Walt Disney Taught Me Altruism

Mickey and Minnie Mouse

BBC Radio 4 in the UK has a show called Soul Music which airs half hour episodes about “pieces of music with a powerful emotional impact”. The show is usually made up of many people’s memories and stories related to a specific song. A recent episode focused on Feed The Birds, the iconic song from Walt Disney’s Mary Poppins. I was sent a link to Soul Music by my mum who thought it might provide inspiration for this blog. At first I didn’t understand why but 30 minutes later I realised I would never watch Mary Poppins in the same way again. Most of us think of Walt Disney films as fun, colourful tales for children but there are messages in these stories from which all of us can learn. Karen Dotrice, who played Jane Banks in the film, says in her interview for Soul Music that “Walt Disney taught me altruism”. And she’s not the only one.


Firstly, I am going to write this blog under the assumption that everyone reading it has seen Mary Poppins. If you haven’t, I suggest you go and watch it now and return to this blog later because you’re missing out. I grew up watching Mary Poppins and the Sound of Music and love both films immensely. I remember my mum telling me once she didn’t like Mary Poppins because Walt Disney ruined the original character written by P. L. Travers. At that time, I didn’t even know Mary Poppins had started life within the pages of a book but after the release of Saving Mr Banks a few years ago, I understood where she was coming from. My mum was right; the woman portrayed so magnificently by Julie Andrews was not the same as the nanny encapsulated by Travers. I’m unashamed to admit I cried at Emma Thompson’s performance in Saving Mr Banks and the film did somewhat taint my enjoyment of Mary Poppins when I watched it subsequently. After this Soul Music episode, however, my love has returned, along with a deeper understanding of the overall message of the film.


I always assumed Feed The Birds was about just that; feeding birds. However, Soul Music’s interview with composer and lyricist Richard M. Sherman reveals how his “heart and soul is in that song” and it’s not about birds. Mary Poppins was the film which kick-started the career of the Sherman Brothers, Disney’s iconic song writing team, and Feed The Birds was the main song which captured Walt Disney’s imagination. The brothers had been asked to write some music for Travers’ The Stories of Mary Poppins but the book was a series of adventures and didn’t have a consistent storyline. As a song for Chapter 7 The Bird Woman evolved, ideas bouncing between the brothers, Feed The Birds suddenly emerged as the pinnacle of the entire film. Neither Sherman told Walt Disney their suspicions about the importance of the song when they presented their work and they didn’t need to. The filmmaker picked up on its significance at once and requested to hear the song again. “That’s the key to the whole story, isn’t it?” Walt said. Feed The Birds became the world’s most famous film maker’s favourite song.


So what was this key? The song isn’t really about the birds. Instead, the birds represent the children who needed attention and love from their parents, neither of which they were getting. Mrs Banks is too busy being a Suffragette and fighting for the right to vote. Mr Banks is too busy at work. No one has time for Jane or Michael. Somehow, magical Mary Poppins arrives to fill this void and help the family come back together and reconnect. Once that is done, she flies away. The song tells people to be kind to one another, to their children, to give each other love and attention. Let’s take a look at these familiar lyrics again:


Come feed the little birds,

Show them you care

And you’ll be glad if you do.

The young ones are hungry,

The nests are so bare.

All it takes from tuppence from you.


As a child, I thought this was all about spending an obsolete coin on a bag of crumbs for birds, which would be a nice thing to do but nothing special, right? Taken at face value, perhaps. But if it’s about more than feeding birds, if it’s about acts which cost us little or nothing but mean vastly more to other people, the entire song suddenly becomes much more powerful. Feeding the birds, helping out a friend or stranger, lending your support, they’re all acts of kindness. It doesn’t matter what these acts are nor how big they are or the overall impact on someone’s life; what matters is that you show you care. Additionally, “you’ll be glad if you do” because performing good deeds makes you feel happy.


Returning to the title of this blog, in the episode of Soul Music, Karen Dotrice recounts two stories which demonstrate Walt Disney’s altruistic personality. Firstly, he offered the part of the bird lady to Jane Darwell, an iconic Hollywood actor who has been in over 200 films and TV shows and was retired and living in the Motion Picture Country House at the time. Personally asked by Disney to take the part in Mary Poppins, this was the last role Jane Darwell took before her death three years later. Disney also gave a part to Karen’s godfather’s wife who was also an older actor looking for work. She appears as Jane and Michael’s first nanny. Karen then tells listeners of how Uncle Walt used to loan her and her family his plane for the weekends and helped her get over her fear of flying by decking the interior out like a sweet shop. Perhaps this is a good deed beyond the financial viability of most reading this blog but the sentiment remains; do what you can to help others, which is what More Good Deeds is all about.


In Soul Music, Karen says this: “Walt Disney taught me altruism. He taught me how to feel love, how to feel respected. He taught me at a very early age the ethos of Feed The Birds and that’s what I do.” Today Karen feeds birds. Literally. She works for animal rescue groups, feeds wild birds in London where she lives to look after her elderly father and has an aviary in her house in Malibu. The message of the entire film, according to one of its stars is: “Notice what is going on around you. Notice neglected kids, notice little old ladies.” More Good Deeds agrees.


To listen to the podcast of Soul Music, follow this link to the BBC iPlayer Radio page where you can access this episode.


Go, do, experience. More Good Deeds.