out the other side with one’s faith in humanity intact is simply remarkable – not to mention retaining the ability to communicate that faith through art.
It is perhaps that spirit of unflappable positivity that continues to endear Mary Poppins to one generation after another. To me, the secret of its appeal has always laid in its unsung hero, the man the story is truly about: uptight financier and family patriarch George Banks, played perfectly by David Tomlinson, an actor who never achieved movie star wattage, but was always highly regarded by his peers as a good and honourable soul – qualities that he brought to what is perhaps his iconic part. Mary is charming, Bert is a happy-go-lucky goofball (dodgy Cockney accent and all) and the kids are cute without being cloying, but the movie is George’s story through and through. George starts the movie as a man of business – Ebenezer Scrooge without the cruelty or sneering condescension at the less fortunate. He is a man locked into the machine, always dressed in black and white, very much accustomed to his place as one of the cogs that drives the British economy. And he has come to believe that this is how his family should operate as well – his opening number, “The Life I Lead,” details with clockwork precision how he wants his household to run; like a bank. He has truly put aside childish things and buried his imagination beneath his bowler hat. Indeed, he is a man for whom the audience feels great sympathy, because he is good and kind, but lost. His eventual triumph, when, after having been ritually sacked, he bursts into laughter at rediscovering the mirth inherent in life, is like watching pure joy unfold before your eyes. It’s a liberating reminder that things can indeed be “supercalifragilisticexpialidocious” – it’s all in how we choose to look at them. And we can find a Buddha-like tranquility and fulfillment in just going to fly a kite.
One has to wonder if the message would have resonated as strongly without the Sherman Brothers’ wonderful songs to deliver it. Something that has always perplexed me when it comes to criticism, whether it’s music, film or literature, is the seeming bias against work that conveys a positive message. Critics tend to go for bleak and raw, the ugliest emotions stripped to their very bone. Certainly there is merit in such work; we cannot present a fair and accurate portrait of humanity without acknowledging its inherent duality and contradictions, the best and the worst of us. But uplifting art is often dismissed as candy, as artifice of the most deceptive kind. No, Mary Poppins is not Taxi Driver, and the Sherman Brothers’ songs aren’t Radiohead. But ask yourself how you want to feel. Does anyone really enjoy being depressed? Do we not always crave the light? Is there perhaps more truth to be found in the songs of a man like Robert Sherman, who saw the worst of humanity and still found reason to celebrate life, than in those of a latter day pretender whose worst tribulation was that their high school crush didn’t return their affections? Would anyone’s needs be served by watching George Banks crashing and burning and leaving his family bereft? Pish posh, I say. Instead, we are lifted as he completes his journey and achieves enlightenment.
To me, art that appeals to our sense of hope is infinitely more valuable and truthful than that which wallows in the cesspool of despair. It’s easy and a cop out to be depressed at the state of the world. But let’s be honest – like the Mary Poppins Sherman Brothers song goes, we all still love to laugh. So I can close today with a quote from George Banks that never fails to make me smile:
“I know a man with a wooden leg named Smith.”
“What’s the name of his other leg?”