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A Very "Mary" Christmas: Part I

Jim Hill

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A Very "Mary" Christmas: Part I

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With Disney's stage version of "Mary Poppins" opening to great acclaim last week in London and the 40th anniversary version of this Academy Award winning film finally going on sale as a 2-disc DVD set, a lot of attention is suddenly being paid to "Poppins" creator P.L. Travers. With many reviewers questioning whether the late author would have actually approved of the darker tone that Disney Theatrical & Cameron Mackintosh chose to impose on their new stage show.

Of course, Disneyana history buffs have long known that Mrs. Travers had a somewhat prickly reputation. That the official Disney Company histories often portray the Australian-born author as being somewhat difficult to deal with. Take -- for example -- this passage from Bob Thomas' "Walt Disney: An American Original" , which describes a particular memorable encounter between the "Mary Poppins" creator and Mr. Disney:

"Mary Poppins" was premiered at Grauman's Chinese Theater in Hollywood on August 27, 1964. The industry responded with cheers, and Walt realizes that he had a hit of immense proportions. He was enjoying the triumphant glow at the post-premiere party when Mrs. Travers approached him. "It's quite nice," she began. "Miss Andrews is satisfactory as Mary Poppins, but Mr. Van *** is all wrong, and I don't really like mixing the little cartoon characters and the live actors. When do we start cutting it?"

Walt smiled indulgently. "The contract says that when the picture is finished, it's my property," he replied. "We're not going to change a thing."

That's the exchange that most Disneyana history buffs know Mrs. Travers by. Where she comes across as ... Well ... kind of a loony. A woman who walks out of the world premiere of "Mary Poppins," a film that many have called Walt Disney's crowning achievement, and insists that changes had to be made in order to "improve" the picture.

Well, the fact of the matter is ... P.L. Travers was no loony. I prefer to think of her as the precursor to J. K. Rowling. You know, the author of the best-selling "Harry Potter" series? Ms. Rowling -- when she finally sold the film rights to her much-beloved characters -- didn't just roll over for the executives at Warner Brothers. J.K. insisted having an awful lot of say in how the movie versions of her books were made. Thanks to the terms of the contract that Rowling worked out with Warner execs, J.K. had final say over where these movies would be made (the U.K., of course) and who would play he rcharacters (Rowling insisted on an all-English cast). She even has final approval over each of the films' screenplays.

P.L. Travers -- as it turns out -- had similar powers over the production of "Mary Poppins." Back in 1960, Disney was so desperate to make a movie based on Travers' character that Walt did something that he had never done before. He gave the author final approval of the screen treatment of her stories. (That's why you'll see P.L. 's name listed as "Creative Consultant" in the film's credits.)

And Mrs. Travers ... Well, she took this responsibility very seriously. Don't believe me? Then go out and pick up a copy of the new CD version of the "Mary Poppins" soundtrack. Among the extra features on this 2-disc set are recordings of story sessions that the author had with the composers of "Mary Poppins" ' score, Richard M. & Robert B. Sherman. And it's really fascinating to hear how protective Pamela Travers is of the character she created.

Sure, it's easy to read that excerpt from Bob Thomas' Disney bio and think: "This woman really doesn't have a clue when it comes to successfully translating 'Mary Poppins' to the big screen." Ah, but that's not really the case, folks.

Listen to the commentary track on your new "Mary Poppins" DVD. Or -- better yet -- read all the "Poppins Pop-Up Fun Facts" that the nice folks at Buena Vista Home Entertainment have embedded in this 2-disc set. And suddenly a very different impression of P.L. Travers starts to emerge.

How so? Well, what if I were to tell you that:

  • It was Mrs. Travers who suggested Mary Poppins -- as part of the film's "Jolly Holiday" sequence -- warn Jane & Michael to be careful & not " ... fall and smudge the drawing.
  • That it was P.L. Travers who insisted that "Stay Awake" be kept in the film. At the time, the movie's production team was worried that -- what with "Stay Awake" & "Feed the Birds" -- that the score for "Mary Poppins" had one too many lullabies. But Mrs. Travers felt that it was the perfect Poppins touch that Mary would use reverse psychology on Jane & Michael. That she'd sing a song that would insist that the Banks children "Stay Awake" even as it lulled the two children to sleep. Which is why that song remained in the picture.
  • Speaking of Jane Banks ... P.L. Travers told Walt that she had seen a young actress named Karen Dotrice whom the author thought would be perfect for the part of Mr. & Mrs. Banks' daughter. It was only then that Walt revealed to Mrs. Travers that he had already used Karen in his studio's 1961 release, "The Three Lives of Thomasina." More importantly, that Mr. Disney also thought that Ms. Dotrice was an excellent choice for Jane Banks. Which is how Karen eventually wound up with this role.
  • P.L. Travers was also the one who came up with some of the more memorable pieces of dialogue in the movie. Mary's line -- "And what would happen to me, I ask, if I loved all the children I said goodbye to?" -- came straight from the author. As did Bert's final bit of dialogue in the picture: "Goodbye, Mary Poppins. Don't stay away too long."

You see what I'm saying here, folks? This isn't just some peculiar British author doing everything that she could to make life difficult for these Hollywood types. During that week that she spent on the Disney lot reviewing the proposed story treatment for the "Mary Poppins" movie, P.L. Travers was an active participant in the process. Sure, she was trying to protect her character. But -- at the same time -- Mrs. Travers wanted to make sure that the folks at Disney were actually making an entertaining motion picture. 

And by insisting that Disney get all the little details (EX: That all the characters in the movie -- except Bert, of course -- always call the film's title character by her full name, Mary Poppins) as well as all the big details (I.E. There was to be no absolutely hint of romance between Bert & Mary. That *** Van ***'s character was to remain a gentleman throughout the whole film) right, the end result was that "Mary Poppins" did ultimately become a very entertaining motion picture. One that has clearly stood the test of time.

Not in spite of P.L. Travers' suggestions. But often directly because of them.

Of course, in the end, I guess all us *** Van *** fans out there should be grateful that P.L. Travers ultimately didn't wind up having as much power over the production of "Mary Poppins" as J.K. Rowling does over the "Harry Potter" pictures. After all, J.K. has final say over who gets cast in what roles in the "Potter" films. Which is how Robbie Coltrane won the part of Hagrid over Robin Williams, the American actor that Warners execs had been desperately pushing on Ms. Rowling. With the hope that the inclusion of this Academy Award winning comic might help broaden the appeal of the "Harry Potter" pictures.

Well, Ms. Rowling held her ground against those studio execs. Which is why Mr. Coltrane wound up playing Hogwart's much-beloved gameskeeper in the first three "Potter" films and seems almost certain to hang onto this role for the rest of the films in the series.

Whereas Mrs. Travers ... Well, while she approved of Miss Andrews in the role of Mary Poppins (P.L. felt that Julie had the inner integrity for Mary Poppins. More importantly, that Andrews had just the right nose for the "Practically Perfect" nanny), P.L. is said to have detested *** Van ***'s cockney accent.

Truth be told, Travers had initially insisted that -- just as J.K. Rowling had with the "Harry Potter" movies -- that "Mary Poppins" feature an all-British cast. Walt refused P.L.'s request. Using the very same argument that those Warners executives used on Ms. Rowling, insisting that -- by using only actors from the U.K. -- the film would have limited box office appeal.

Clearly, Walt eventually won this argument. Which is how American performers like *** Van *** and Ed Wynn wound up with such prominent roles in "Poppins."

But -- as is demonstated by that excerpt from Bob Thomas' book -- P.L. Travers never ever warmed up to Van ***'s performance as the chimney sweep. Which was why -- when the studio & the author began talking about doing a "Mary Poppins" sequel in the mid-1980s -- Mrs. Travers insisted that Disney hire some other actor to portray Bert in the long-awaited follow-up to the 1964 smash hit.

What's that you say? You've never heard anything about the "Mary Poppins" sequel that the Walt Disney Company wanted to make. Or -- for that matter -- any of the follow-up projects that Disney had wanted *** Van *** and Mary Poppins to star? Well, then maybe you should drop by JHM over the next few days. When I'll try & fill you in on some of the details.

COMING ON WEDNESDAY: In Part II of this series, Jim talks about a "Poppins" follow-up project that was to have starred Julie Andrews and *** Van ***: "The Poet and the Nightingale."

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