Feature: Saving Mr Banks & 50 Years of Mary’s Magic
November and December brings two important milestones for Disney; the release of the 50th Anniversary Edition of Mary Poppins and the premiere of Saving Mr. Banks, a film about the creation of the beloved musical film. Saving Mr. Banks seems to be picking up just as much adoration and praise as Mary Poppins did, but the two tell very different stories. Mary Poppins is a delightfully cheery story of a magical nanny who restores order to a growingly distant family, and Saving Mr. Banks chronicles the dark childhood of Mary Poppins author P.L. Travers, as well as the creative battles behind the scenes during the latter film’s creation.
P.L. Travers did, in fact, have a very difficult childhood, which provided inspiration for the darkness she injected into her first novel about the English nanny Mary Poppins, published in 1934. Mary was a strict and domineering figure who demanded both fear and love from the four Banks children who were her charges, but despite the lack of cheerfulness, the book proved to be an immediate success and grabbed the attention of movie executive Walt Disney. Starting in 1938, Walt began a battle to acquire the rights to the book in order to adapt it to film that would ultimately last some twenty years.
However, the long fight for the book rights would prove to be a minor struggle compared to the voracity with which Travers held on to her beloved story’s plotline. From the beginning, Travers and Disney butted heads on the direction the film would take. Knowing the plot from the book wouldn’t translate well to film, Disney changed the time period, the Banks’ occupations and even the number of Banks children. Most importantly, Disney made the general plot much more sunny and pleasant than Travers’ original novel had been. In addition to the plot changes, Disney had contracted Robert and Richard Sherman years earlier to develop musical numbers for the film, much to Travers’ horror. But, if there was anything Travers hated more than the musical numbers, it was the animation used in the film, something she told Disney he absolutely wasn’t allowed to do.
During the nearly three year road from finally obtaining the book rights to the film’s premiere, Disney and Travers went back and forth over every detail in Mary Poppins as Travers heavily exercised her contractual right to script approval. Travers wasn’t impressed by Disney’s accomplishments; in fact, she found them disingenuous and believed his films to be manipulative and overly sentimental. The one thing the two of them did agree on was the casting of the then-unknown Julie Andrews as Mary. Travers’ blessing, however, came only after Andrews called her and convinced her she was right for the part. And while Travers liked Andrews, she was very unhappy about the casting of Dick van Dyke as Bert, calling van Dyke “all wrong” for the part. But by then, it was likely becoming more clear to Travers that she wasn’t going to get her way against Disney.
The battles between Travers and Disney eventually became so intense that she wasn’t invited to the premiere of the film, though she did manage to strong arm an invitation from a Disney executive in order to appear. At the premiere, as the audience leapt to their feet for a standing ovation Travers remained seated, so upset by the finished product that she left the premiere in tears. At the after-party she confronted Disney regarding the changes to the film that needed to be made, to which he replied “that ship has sailed.” before walking away.
Mary Poppins was obviously a smash hit, and is still Disney’s highest grossing film to date. In addition to critical praise it brought in $52 million at the U.S. box office, which would be equivalent to over $390 million today. It received a still standing record of 13 Oscar nominations for the company (5 of which in won, including one for Julie Andrews).
The film remains a classic and the crown jewel of Disney live-action films. Travers eventually sold the rights to Mary Poppins one last time to Broadway producer Cameron Mackintosh in 1994. When she died in 1996 her last will and testament left instructions for Mackintosh that stated clearly: no Americans are to be involved in the making of the musical.
About the Author: Spencer Blohm is a freelance entertainment, film, music, and culture blogger for DirectStarTV.com. In his spare time he searches vintage stores and flea markets for a umbrella that only looks as cool as Mary’s talking/flying one. He lives and works in Chicago, where even a magic umbrella is no match for the wind.