Walt Disney, P.L. Travers, and the Battle Over Mary Poppins - Part One

by Jim Korkis, contributing writer

While there are many anniversaries to celebrate this year, next year will mark the 50th birthday of the well-loved Disney live-action musical, Mary Poppins.  I have just returned from a trip to Redford, Michigan, where they screened the film in an old movie palace and I had the chance to talk prior to three screenings about the story behind the film.

Once again, I felt that MousePlanet readers might enjoy some of those insights that I shared, as well, especially with the film Saving Mr. Banks coming out this December.

The film will detail the story of Pamela (P.L.) Travers (played by Emma Thompson), author of the Mary Poppins’ books, coming to Hollywood and meeting Walt Disney (played by Tom Hanks) about translating her stories to the screen.  They were two strong-willed personalities and it was a volatile situation.

By the way, to make the filming of Disneyland authentic to the time period, new Mickey Mouse helium balloons had to be created.  At the time, the balloons were two-toned, with the ears being black. The machine that made those types of balloons no longer exists, so 750 balloons had to be hand-dyed to achieve the effect.

To me, the absolute expert about Travers and her Disney misadventures is the ever charming, ever knowledgeable Disney historian Brian Sibley (who I will reference in the next installment, as well).  He has many fine blogs, but I would suggest taking a look at this particular entry.

Much of the inspiration for Mary Poppins came from author P.L. Travers’ own life.

She was born Helen Lyndon Goff in 1899 in Australia and died in 1996.  She especially loved the stories of the Brothers Grimm and in her youth, simply called all stories “Grimms.”

At age 21, as she explored being an actress or a dancer, she took the name Pamela, because she thought it sounded pretty and theatrical, and the name Travers, which was her father’s first name, while retaining her own middle name. 

Her father was a bank manager and probably inspired Mr. Banks, the banker in the Poppins’ stories.  He died of causes relating to excessive drinking when Travers was 7 years old, and she never forgot how much she loved and missed him.

She was adamant that she did not create or invent Mary Poppins. When asked by people, Travers said she had no idea what the character was doing when she wasn’t on Cherry Tree Lane. She claimed she merely brushed by Mary Poppins and was simply jotting down the stories.

The name Poppins probably came from Poppins Court, a street near St. Paul’s Cathedral that features so prominently in the film and was near the London Fleet Street office where Travers once worked as a writer for a newspaper. Travers’ younger sister was named Mary.

The no-nonsense personality of Mary Poppins undoubtedly came from Travers’ spinster aunt, Ellie, whose firmness disguised a kind heart and who also carried a carpetbag with her.  The parrot-headed umbrella was a unique item that the Irish maid of the Travers’ family carried and carefully wrapped in tissue paper when not in use. 

Travers first book of Mary Poppins stories was published in 1934, and was set in Depression-era London.  It was credited to “P. L. Travers” because Travers did not want people to know whether a man or a woman had written the book. 

It was illustrated, as were the following books, by Mary Shepard, the daughter of E. H. Shepard, the illustrator of the Winnie the Pooh stories. With the help of her own agent and none from Travers (who often bullied Shepard), Shepard did receive some compensation from the Disney Company when the live-action film was made.

In 1935, Mary Poppins Comes Back was published with even more stories.

In 1938, after the release of Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, Walt tried to get an option on every popular fantasy title he could, from Peter Pan to Alice in Wonderland to The Wizard of Oz.

It has been said that the American publisher of the Travers’ books had sent copies to Walt at the time, but many books were sent to Walt and were simply shelved unread.  If Walt indeed had read more than a summary of the characters and stories, he never mentioned it. 

However, in 1938, the Disney Studio did inquire about the availability of the Mary Poppins’ books.

Travers rejected the Disney overture and the ones that followed for many years from both Disney and other studios. The one exception was a decade later for a December 1949 episode of the live CBS “Studio One” television series that featured a young Mary Wickes playing Mary Poppins.

When a third Poppins book appeared in 1943, Walt’s daughter, Diane, was roughly 11 years old and a huge fan of the character along with her younger sister Sharon.  Diane kept a copy by her bedside and Walt heard her laughing often, as it was read to her at night before falling asleep by her mother, Lillian, who also laughed, as well.

When he found out in 1944 that Travers was now living in New York because of the war, Walt asked his older brother, Roy, to fly out and contact Travers directly to see about the availability of the book and her personality. 

“Mrs. Travers said she could not conceive of Mary Poppins as a cartoon character,” wrote Roy, who felt that Travers was a strong-willed “Amelia Earhart” type who was being too cagey about things.  “I tried to tell her that this was a matter that should be left for future study—that it might be best for Mary Poppins to be produced in a combination of live-action and cartoon, using the animation to get the fantasy and illusion of the Mary Poppins character.  I told her that we were thoroughly qualified and equipped to produce either medium, and, as a matter of fact, are producing such types of pictures.”

In fact, at the time, Song of the South was in production using a mixture of live action and animation.

Travers was unimpressed. She was perceived as a determined woman, less interested in money or the books being filmed than having absolute creative control.  However, though she was noncommittal, she did indicate she was interested in further discussions.

Several months later, Walt phoned her himself and, by 1946, thought he had an arrangement—but Travers balked at the last minute. 

Walt met with her in England during the early 1950s to once again plead his case when he was producing live-action films there.

Walt became increasingly persistent and charming.  As Travers recalled, “It was as if he were dangling a watch, hypnotically, before the eyes of a child.”

Arnold Goodman, of the firm of New York lawyers representing Travers, was the one who negotiated the sale of Mary Poppins to Disney.  He knew that the sale of her books was languishing and that Travers’ only steady income was from a renter on her property.

In a July 3, 1959 letter to Travers, Goodman outlined three significant parts. 

First, Travers could supply a story outline or treatment for submission to Disney but this would not prevent the Disney Company from having its own creative staff come up with a treatment.  In any case, Travers would have to give her final blessing of whatever story was finally chosen.

Second, Travers would be consulted on artistic matters like casting.  The word “consulted” was specifically chosen because while Walt welcomed her input, he needed to be the final authority on the production. Travers had no film experience while Walt had 35 in knowing what would appeal to an audience and what could be accomplished.

Third, she would receive a $100,000 down payment (estimated to be close to $2 million today) toward 5 percent of the producer’s gross (figured after costs for prints, advertising, distributor’s costs, etc.).  Goodman pointed out that since Disney films were often re-released that it would provide Travers a substantial income for life and it did.

However, this was just a preliminary, not final, agreement.  The production would not proceed until Travers agreed upon a script. Walt worked on the project for two years without Travers signing the final permission. 

Walt was so sure that the deal would be eventually finalized that he called in songwriters Robert and Richard Sherman to look at the book and tell him what they thought.  The brothers selected the exact same chapters that Walt later showed them that he himself had underlined as being the most visual and colorful to develop into a full story.

What the Sherman Brothers did next was to set a foundation for success.  The Shermans decided to change the time frame from the Depression to the Edwardian Age, an age that would have a timeless elegance and could make use of a highpoint in the era of British Music Hall vaudeville that would be reflected in their original songs. 

Travers later claimed that it was she who had made the suggestion.

They also had to introduce the concept of using a nanny to an American audience who raised their children by themselves. 

“We had to make her a necessary person,” explained Richard Sherman to an interviewer.

Their first solution was to send Mr. Banks off to the Boer War, requiring the ditzy mother to need additional help around the house with the children.  The happy ending would be Mr. Banks’ safe return and the restoration of the family so that Poppins could leave.

In a moment of inspiration, the Shermans decided instead of having the father physically gone, “You could make the father emotionally absent,” recalled Richard Sherman.

Storyman Don DaGradi was brought in to create visual sequences and spark ideas.  He was pivotal in developing plot, characters and even camera angles. His artwork often inspired the Sherman brothers’ songs.  

Later, storyman Bill Walsh was brought aboard to write a screenplay to connect all the songs and the story ideas.  Walsh contributed many of his own concepts including sequences at the bank.

While much of the storyline had been developed by DaGradi and the Shermans, the dialogue in the final film is 90 percent the work of Walsh, who would later write other significant Disney live-action films including The Love Bug.

Of course, Walt was deeply involved in the story, as well, often expanding sequences.  Originally, the “Jolly Holliday” segment was to feature all live actors with just the backgrounds animated.  When Walt saw the concept of four singing waiters, he stated that waiters always reminded him of penguins.

At first, everyone thought he meant training real penguins to act as waiters, but Walt was thinking of animation.  He had recently requested a screening of Song of the South for some of his staff and it inspired him to include a sequence with live-action and animation interacting.

It was Walt who suggested combining the chimney sweep and the pavement artist into one character who was a jack-of-all-trades, as well as the visually comic possibilities when the next door neighbor, Admiral Boom, fired off his cannon.

The Sherman brothers wrote many of the popular songs that would end up in the film.  In fact, they eventually wrote 32 songs and less than half were actually used.

However, Travers, with the help of British television writer Donald Bull, had come up with her own treatment, a series of vignettes from her first three books but no dramatic narrative connecting them, just unrelated incidents as in the books.

While the Disney version was starting to come together, it had little in common with the Travers’s treatment.

“The more I think about it,” Walt Disney wrote her carefully, “the more I am inclined to feel that it would be highly advantageous for all concerned if you could come to Los Angeles and spend at least a week with us here in the studio, getting acquainted with the people who will carry the picture through to completion, and giving us the benefit of your reactions to our presentation.”

Walt expected to dazzle Travers with a private tour of Disneyland and a private screening of one of the latest Disney live-action films, The Parent Trap (1961), as well as a visit to the Disney Studio.  The Disney Studio even put her up in style at the Beverly Hills Hotel.

She arrived late in March 1962, and stayed through the early days of April returning to New York by mid-April.

Travers was completely unimpressed by all the Disney magic.  In fact, she felt the output from the studio might be fine for some children but had too much false sentimentality overall. 

She did not understand Disneyland, was shocked and disappointed at seeing how a scene with actor Ed Wynn was being filmed for Babes in Toyland (even suggesting the idea of him being shrunk was stolen from one of her stories), and had no intention to be bullied. 

As she read the 46 page treatment prepared by the Shermans and DaGradi, she was appalled, describing it as “so coarse, so uncouth, so wrong in every way.”  In fact, when the Sherman brothers later began pitching the story from the storyboards, she would stop them after the first sentence, continuing to criticize not just every sentence but almost every word choice.

First, she wanted all the songs removed as completely unnecessary and confusing, but deferred that if songs were needed, then they should use songs popular to the time period that everyone knew like Greensleeves and Ta-Ra-Ra Boom De-Ay.

She felt that the chapters that had been selected for development were the worst ones in her book. 

As the storyboards were acted out, Travers took notes and firmly shared seemingly never-ending objections.  Walt became more and more frustrated since he was not used to his opinions being challenged and he was happy with how the story was evolving. 

As Travers later pointed out, Walt was used to working with authors who were long dead and not around to question his judgment.   She glibly remarked to friends later that Walt’s frustration came from her not obligingly rolling over and dying.

At one point, Walt looked at her and said that she was very vain to think that she was the only one who knew about Mary Poppins and how to tell her story.

By the end of that first story meeting, Travers was in tears and requested Walt book her on an evening plane to return to New York immediately.

Walt apologized but confided to the Sherman brothers that Travers was “all theirs” since he could not take her negativism.  He went off to his home in Palm Springs, assuming they would work something out while he was away.

The story meetings continued for a total of 10 days with a stenographer and a tape recorder taking down Travers’ comments so everyone would be, as Travers said, “very clear” about Poppins.

The six tapes still exist and have been interpreted as showing Travers bullying, interrupting, correcting, shaming, and more with her self-righteousness and seemingly dictatorial objections over even the smallest items. 

On the other hand, the writers come across as deferential and enthusiastic which somehow only confirmed Travers’ fears that they didn’t understand Mary or her relationship with Mr. Banks and the children.

To be fair, Travers was fighting to include as much of her original material as she could.  She did not realize the differences necessary in translating hundreds of printed pages into two hours of film. 

Even after the last meeting ended and Travers went back to the Beverly Hills Hotel to pack for her trip home, she took nine sheets of pink hotel stationery and typed out even more deviations from her text and other objections that she felt had not been addressed during the days of story conferences.  

Most importantly, she emphasized that it was Mary Poppins’ calm and quiet demeanor from which the comedy came, as well, as the plainness of her character.

When she did return home to New York, she sent Walt another long listing of everything that was wrong in the Disney version of the story.  (Even two years after finally reluctantly approving the Disney treatment, she sent Walt another long set of notes.)

The Shermans sent her a formal “thank you” letter for her kindness in traveling so far and for her invaluable guidance.

At one point, Walt told the Sherman brothers not to worry because he had purchased the rights to another book The Magic Bedknob by Mary Norton (later made as Bedknobs and Broomsticks in 1971) and that most of the songs they had written for Mary Poppins could be used in that film.  One song, The Beautiful Briny, which was cut from Mary Poppins was used in the later film.

In February 1963, Walt sent Travers the latest version of the script and while she praised it as a “tremendous box of tricks and adventure and merriment,” her 14-page letter contained more concerns from Mrs. Banks becoming a suffragette, to Mr. Dawes, Sr. dying, to the elaborateness of the Banks’ home.

However, once Travers signed off on the script, she was rarely consulted.  When she sent in new criticisms of the developing production, Walt would reply diplomatically his thanks and state that “we will make use of it whenever we can”.

Once filming began, she sent long letters to Julie Andrews about how things should be done.  Andrews constantly tried to reassure her in her positive replies that everything was going well. 

As the film was being prepared for release, Travers was in Kyoto, Japan studying Zen.

Walt had originally wanted Cary Grant to play the role of Bert. Travers insisted that he could play the father. Walt also considered Laurence Harvey and Anthony Newley for the role. 

At one point, he considered actress Mary Martin for Mary, but Travers suggested actress Julie Harris instead and talked to her about approaching the Disney Studio, who had to reply with a diplomatic but formal letter explaining they were considering someone else.

Travers suggested Margaret Rutherford as the Bird Woman. Walt decided to use Jane Darwell.

The battle between Walt and Travers continued through the premiere of the film and beyond.

NEXT TIME:  In a column that is already written, I will explore the premiere of Mary Poppins, Travers’ continuing complaints and the sequel that she proposed to the Disney Company (co-written with Brian Sibley) in the 1980s, and how singer Michael Jackson figured into the whole story.




  1. By olegc

    great story and background on the relationship. Can't wait for the next part. What will be interesting is art imitating life. In the original poppins movie Walt deviated from the books and PL's desired direction (to the film's benefit). Now with Saving Mr Banks coming out, it may be the same thing (what's on film deviates from what occured or was written in the past) - and I bet with the same result (a great film).

  2. By disneykaren

    What a wonderful article. With the up coming movie seemingly more a fictional tale than a documentary, it is great to have some actual historical information. Thank you Jim, for the link to Brian Sibley's blog, he has first hand knowledge of the mysterious P L Travers! Can't wait until your next installment!

  3. By danyoung

    Jim, a most interesting article. I've always known the collaboration was contentious, but having the details filled in is very interesting, and I also can't wait for the next installment. One question: at one point you said -

    Walt had originally wanted Gary Grant to play the role of Bert. Travers insisted that he could play the father.

    Did you mean Cary Grant? I found a Gary Grant, but he was an NBA player. Just wondering - thanks.

  4. By Jim Korkis

    Quote Originally Posted by danyoung View Post
    Jim, a most interesting article. I've always known the collaboration was contentious, but having the details filled in is very interesting, and I also can't wait for the next installment. One question: at one point you said -

    Did you mean Cary Grant? I found a Gary Grant, but he was an NBA player. Just wondering - thanks.

    Yes, CARY Grant. I hate it when my finger slips on the keyboard (or my mind slips as it is racing ahead to the next sentence). Cary had expressed interest but eventually turned it down. He was also offered the role of Henry Higgins in "My Fair Lady" at the same time and wrote to Jack Warner "Not only will I not play the part but if you don't cast Rex Harrison, I won't go see the film."

    For Bert, Walt had also talked to Danny Kaye, Fred Astaire, and Anthony Newley. Some of my research shows he was also scouting Tommy Steele who he later cast in "The Happiest Millionaire". The theory was Walt was looking for a big name to balance the unknown Julie Andrews.

    Walt had not seen the "The Dick Van Dyke Show" so had to borrow an episode to watch at the studio. He was immediately sold on Van Dyke who had only appeared in one other film "Bye Bye Birdie". "Mary Poppins" was filmed during the summer of 1963 to take advantage of the summer hiatus of Van Dyke's show that was still in production.

    Nothing more annoying than a simple spelling error or date error (in another article I wrote 1988 was the last that Dreamfinder was at Epcot. I meant 1998....after all Steve Taylor did the role for 15 years and was called in unexpectedly on his last set of the day and told that Dreamfinder was now gone...no advance warning or rumors to prepare him).

  5. By scottolsen

    He was also offered the role of Henry Higgins in "My Fair Lady" at the same time and wrote to Jack Warner "Not only will I not play the part but if you don't cast Rex Harrison, I won't go see the film."

    That quote is usually associated with Grant refering to his possible casting in "The Music Man" in place or Robert Preston.

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