Yep, you read that right, Dick Van Dyke. When I say that he is one of my heroes, people think I’m joking but the man is genuinely one of the film personalities I most revere.
To most it seems he is synonymous with bad cockney accents because of his role in Mary Poppins and somehow people extend this to think of him as a bad actor but this could not be further from the truth.
Okay, the guy never bothered the Academy Awards voters (although he was nominated for two Golden Globes and took home a handful of Emmys in the sixties and seventies) but he was an incredibly gifted performer in his day. In fact as a physical comedian he was peerless.
Part of the reason that none of his contemporaries could match him is that Dick Van Dyke’s screen persona harked back to a different era. He was inspired by his and my true hero Stan Laurel (the two became friends with Van Dyke speaking at Laurel’s funeral) and Van Dyke knew that the style of comedy showcased by the black and white greats such as Laurel and Hardy, Keaton, Harold Lloyd and Chaplin was timeless. In the 60s as it is now, it was possible to carve a career with slapstick but generally people weren’t doing it, partly because it isn’t as easy as it looks. Dick Van Dyke stood out, effectively as that decade’s Robin Williams or Jim Carrey.
Actually, that’s not a bad comparison because like Carrey and Williams there is stuff in his filmography that some may consider cringeworthy. Apparently the 2004 revamp of his classic TV series The Dick Van Dyke Show Revisited, in which all of the surviving original cast members were reunited, was particularly laboured, but like Carrey and Williams, when he was on top of his game he was fantastic.
Van Dyke is clearly best known for two particular films, Mary Poppins and Chitty Chitty Bang Bang, and actually if you want proof of his genius you need look no further.
His portrayal of Bert, the curiously accented chimney sweep/street artist in Mary Poppins is a masterclass in unassuming charm. The character is irresistibly likeable, irrepressibly energetic and innocently streetwise. He is a free spirit, unshackled by society or convention, immune to expectation or ambition and every bit as magical and fantastical as the film’s protagonist.
Interestingly Van Dyke also takes on the role of the ageing bank owner and in a film concerned with the balance every parent must find between mercantile and domestic responsibility, he represents the two exaggerated extremes of fatherhood in 1910.
Of course in Chitty Chitty Bang Bang, Van Dyke is wrestling with much the same situation. He is an inventor entirely focussed on the welfare of his two motherless children while trying to design that one thing that will sell and give them financial solvency. In this movie, made four years after Disney’s opus, the actor, mercifully used his own voice despite the character having a British father and children. Apparently the dialect coach on Poppins was Irish and couldn’t do a cockney accent either so perhaps it wasn’t totally Van Dyke’s fault.
Once again Caracatus Potts is the perfect picture of conviviality but as much as this was one of the actors trademarks it isn’t this at which he truly excelled. If you want to know why Dick Van Dyke is one of my heroes then you need to watch him sing and dance.
Chitty Chitty Bang Bang gives us the tremendous Toy Box dance, the Toot Sweets extravaganza and the delightful Me Ol’ Bamboo dance (if only Morris Men were really that good) but if you want the true example of the man’s genius you need the chimney sweeps scene in Mary Poppins.
The Step in Time dance is genuinely a thing of wonder. I challenge anyone to find me a better choreographed dance number anywhere in a hundred and twenty years of cinema. Sure, Astaire and Kelly were unparalleled hoofers but their most incredible routines were danced alone (precisely because no one could match them). The Step In Time number is an incredible flurry of arms legs, brushes, soot and fireworks which makes great use of the roof top set and goes on for eight glorious minutes with Bert leading it all the way.
In recent years, Dick Van Dyke has gone the way of Angela Lansbury, his true skill over shadowed by a long running syndicated US TV show. Whatever your feelings about Diagnosis Murder though (personally I like it) it should not overshadow Dick Van Dyke’s greatest achievements.
The man is a legend.