Original Release: August 1964
Runtime: 139 Minutes
Directed By: Robert Stevenson
There are few films, even by Disney standards, as iconic as Mary Poppins. The musical story of a somewhat magical nanny showing up to the home of George Banks in order to care for his children, two fairly neglected kids who often get into trouble, and ultimately reuniting their entire family is one that just about everyone has seen or at least knows. However, the story of how this film got to the big screen is just as nefarious a tale as the film itself. From the pages of the book of the same name by P.L. Travers, Mary Poppins proves that the story of making a film can be just as crazy, chaotic and drama worthy as the film itself.
Born Helen Lyndon Goff in Australia, Travers based much of the Mary Poppins stories on her life growing up. She often said that she did not make up Mary Poppins but was merely writing down the stories of a woman she often ‘brushed by.’ To her, by many accounts, Poppins was real or as she put it, ‘family.’ In truth, Poppins was most likely based on her firm Aunt Ellie who also carried a carpet bag, but not the famous parrot umbrella. That item belonged to one of the family’s household maids.
The first Mary Poppins book was published in 1934. Starting in 1938, after the release of Snow White, Disney approached Travers about the rights to make the film, but she turned the studio down, noting that Poppins was not meant to a be a silly cartoon character. It wasn’t until 1943 that the project became personal for Walt. By then, three Poppins books had been published and some of their biggest fans were Walt’s two daughters Diane and Sharon. Walt heard them laughing with their mother as they read the books and made a promise to them that he would make the books they loved so much into a film.
In 1944, while Travers was living in New York to avoid the war, Roy Disney was sent to approach her about producing the film once more. With her concerns high on the fact that she did not want to see her books animated, Roy talked to her about the live action films Disney had in the works, including Song of the South. Travers was still not interested and Roy reported the news back to Walt. Several phone calls, meetings and chance encounters went on for several years until finally in 1959, a somewhat agreement was met. The agreement stipulated that Travers could submit a treatment for the script and that she would be consulted on every aspect of the film, from casting to dialogue but this also stipulated that Walt ultimately had final say. Finally, Travers would receive a $100,00 down payment and eventually 5% of the annual gross of the film. As you can imagine, with this film being the immense hit that it was, this agreement made Travers wealthy for the rest of her life.
Robert and Richard Sherman were called in to write the music for the film and also work on the script. Much of Travers’ time with the Sherman’s was dramatized in the film “Saving Mr. Banks,” starring Emma Thompson and Tom Hanks which came out in 2013. The interesting thing I found though is that since this film was made by Disney, many people assume that it demonizes Travers. I think quite the opposite. See, Travers also stipulated that all of the meetings be recorded and those tapes still exist. After listening to many of them, I can honestly say that I think she was much more sympathetic and tolerable in the film. On these tapes, Travers can be heard criticizing every little aspect of the film, from the songs, to the outfits to the fact that Mr. Banks would have a mustache. She also focuses a lot on making sure that everything has a very British feel, which I can’t fault her for. It’s her world after all. Don DaGradi and Bill Walsh were brought in to form the script and she also fought often with the two of them on the direction of the film, feeling that her worst chapters were being used and that they didn’t understand the intent of the story at all.
Even after Travers left L.A. and the meetings stopped, she frequently sent letters to Walt, as well as Julie Andrews who would be playing Mary Poppins, as a means of giving her constant feedback. Once Travers signed off on a script, she was rarely consulted and since the contract stated that Walt had final say, much of her requests were immediately dropped, giving way to songs she hated, actors she didn’t care for and a lengthy animated sequence, which she was adamantly against.
Travers was not invited to the L.A. premiere and was only recognized as going after she sent a long letter to Walt stating that they would have to find room in the audience for her. Disney Studios quickly told her an invitation was in the mail and tried to rectify the situation. It is said that she cried during her initial watching of the film. Many believed they were tears of joy but in a later interview she attributed the tears to disbelief, saying “I was so shocked that I felt I would never write, let alone smile, again!”
As time went on, though, she learned to see the film and the books as separate and even told many interviewers that there were in fact aspects of the film she enjoyed. In the film, Saving Mr. Banks, and even on Wikipedia, it is said that she refused to ever make a sequel. But that’s not entirely true. In 1987, she was working with Brian Sibley, a Disney historian, to write a treatment for a sequel. The script was written and had a full plot but eventually the project was shelved, never to be completed.
Before Travers passes away in 1996, she signed over the rights for a stage musical version, on the grounds that neither Disney Studios, nor the Sherman Brothers, nor Americans be involved in it. After her death, Disney Studios, with the help of the Sherman Brothers produced Mary Poppins the musical in America. Yikes.
I tell you this lengthy story with even more parts excluded to save on time and page space, not because I feel that Disney is an evil company or because I think you shouldn’t feel bad for P.L. Travers. I tell you all this because regardless of all the fights, and the discussions, and the anger and the bitterness, the result remains the same. Mary Poppins is a near perfect film and has earned its status as a classic in nearly every way.
Julie Andrews is superb in what I consider to be one of her best roles ever. She is so young in this film, which surprised me, and she really does manage to be stern and witty, while still being a very likable character. The sequences are so creative and the songs explode off the screen and stay with you forever. I am counting the days until Chim-Chim-Cherree gets out of my head! Dick Van Dyke, while being lauded as having one of the worst cockney accents in all of history, is delightful. He is actually the culmination of several characters from the books but as he stands, a jack of all trades, he is always fun and his physical humor is unmatched. He also portrays mr. Dawes Sr. the old money hungry banker and manages to make even this character extremely memorable.
As for the Banks family, Michael and Jane are adorable and make hilarious faces. George Banks, played by David Tomlinson, is just the sort of stuffy, grumpy father that is needed to make this film work. When he finally realizes that his children are what is really important, it is a huge relief and seeing him dance with them and fly their kite with them just makes you feel all warm and cozy inside.
It’s amazing to think that this film has so many amazing songs as even more were written for the film and would later find their way into another Disney classic, Bedknobs and Broomsticks. From ‘Jolly Holiday’ to ‘Step-in Time,’ every musical number is fantastic. We found ourselves singing along as so many of the tunes are straight out of our childhoods. The only character I found to be a little obnoxious was Mrs. Banks as she seemed to be part of a Women’s suffrage campaign as a means of getting out of the house. At times, she seems a bit aloof and, while I understand that Disney tried very hard to make her so busy that the need for a nanny was present in the film, I often found myself wondering what she was doing that was so important that she too didn’t have time for their children.
One of my favorite things I’ve read in my research of this film comes from Travers’ lawyer, Arnold Goodman, who would tell Travers every time she started a rant about how Walt Disney had ruined her books, this simple fact: “You should repeat three times nightly, before and after prayer,” he said, “But for dear Mr. Goodman, I would never have sold Mary Poppins to Walt Disney and would not now be rich.” I love this quote. Because, whether or not she felt hurt by the way the film was made, she and Walt both got what they wanted from the agreement. Travers became hugely wealthy and Walt got his film which he had promised to his children. Sure, Mary Poppins is not the film she had imagined, but it is a film that will be remembered for a very very very long time. Travers and Poppins’ legacy will be indefinite and I think, as a writer, that’s all we can ever ask or hope for.
So do you have a favorite Mary Poppins song? Does this film represent something important in your childhood? Can you take medicine without whistling “A Spoonful of Sugar?” Let me know in the comments down below and see you next time!
Next up, we’ll return to our regularly scheduled Vault Disney postings with Sleeping Beauty.
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NOTE: Obviously all the photos are courtesy of Disney Entertainment and I would never in a million years claim them as my own. That being said, all are actually taken with my phone during our viewing in order to capture the moment in a slightly different way than originally intended.
ALSO: My Fiancee has a blog too and he is talking about all the classics we are currently watching, which involves more than just Disney. Head over HERE and check it out!