Mary Poppins is one of the most popular Disney films ever made. The perennial family favorite has garnered continual critical acclaim ever since it premiered on August 27th, 1964 at the Grauman’s Chinese Theatre in Hollywood.
Walt Disney had tried to acquire the rights to P.L Travers’ Mary Poppins books since the 1940s, but after a long struggle, his persistence was rewarded. Disney felt that the finished film was the crowning achievement of his illustrious career.
Set in Edwardian London, 1910, the film tells the story of the Banks family who is in a bit of trouble. Their nanny has just quit, complaining to George and Winifred Banks that the children had run away again for “the fourth time this month”. The children, Jane and Michael Banks, are returned by Constable Jones who reveals to their parents that they got lost chasing a kite.
The children then ask their father, George Banks, to help them build a better kite but he refuses.
Mr. Banks advertises for a stricter nanny, but the children create their very own letter advertising for a kinder and sweeter one. Mr. Banks rips their letter and throws it into the fireplace, but the pieces seem to magically float up and out of the chimney.
The very next day, a queue of elderly strict nannies is blown away by a strong gust of wind. The children witness this event from their bedroom window before they gaze upon see a young nanny appear in the sky and arrive at their door.
The young nanny is Mary Poppins, practically perfect in every way.
Mr. Banks is bemused that Mary Poppins, who swiftly enters the house, is the only interviewee. He is astonished when Mary presents the children’s restored advertisement and convinces him that the request was originally his idea. Mary Poppins promises to be firm with the children and hires herself to be the nanny of the Banks children.
Mary Poppins meets the children and then helps them to magically tidy their room, by getting the room to tidy itself up, all to the tune of “A Spoonful of Sugar”.
Mary then takes the children for a walk in the park, where they meet her friend Bert, who is working as a screever. Mary uses her magic to get them to jump into one of Bert’s paintings, where they will experience more magic, music, and song. It will be a “jolly holiday with Mary!”
P.L. Travers and Approval Rights
Walt Disney’s attempts to convince the author P.L. Travers for approval rights to make a film version of Mary Poppins proved challenging. P.L. Travers was not a fan of cinema and felt that Disney would destroy the lead character of her books. After various attempts over twenty years, Disney succeeded to gain approval rights. He was also successful in allowing the setting to be changed from the 1930s to the Edwardian era.
As a compromise, P.L. Travers won script approval rights. After watching the movie, P.L. Travers devised a list of changes for Disney, but they were ignored. Walt Disney told her that she may have script approval, but he had final draft approval.
P.L. Travers was not happy. She did not think that the film did justice to her books. She hated the music, the cartoons, and the casting. She was so angry with Disney that she refused the studio permission to film any sequels.
Disney’s successful attempts to lure P.L. Travers are told in the recent acclaimed period drama Saving Mr. Banks, starring Emma Thompson as P.L. Travers and Tom Hanks as Walt Disney.
P.L. Travers wrote the books and her attachment to her work is understandable. However, the enduring success of Mary Poppins is largely due to the classic film and not to the books. Even before the film was released, the Mary Poppins book series had seen a slump in sales, which were not helped by the constant criticism of racial stereotyping present in her first book ever since it was published in 1934.
In a 1977 interview with Roy Plomley on BBC Radio’s Desert Island Discs, P. L. Travers revealed that she had learned to live with the film and that she approved of Julie Andrews in the lead role. However, her disdain of the medium of film is also apparent when she says that Mary Poppins is “a good film in its own level”.
An artistic triumph
The film was shot entirely at Walt Disney Studios in Burbank, California. Painted London background scenes are effectively used to enhance the sense of wonder and magic.
The splendid direction by Robert Stevenson is often under-appreciated by many critics, as is the imaginative screenplay from Bill Walsh and Don LaGradi.
The lead performances are memorable, especially Julie Andrews, who is a revelation in her debut film role as the magical Mary Poppins. Despite a strange-sounding cockney accent, Dick Van Dyke produces a lively, playful, and likable performance as Bert.
The supporting performers deliver the magic too, boasting splendid eccentric performances, especially from David Tomlinson and Glynis Johns as George and Winifred Banks. The children, played by Karen Dotrice and Matthew Garber, are perfectly sweet and not too schmaltzy.
There are renowned actors to look out for. Elsa Lanchester, so memorable in the 1935 horror masterpiece Bride of Frankenstein, is suitably grumpy as departing nanny Katie Nanna, and Jane Darwell, who won an Oscar for her role as Ma Joad in the 1940 classic drama The Grapes of Wrath, plays the bird woman on the steps of St. Pauls.
Popular American actor and Oscar Nominee Ed Wynn is perfectly cast as Uncle Albert, who suffers from the unknown condition where he floats in the air during fits of uncontrollable laughter.
Julie Andrews received an Academy Award for best actress, which has been widely interpreted as a consolation prize for missing out on the lead film role of Eliza Doolittle, a role which had made her a star on the stage, in the big budget film version of My Fair Lady in the same year.
Many critics have repeatedly said that Julie Andrews missing out on the film version of My Fair Lady is a huge loss, but Mary Poppins is now regarded as the better film.
The energetic choreography from Mark Breaux and Dee Dee Wood, the colorful art direction by Carroll Clark and William H. Tuntke, the rich cinematography from Edward Colman, and the special effects are only parts of what makes Mary Poppins so special.
However, the most significant contribution to Mary Poppins is the splendid music from Richard M. Sherman (songs), Robert B. Sherman (songs), and Irwin Kostal (score). Songs like “Supercalifragilisticexpialisocious”, “A Spoonful of Sugar”, “Chim Chim Cher-ee”, and “Feed the Birds” are as popular today as they were in 1964.
Mary Poppins is a permanent reminder of a time when the Disney brand was about invention, creativity, and imagination.
The sequel Mary Poppins Returns was released in 2018, some twenty-two years after the death of P.L. Travers. Although not in the same class as the original, Mary Poppins Returns is surprisingly good and boasts excellent lead performances, especially from Emily Blunt and Lin-Manuel Miranda.
Mary Poppins is still enormously popular. The original film transformed the fortunes of most of its cast and crew members. Julie Andrews became a huge international film star, Dick Van Dyke moved from television to big screen, the songs are still being sung, and Walt Disney had finally made the artistic triumph he had always wanted to make.
And it was all thanks to that magical nanny.