Sunday, June 3, 2012

Mary Poppins, Jeannie, Samantha and Me

I have loved the idea of strong powerful women ever since I was a toddler.   In 1964, the movie Mary Poppins came out with all the pomp and circumstance any three year old girl could ask for.   Forget Sleeping Beauty, Cinderella and Snow White, Mary Poppins had a bottomless carpet bag filled with coat racks, mirrors, magic and the ability to conjure joy out of thin air.   She could make cleaning your room extremely fun - your clothes practically flew into the drawers.    Taking medicine was loads of fun as long as it tasted like a spoon full of sugar which for me was what Dimetapp used to taste like.   She could sing to the birds and they would sing back.   A chalk painting could be an imaginary wonderland of merry-go-round horse races and penguin waiters.   The dark scary rooftops of London exploded with chimney sweeps dancing, singing and playing baseball with fireworks.    Tea parties could happen in mid-air especially if you loved to laugh.   Mary Poppins could see a situation that needed fixing and would work to fix it but with the realization that the people she was trying to help would have to help themselves.   Mr. Banks had to realize that not paying attention to his children came at a price  - that they feared him more then they loved him.  Mrs. Banks had to be more hands on rather then relying on nannies to fix everything.   In the end, they all learn their lessons even if they lose sight of the fact that it was Mary who guided them to their epiphanies.  She leaves as a true hero - not waiting for a grandiose thank-you but knowing that the "children love their father more than you" is her reward.   She takes her umbrella and flies back up to the heavens maybe to hang out with the other guardian angels that come to earth in human form to help those that need a little divine guidance. 

I remember how much I adored this movie as a wee one.  I bought into the fantasy - hook, line and sinker.   When I got a Mary Poppins umbrella that Christmas, my mother told me that I would stand outside when it was windy and wait for it to take me up to see Mary Poppins.  When it was stormy I was worried that Mary might be blown around and soaked in the clouds.   I would sing Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious, Spoon Full of Sugar and Chim-Chim-Cheree around the house in my broken little three year old voice until I was hoarse.   I wished that our Miami home had a chimney so we could invite a chimney sweep over, shake his hand and get good luck.   She seemed so practically perfect in every way and I wanted to be like her.   She made me see the world as this magical experience and the flight of your imagination was all you needed to take you places.   I just wished that I had more than that one visit in the movie theaters to spend with her.  Back then, you usually only saw a movie once and there were no videos or DVDs to watch it over and over again - you simply had to absorb it all that first time.  I'm sure plenty of people saw it more than once, but growing up in family of five kids in a middle class neighborhood meant you got one shot at seeing a Disney movie period.  The first video's didn't come out until the 1980's.  I remember getting one from my mother and being absolutely delighted - the years had not dulled my affection for Mary and she was still cool, musical and magical in my eyes - that movie is still my Jolly Little Holiday.   

It was only natural that I would transition to two women with whom I could watch every week on TV who were also taking that magic carpet ride in the mid-1960's.  I saw Elizabeth Montgomery on Bewitched I knew I had found a pretty blond lady that I also could be like who opened her home and family to me.   She was a witch but not like the Wicked Witch of the West - all green and mean.   She was like Glenda, the good witch of the North, pretty and very patient even when her idiot mortal husband was always yelling at her for being the magical person she was.   Now that I'm a married woman myself, it's harder to watch the old shows that are close to 50 years old without wincing at the constant drinking (Good God Darrin and Larry - another three martini lunch in which your pour your heart out to the running drunk character at the bar you always frequent? - try an AA meeting.)  I mean it's not like you work at a high pressure ad agency like Don Drapper on Mad Men - oh wait you do - scratch that.   At least Don never had a meddling mother-in-law who would literally drop in anytime she wanted to make your life hell.  Okay that might explain Darrin's drinking.   

But some of the other remarks show a lack a huge lack of respect to his magical partner like the time that Samantha had to turn a lecherous client who was making an aggressive pass into a dog who then ran away.   When Samantha explained why she had to do that - Darrin's response was "A client is more important than a wife any day."   At the end of the episode, Darrin finally gets the balls to deck the guy but he didn't believe Samantha at first and the client over the wife comment really gripes me now.   But as a kid, I wouldn't have caught that - it was just a lady who was as pretty as a princess trying to be a mom in a house in a neighborhood like mine.   We also had nosey neighbors like the Kravitz's -Mrs. Cunningham would rat my brother Steve out for popping wheelies with my stroller when he had to take me out for a walk around the block.   My parents would have dinner parties like the Stevens, but without the Witches Council dropping in unexpectedly.  I literally almost got my nose out of joint trying to do Samantha's signature move only to find out later that it was impossible because it was stop motion cleverly edited together.   But still even after switch from the original Darrin to a gay Darrin, Samantha kept on trying to squelch her power to fit in.   Maybe the show was a paranoid fantasy by a bunch of white guys about women being happy to just be homemakers while the feminist movement swirled around them.  "If we can just convince the gals that they are happier at home, maybe we can preserve our way of life," they must thought after a third martini at lunch.  Eventually the show evolved when Elizabeth Montgomery took the producing reigns with her husband and they did take on topics like racism in the episode when Tabitha decided to give herself and her black friend polka dots so no one could tell their true skin color.   Unfortunately, by that time the ratings had dropped off and the show ended in 1972. 

Then there was I Dream of Jeannie a story of a astronaut who finds a bottle with a beautiful blond girl in it.  Even after Tony Nelson frees her, our magical Jeannie rolls her bottle into his duffle back and goes back with him to Cocoa Beach, Florida where he works in the Air Force at Cape Kennedy.   Once there, she works diligently to get Major Nelson to fall in love with her so that she can be his wife and not have to sleep in a bottle all the time (all though the round couch was really, really cute).   She like Samantha is not allowed to use her powers but of course when you try to keep someone from being who they truly are - things are likely to go extremely wrong.   Jeannie spends a lot of time trying to placate Major Nelson who can actually out bellow Darrin (not to be confused with Dr. Bellows who rarely bellowed).  She spends most of the first few seasons in a harem costume and which for censorship reasons does not show her naval - but showing half her boobs was just fine - go figure.    So for four seasons, only Tony's best friend Roger knows about Jeannie.  After a bitter break-up, Tony realizes that he loves Jeannie and offers to marry her.  They finally marry and the plot switches from Tony trying to hide her to trying to hide that fact that she's a genie.  They even get to sleep in the same room together.   She also stops calling him "Master" and starts to call him Anthony.  Once again, little Kelley was transfixed by the pretty blond lady who could conjure up things in the blink of an eye (she magical move was also much easier to master than Samantha's nose twitch).   I even got my older Sister Kathy to do my hair just like Jeannie's.   I never got the harem outfit - probably not the thing for a four year old to be wearing. 

Maybe the point that Bewitched was trying to introduce to a white audience the reality of a mixed marriage- either between cultures or races and the ramifications of what it would be like to have one person abandon who they are to try to please the other person and society to blend in.   To his credit, Darrin does put up with a lot of crap and still ends up loving Samantha in the end - but there are times when he doesn't respect her very much.    For Jeannie, I think the producers saw how popular Bewitched was and created another sitcom with a hot blond but one better - one who was scantily dressed and willing to do anything to please her man.    It was like the Tale of Two Realities, it was the best of times for women's rights and it was the worst of times for how they were treated on TV.  Thank god, the 1970's ushered in Mary Richards, Maude and All in the Family.   My guess is that Darrin and Major Nelson would be lost in this brave new world of women's rights and that they would have to give more to the relationship to even things out. 

Now as a wife and mother, I see how outdated the ideals of Bewitched and I Dream of Jeannie are.   My kids just don't get into those shows even if they happen to be on.   But when I watched Mary Poppins for the first time with them when they were seven and three, they loved it.   The whole look of the movie appealed them - the fantasy horse race was wonderful, the tea party was fun, the penguins were delightful and they cried when Mary Poppins left and so did I.   I loved sharing it with them and the fact that it's still a smash Broadway musical still shows it's mass appeal.  As a grown woman, I've managed to find a husband who loves me for me and does not try to limit me because he's afraid I won't fit in.   Unlike Jeannie and Samantha's marriages, Max and I have a relationship based on mutual trust.  I would never limit his creativity and he would never limit mine. 

I guess thing that separates Mary Poppins from Jeannie and Samantha (besides an awesome soundtrack) is that she is her own woman.  She doesn't take crap from Mr. Banks or really much of anyone.   Her best friend Bert doesn't try to limit her power - he's fine with it and is happy to go along for the ride.   She does things to help the world around her for the right reasons and not for the love of a man - which for my money is a very empowering message for girls.    She's a woman of the 1900's yet is way more modern then the supernatural girls of the 1960's who were in the middle of the women's right movement.   If Mary Poppins worked at MacMann and Tate, she would have wiped the floor with Darrin and Larry.  She'd then smile sweetly, adjust her hat, and fly out the high rise window with her trusty umbrella as a chorus of executive women sing "Let's Go Fly a Kite" as they smash their own kites through the glass ceiling.  Now that's supercalifragilisticexpialidocious!

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