The decade after World War II was the age of the Broadway super-musical, with songwriting teams like Rodgers & Hammerstein and Lerner & Loewe dominating the pop charts and making New York a regular stop for vacationing suburbanites. Some of that Broadway talent quickly disembarked for Hollywood, but much of it stayed behind, and when the television industry was spawned in New York at the start of the '50s, its panel-show panelists and variety entertainers came from the stage, in a development that worked to cross-promote both TV and musical theater. The symbiotic relationship reached its peak on March 31st, 1957, when a live CBS broadcast of Rodgers and Hammerstein's written-for-television musical Cinderella reached an audience of more than 100 million people.
The program was never rebroadcast, but a relatively clean black-and-white kinescope version has just come to DVD. Julie Andrews stars as the bourgeois drudge who gets a shot at landing a prince, thanks to her fairy godmother. Live-TV veteran Ralph Nelson directs with a cinematic shot selection, aided by the absence of a studio audience. Rodgers and Hammerstein keep the plot sketchy, and seem to rely on viewers' familiarity with the 1950 Disney animated Cinderella. But the songs are sweetly catchy, and the entire production is justified by Andrews' simultaneously sorrowful and optimistic performance of "In My Own Little Corner," where her wistful appreciation of what she has gradually turns bitter. The DVD's bonus features include interviews with the surviving cast and an introduction by Andrews, who points out that Cinderella drew a larger audience in one night than a hit Broadway show could in a decade of sellouts. In a way, the most triumphant night of Broadway's golden age was also the beginning of its end.
Andrews survived the transition. After Audrey Hepburn got the My Fair Lady movie role that Andrews originated on stage, a shamed Hollywood embraced the coltish Brit, and she briefly became a box-office and Academy Award champ with 1964's Mary Poppins and 1965's The Sound Of Music. On the two-disc Mary Poppins DVD, Andrews shows a tremendous evolution from the tentative talent showcased on TV seven years earlier. Where her Cinderella was all sweet hope and upturned face, the magical singing nanny she plays in Mary Poppins is more direct and confident, revealing a sensual substantial streak beneath her high collars and ankle-length skirts.
The DVD special features go into detail about the chance Walt Disney took on Andrews (who had never made a movie prior to Mary Poppins), and about Disney's decades-long struggle to buy the adaptation rights to P.L. Travers' prickly children's novels about a magical nanny. Mary Poppins was one of the last films Disney shepherded personally, and in some ways it best encompasses his sensibility. From the turn-of-the-century setting to the perpetual-twilight art direction, Mary Poppins captures Disney's preoccupation with nostalgia and rounded corners, which unkinked many a classic story. But sometimes Disney's casts and crews put some kinks back in. Mary Poppins rides the anarchic energy of Dick Van Dyke (as a night-prowling jack-of-all-trades) and the steely cool of Andrews, who keeps her charges in line with well-placed songs by Richard and Robert Sherman. When Andrews sings them to sleep with the heartbreaking "Feed The Birds," she earns the greatest accolade any entertainer can receive: she changes the mood of the room.