Mary Poppins Returns
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All Critics (7)
| Top Critics (1)
| Fresh (7)
| Rotten (0)
Made at the height of the Depression, John Stahl's Oscar-nominated melodrama prided itself for its liberal views, but even then the racial angle and Louise Beavers' acting were controversial.
Though it doesn't fully explore the racial issues it raises as fully as it could have, for its time it was daring and courageous.
Unashamedly a soap opera, but it's not only an excellent example of that too easily dismissed form -- it's a soap opera with an agenda.
What an interesting film this was. On the surface, you have Colbert in a charming role as a self-made woman who makes it to the top with pluck, ambition, and a secret pancake recipe she gets from a maid. But that's not what makes the movie interesting. Colbert's maid is played by Louise Beavers, an African-American, and also a single mother. Her daughter Peola, played by Fredi Washington, is light-skinned, and wants to 'pass' as white. There are several brutal, heart-wrenching scenes between the two of them - as a child (played by Dorothy Black), Peola is upset about being called black, believing it an insult; later in school, she has to slink out of an all-white classroom amidst stares and whispers to see her mother who has shown up unexpectedly; and finally, as an adult, pretending she doesn't even know her at her job, where she's also 'passed', and later telling her she wants to disown her entirely. Beavers' character is sweet and strong, and bears this suffering to her deathbed.
These are the scenes with real emotional impact in the story, and it's stunning, though not surprising, that neither Beavers nor Washington where nominated for an Academy Award. But Colbert was, even though she was also nominated in the same year for 'It Happened One Night'. How true this trend was 82 years ago, and how true it is today (see 'Creed').
Now it is true that the love story in the movie for Colbert with William Warren is captivating, and it gets complicated when her daughter falls in love with him as well, and despite no wrongdoing on his part, creates a dilemma for Colbert. I liked this twist, it was unexpected and created a little angst for the white characters, who were otherwise in beautiful clothes, sipping champagne, and dancing the night away. However, the resolution of this at the end pales in comparison to the resolution of Beavers' story which precedes it.
The movie is a great snapshot of what pushing the boundaries meant in 1934. On the positive side, you have a single mother shown balancing family and work, and keeping control of her business as it skyrockets. You have Fredi Washington, a light-skinned African-American actress (who in real life disdained 'passing') hired to play the role of Peola, when it was much more common to hire whites. You have Colbert's character inviting Beavers into her home and not showing an ounce of racism as she talks to her, or concern when by hiring her they'll live together. And you have a movie that showed very sensitive racial subject matter, revealing to the audience the real struggle African-Americans go through, and in a way that was thoughtful, not exploitative.
On the other hand, you have Beavers' being simple-minded, superstitious, and wanting to remain subservient to Colbert's, even when they've made enough money and it's no longer necessary. While it underscores her big heart, it also perpetuates a myth, one that is very convenient for Caucasians. Also, because the Hays Code had recently gone into effect, references to Peola being of mixed-race were avoided, because 'passing' itself was already dangerous ground, and the concept of racial mixing was a definite no-no. Her father is simply referred to as having been 'light-skinned'. Just as importantly, a scene in the script depicting a black boy being attacked and nearly lynched for coming up to a white woman was excised; conservative America was not willing to admit this shameful truth.
All in all though, an important film. The Colbert story is cute on its own, but I wish the emphasis had been placed more on Beavers, that it had been a movie more from her viewpoint with the minor character and subplots belonging to Colbert instead. Fair or unfair, I knocked it down a half a star as a result.
I did not see the Douglas Sirk version that was produced 20 years later but I found this depiction of two girls, one white and one black, who were raised together by circumstance is ever so good.
I normally hate remakes, but Sirk's remake of this movie presents a richer, well rounded, and more realistic story than this movie does. Although I do applaud the film makers for choosing this story, they disappoint the audience by not going into depth with the characters.
This is more of a social conflict drama with the mother-daughter conflict woven in, a fine film but the Lana Turner version is more emotionally involving.
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