By Brian Smith
1964 was a good year for cinema. Goldfinger, arguably the greatest James Bond film of all time, was released during the year, as were several other classics and borderline classics like A Fistful of Dollars, Marnie, Zulu, The Night of the Iguana, and A Hard Day’s Night. There were three films that were all nominated for Best Picture, that rise above every other film released that year. Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb is one of my personal favorite films, and the film that I would have voted for had I had a vote for Best Picture in 1964.
The other two films were musicals, and both are considered to be among the greatest musicals of all time. My Fair Lady had a very good Oscar night taking home eight statues out of 10 nominations, with wins for Best Picture, Best Actor (Rex Harrison), Best Director (George Cukor), and others. Mary Poppins wasn’t far behind with five Oscar wins, including Best Actress (Julie Andrews), Best Song (Chim Chim Cher-ee) and Best Music.
Yes, My Fair Lady won Best Picture, and yes, My Fair Lady is on the AFI list of the Top 100 movies of all time, coming in at #91 and Mary Poppins is not on that list. However, interestingly enough, Mary Poppins is ranked higher than My Fair Lady on AFI’s list of the Top 100 Musicals of all time, coming in at #6 vs. #8.
Agreeing with the latter assessment, I am here to tell you that Mary Poppins is a better movie than My Fair Lady and it was the best musical of 1964. Here are five reasons why that’s true.
5. Julie Andrews vs. Audrey Hepburn.
There is no question that in 1964 Audrey Hepburn was a huge star, having already starred in such iconic films as Breakfast at Tiffany’s, Roman Holiday and Sabrina. Julie Andrews had made a name for herself playing Eliza Doolittle in the Broadway version of My Fair Lady, but Jack Warner wanted a star for My Fair Lady, and Julie Andrews had not starred in a feature film at that point. There were few stars bigger than Audrey Hepburn, and her grace,charm and wit certainly helped make Eliza Doolittle into one of the most beloved and recognizable characters in the history of American musicals. The problem I have is that Hepburn didn’t do any of her own singing. She could sing and was reportedly furious when she was told that her voice was not strong enough to do the singing for the picture. While her overall performance is terrific, the fact that the studio wouldn’t let her sing is a major issue, in my opinion, since singing is such a huge component of her character.
On the other hand, making her big screen debut and earning a Best Actress Oscar in the process, Julie Andrews turned the role of Mary Poppins into one of the most iconic characters not only in the Disney roster, but in all of cinema. This role would also give Julie Andrews one of the most successful screen careers of the second half of the 20th Century. Walt Disney reportedly could not listen to her sing Feed the Birds without being moved to tears, and her renditions of Spoon Full of Sugar, Jolly Holiday, and Supercalifragilisticexpialodocious along with Feed the Birds showed a range of singing, acting and dancing that Hepburn simply could not match. Andrews could be equally charming and stern. Not only that, but the character of Mary Poppins is a stronger, more confident driver of the action, whereas Eliza Doolittle mainly reacts to things happening to her.
Give me Julie Andrews over Audrey Hepburn in 1964 every time.
4. George Banks vs. Professor Henry Higgins
Both films showed somewhat misogynistic men overcoming their old fashioned ways to discover their priorities had been completely askew. I would argue that the character growth of George Banks is more profound and more sincere than the growth and change of Henry Higgins. The thing is, Higgins starts out the film as a total cad. He is an arrogant, smug, cocky jerk who gets his kicks out of messing with people’s lives. By the time he gets his act together and realizes that he’s in love with Eliza, I personally couldn’t care less whether he ends up with her or not. Eliza, for her part does want him, but she deserves way better. Once the story is resolved, there is no emotional impact.
George Banks, on the other hand, doesn’t necessarily start out Mary Poppins as the most likable character, but he’s at least doing what he ought to be doing, or what he thinks he ought to be doing to take care of his family. He later discovers that he’s missing out on the most important and most rewarding parts of being a father if he doesn’t change his ways. In what is some of the most emotionally impactful story-telling I’ve ever seen, George Banks becomes the father that he never knew he could be.
3. The Songs
My Fair Lady has some great and recognizable songs like The Rain in Spain, I Could have Danced All Night, and Get Me to the Church On time. The top songs from Mary Poppins were mentioned above, but there are other memorable numbers like Stay Awake, Sister Suffragette, Step in Time. . What separates the songs in Mary Poppins versus My Fair Lady is that the songs from the former do a better job of moving the story forward or showing character. In fact, Bert, the chiminey sweep (Dick Van Dyke) uses the Spoon Full of Sugar reprise to finally show George Banks how he’s missing his children’s childhood, creating a moment of catharsis for George. The same argument could be made that Henry Higgins has a similar epiphany when he sings I’ve Grown Accustomed to Her Face. But, I think, like almost everything else in this film, it takes too long and is too drawn out to the point where boredom overcomes any dramatic impact that’s being made.
2. The Story
Both of these films are long. Mary Poppins comes in with a running time of 139 minutes, so it’s a little more than two hours. My Fair Lady comes in at a whopping 170 minutes, just 10 minutes short of three hours, and takes too long to get moving. While there is a lot of singing and character exposition, we’re a good 40 minutes in before the story really gets going. The length of the film has a negative impact on the drama in the story, and I find myself just not caring about the characters. Mary Poppins, on the other hand, is 30 minutes shorter and has a much tighter story that is paced better and doesn’t give us the same kind of long gaps in story points that cripple the story in My Fair Lady.
1. Entertainment Value
Piggybacking on the previous point, Mary Poppins is just a more entertaining film than My Fair Lady. It has a better story-line, it has better songs, and it has better pacing. It also has characters that we care about more than we care about the characters in My Fair Lady. It has better art direction, and it casts a much wider net in terms of cinematic techniques and language. Mary Poppins is a veritable smorgasbord of film making styles and techniques, using animation and cutting edge special effects to help enhance the story. Mary Poppins is a feast for the eyes as well as for the heart.
Classic Film Correspondent
Brian has been a professional screenplay reader since 2006, and has written coverage for over 1,000 scripts and books for companies such as Walden Media and Scott Free Films. Scripts and books that Brian has read and covered include Twilight,Touristas, Nim’s Island, Hotel for Dogs, and Inkheart. Brian has worked in the entertainment industry since 1999, and he has credits on 23 films and television series for Disney, Universal, Sony, and DreamWorks Animation.
Brian is a life-long fan of good stories and he’s spent years studying the techniques and principles of good story telling. He believes that great cinema and great story telling go hand-in-hand. He studied animation and screenwriting at the University of Southern California, receiving an MFA from USC’s School of Cinematic Arts in 1999. With that knowledge and his appreciation of good stories, Brian gets real satisfaction in helping writers get the most out of their stories through their screenplays.