The other day, after seeing the movie Saving Mr. Banks about the Disney Studio’s “battle” with P.L. Travers, author of Mary Poppins, I was reminded of the fabulous songwriters, Richard and Robert Sherman. They were protrayed by B.J. Novak and Jason Schwartzman in the new movie, which left me wanting to know more. I heard there was a DVD documentary about them entitled The Boys: The Sherman Brothers Story. Unable to resist, I bought it, and was very glad that I did.
It’s a terrific DVD. As you may already know, Richard and Robert Sherman were Disney’s main songwriters in the 1960’s and 1970’s. If you’ve ever sung “Supercalifragilisiticexpialidocious,” or “Chim Chim Chiree,” or “A Spoonful of Sugar Helps the Medicine Go Down,” then you’ve sung a Sherman Brothers song. Mary Poppins was their greatest hit movie. They took home an Oscar for that one. It was well deserved, too.
I didn’t realize until I saw the documentary that they also wrote “You’re Sixteen,” which was a pop records hit many, many moons ago. Or “Tall Paul,” made famous by Annette Funicello, or “Let’s Get Together” from The Parent Trap. The brothers altogether wrote a thousand songs. Winnie the Pooh, Alice in Wonderland, The Aristocats, all were enhanced by the fabulous songs of the Shermans. They wrote “It’s A Small World After All,” one of the nicest “prayers for peace,” as they say in the documentary, ever. Chitty Chitty Bang Bang wasn’t filmed by Disney but those rollicking numbers were theirs, too. “Fortuosity” was one of my favorites as a child. It came from a movie called The Happiest Millionaire. “Sometimes castles fall to the ground, but that’s where four-leaf clovers are found,” proclaims the lyrics. Another was “Ten Feet Off the Ground,” sung by Louis Armstrong. I had that on a Disney record when I was seven years old. I used to play it constantly then. I haven’t thought of it in decades, but when the song was played on the documentary, I sang along at the top of my lungs (the landlord and his family wasn’t home) and remembered every single word.
Perhaps my personal favorite song of all of the ones created by The Sherman Brothers was a number from Bedknobs and Broomsticks. It isn’t the hit of the movie, but I’ve always loved it. The movie is set in England during the Second World War. England was bombed relentlessly by the Nazis; English civilians were the bombing targets, and I’ve always admired the courage of the Brits as they held out against such a horrific series of attacks. The song is called “The Old Home Guard.” The Home Guard were volunteers. Most of them were too old to be drafted, yet they became a line of defense in case the island got invaded by the Nazis. They were 1.5 million members strong. What I didn’t know when I first heard it was that the older of the Sherman brothers had been in the military unit that liberated Dachau. He saw the worst results of that war, as a result – but later wrote this. Take a look at these lyrics about the spirit of a brave, beleaguered people:
“They’re sailing from England, oh, what a shame,
Someone is after our island again,
We’ll let them have it, oh, yes! We will!
But maybe they won’t want it when they get the bill
For we wrote the story of the old brigades,
We know the glory of yesterday’s parades,
We’ll sell Old Blighty – yard by yard,
They’ll buy it from the Old Home Guard, they will!
They’ll buy it from the Old Home Guard!
Call out the Navy, call out the ranks,
Call out the air force, call out the tanks,
From the cliffs of Dover call up the gulls,
And don’t forget the loyal territorials, but
Who’s digging in here, who will defend,
Every inch of England – no matter WHAT they send?
Who’s standing firm in our own front yard?
The soldiers of the old Home Guard, that’s who
The soldiers of the old Home Guard!”
“We’ll let them have it, oh yes we will – but maybe they won’t want it when they get the bill” – what a set of lyrics! How perfectly they fit the situation! The Sherman Brothers didn’t patronize the children who were the members of their audience. They treated my generation like we had sense and talked up, not down, to us all. They start this one off with the threat against Britain, give a quick history of the island’s past glory, call up the troops, and announce they’ll be “standing firm in their own front yard.” It’s exactly what the British did, and it’s a tribute to their courage in addition to being one terrific little song. For most of my life, whenever I have had to stand firm about anything, this is the little tune that pops into my head.
Sherman Brothers: thanks!
Here’s a whole bunch of Sherman Brothers goodies for you – enjoy!
The Old Home Guard:
It’s A Small World After All:
Ten Feet Off the Ground:
Chitty Chitty Bang Bang:
A Spoonful of Sugar: