Walt Disney, P.L. Travers and the Battle Over Mary Poppins: Part Two

by Jim Korkis, contributing writer

[Read part 1 of Jim's article here.]

Did P.L.Travers truly abhor what had been done to her version of Mary Poppins in the popular Disney live-action musical?

"The movie and the books are not the same thing and you must not muddle them," said Travers in an interview shortly after the film was in general release where she pointed out that her books were bestsellers before the film was made. "The movie is very glamorous if you take it on its own but it has very little to do with the books."

Disney songwriter Richard Sherman told the New Yorker magazine that he believed Travers opinion of the movie changed depending upon her audience. When she was with intellectuals who disliked Disney, she shared how her precious novel had been desecrated by the studio. In private letters, she was severe in her criticisms.

However, whether she talked to journalists or admirers, she was always careful to affirm that her comments were not for publication. Sometimes, she alluded to the fact that it would disrupt negotiations for a sequel or some vague clause in her contract or that it was disrespectful now that Walt had died.

She did mention to at least one writer that Walt had reprimanded her for being ungrateful.

However, there are just as many examples both in letters to Walt and comments to reporters where she praised the film as a wonderful piece of entertainment.

"Received wisdom is that she hated the film, but when I worked with her on a [unfilmed] sequel, years later, we watched it together and I found that there was more that she liked than disliked—indeed, much of the material that came solely from the film [as opposed to her stories) was followed up or referenced in the treatment we wrote together and in my subsequent screenplay," wrote noted Disney historian Brian Sibley, who knew Travers for two decades and worked closely with her on a screenplay for a sequel.

The first time P.L. Travers saw the Disney film version of Mary Poppins was at the Hollywood premiere to benefit the California Institute of the Arts on Thursday, August 27,1964, at Grauman's Chinese Theater in Hollywood.

She had not been invited.

One of her lawyers, Diarmuid Russell, and her American publisher (Harcourt Brace & World) had asked for her to be invited but had been ignored by the Disney Studios.

Travers sent a telegram to Walt saying that she was coming to Hollywood for the premiere, sure that somebody would be able to find an extra seat for her somewhere. If it were not too much trouble, she continued, could Walt please let her know the details of time and place.

Disney story editor, Bill Dover, who had been her "babysitter" when she visited the Disney Studios in 1962, responded almost immediately that a formal invitation was in the mail and offered to escort her to the premiere. This was followed by a message from Walt that while he had counted on her presence at the London premiere, he was happy that she could also attend the Hollywood one.

Harcourt Brace & World paid for her flight to Los Angeles (on August 26) and a three -ay stay at the Beverly Wilshire Hotel.

he arrived in a long white satin gown with long gloves. While there are a handful of photos of Walt posing with Travers, he spent very little time with her at the premiere.

During the film, Travers cried. Some observers felt that they were tears of happiness at seeing her creation on the screen in such an outstanding film. Some cynics even suggested that the tears were of joy that the film was such a success that she would be financially stable for the rest of her life because of the percentage she would receive.

Travers claimed that they were bitter tears.

"Tears ran on my cheeks because it was all so distorted…I was so shocked that I felt I would never write, let alone smile, again!" she affirmed.

On the huge screen, her name was in small type listed vaguely as "consultant" and "Based on the stories by P. L. Travers". She realized that from now on it would be "Walt Disney's Mary Poppins" just as his versions had usurped writers like James Barrie, Lewis Carroll, and others.

Later, she wrote that the credit should have been "P.L. Travers' Mary Poppins, screened by Walt Disney".

At the after-party, hosted by Technicolor, in a nearby parking lot themed to an English garden with weeping willows and strolling performers, Richard Sherman recalled Travers approaching Walt and saying in a loud voice, "Well, the first thing that has to go is the animation sequence."

Calmly and coolly Walt responded, "Pamela, the ship has sailed."

While Travers had approval of the script, once the film was made, it belonged entirely to Disney. He walked away to greet some of the many well-wishers. Travers not only hated the animation sequence but, in particular, she told a writer at Ladies' Home Journal, the animated horse and pig.

The next day, she sent a telegram to Walt congratulating him on the cast, the picture and keeping true to the spirit of Mary Poppins. She kept a copy of the telegram and annotated it with the comment that there was so much she wasn't able to say at the time so that posterity might know her true feelings.

Walt replied formally that he was happy for her reaction and it was a pity that "the hectic activities before, during and after the premiere" meant that they had little time to spend together.

Travers replied that the premiere was wonderful, but that the real Mary Poppins remained within the covers of her books and hoped the success of the film would turn a new audience toward them. She kept a copy of that letter, as well, annotating it with a remark that there was "much between the lines" that she wasn't able to say at the time.

In a September 2, 1964, letter to her publisher, she wrote that the film was "Disney through and through, spectacular, colourful, gorgeous but all wrapped around mediocrity of thought, poor glimmerings of understanding."

Back in New York, she attended the premiere at Radio City Music Hall in September and gave interviews, concentrating on her books. With the success of the movie, the sales of her books tripled. However, the books that featured the Disney version of the story, out sold hers by five to one.

Later, she would tell an interviewer (and then insist the remark was not for publication) that the "movie hasn't simplicity, it has simplification."

As the years passed, she became more and more adamant that she did not want to be remembered by the movie version and that it was all fantasy but no magic.

The "Royal European" premiere of Mary Poppins was held at the Leicester Square Theater on December 17, 1964. Travers was in attendance as was Princess Margaret and Lord Snowdon. Walt did not attend.

In 1987, there were plans for P.L. Travers (with the assistance of the Sibley) to write the treatment for a sequel to the Disney live-action musical.

Sibley first corresponded with Travers in 1972 for his unpublished manuscript, Disneydust a biography of Walt Disney.

He has posted the treatment for the sequel in its entirety on one of his many highly informative and entertaining blogs.

The Disney Studio had proposed a sequel where Julie Andrews would return as Mary Poppins to help the children of the grown-up Jane and Michael Banks. Of course, Travers instantly found such a proposal completely unacceptable.

However, Sibley softened Travers' fervor and convinced her to consider writing a treatment so that Mary Poppins could be presented the way Travers wanted. He then wrote to Roy E. Disney, who immediately agreed to whatever Travers wanted. Jeffrey Katzenberg met with Sibley and Travers in the United Kingdom where Travers laid out her demands about how the character was to be portrayed.

Sibley and Travers rewatched the film in the London Disney office since Travers had not seen the film since its premiere more than 20-some years earlier.

Sibley was surprised that in between her predicable, repeated complaints how much Travers liked parts of the film and told him to make notes of those moments for possible inclusion in the treatment.

By the middle of 1988, Sibley was hard at work on the screenplay for Mary Poppins Comes Back. It would not only be a sequel to the Disney film (utilizing some of the original elements introduced in that film) but also include "adventures drawn from stories in the original books."

Mrs. Banks had birthed a set of twins, given up the cause of women's suffrage, and was trying to emotionally support her husband, whose new position at the bank was causing him concerns with all the imprudent investments that have brought the bank to serious financial difficulties.

A new nanny has been impossible to find for Jane and Michael who are in the park having problems with their kite. They are helped by Barney, the ice cream man.

Barney is the cockney younger brother of Bert who has moved on to clean the chimneys of the rich and famous. Like Bert, Barney is a jack-of-all-trades, appearing in different occupations, and is merely a non-magical friend of Mary Poppins.

It was the Disney Studios who suggested having a different character than Bert and later suggested that the role be played by singer Michael Jackson, who was not only popular at the time but had just completed the Captain EO project and was considered "part of the Disney [Studio] family."

As they reel in the kite, Mary Poppins is at the other end. Adventures ensue, including using the magic compass for an around-the-world trip originally planned and eliminated from the first film. Many of Mary Poppins' relatives make appropriate appearances and there is a significant emphasis on the importance of memories, as well as the fact that it is music and not money that makes the world go round.

Sibley worked on two versions of the screenplay. Disney, as was its way, brought on two other screenwriters Perry and Randy Howze (who had written the 1988 movie, Mystic Pizza) to take a shot at it but eventually ended up shelving the project.

In 1989, Travers decided to sell her papers to a major American collection. Since the correspondence included her annotated carbons of letters to Walt Disney, she hoped that posterity would see her genuine response to the Disney film and how they had ignored her obviously perceptive objections.

There was no interested buyer, and the collection of 28 manuscript boxes were later repackaged and sold to the Mitchell Library, part of the State Library of New South Wales, in Sydney, Australia, roughly 80 miles from where Travers was raised by her mother.

She only gave permission for the development of a theatrical musical production on the stipulation that no Americans be involved with it, and, in particular, anyone who was connected with the film production. That meant that the Sherman Brothers who were still alive and writing songs could not contribute new tunes to the production.

When she died in 1996, the Disney Company took out the standard advertisement in the Hollywood trade magazines showing an image of a crying Mickey Mouse.

What exactly were some of Travers' major objections to the Disney film version?

"How much better a film would it have been had it carefully stayed with the true version of Mary Poppins," Travers once wrote to Sibley.

Portrayal of Mr. Banks

Travers very clearly saw the character of Mr. Banks as an idealized version of her own father and was horrified by the way the Disney writers portrayed him.

"I could hardly bear it…I've always loved Mr. Banks. I did ask in Hollywood why Mr. Banks had to be such a monster," she told McCall's magazine in 1966.

She fretted that they had Mr. Banks tear up ("cheerily") the advertisement that the children had written for the new nanny and, even worse, throw it in the fireplace. Surely, she informed the writers, they would never do such a thing with their own children so why be hurtful and untruthful in showing Mr. Banks doing it.

Mr. Banks was only "un-tender" to his wife in the way of "any husband" who might be temporarily distracted Travers insisted. He was not unhappy, merely "out of sorts." He was just an over anxious bank clerk, not some sort of vague management figure.

Portrayal of Mary Poppins

Mary Poppins should never be impolite or impertinent to anyone, in particular, Mr. and Mrs. Banks, nor undermine their authority. If the parents had told the children not to do something, Mary should not subvert those orders.

While she liked Julie Andrews and her performance, she felt she was much too pretty and that the humor and charm of the stories came from the fact that Mary was plain.

Mary should always be referred to by her entire name, "Mary Poppins" as if it were a title. Only some of her odd relatives in the books called her just "Mary".

She was shocked when Mary kicked up her Edwardian dress when she was dancing and showed her bloomers. This was a complaint that she continued to harp on for decades, claiming Mary was "dancing a can-can on the rooftop displaying all her underwear." If Mary ever decided to dance a can-can, her skirts would "by their own accord, cling modestly around her ankles."

She felt Disney was portraying Mary as a "hoyden," a carefree, boisterous tomboy.

Portrayal of Bert

Even though she herself had dropped subtle hints in her stories that Mary Poppins and Bert were a little more than just friends, she was explicit that there be no suggestion of any love connection between the two.

At best, he could only appreciate her at a distance with no hope his affection would ever be reciprocated. She felt that the animated Jolly Holiday sequence showed them as much too cozy together.

She disliked that they kept expanding the part of Bert (not just for the needs of the story but to attract a major star to play the role). She considered him a "subsidiary figure" in her books and was upset that Bert, not Mary, seemed to be the reconciling figure for the family at the end.

She hated that Bert was presented as a "co-magician" with Mary. Only Mary should have any magic.

While she felt Julie Andrews was "satisfactory" as Mary Poppins, she felt that Dick Van Dyke was "all wrong."

For those who criticize Van Dyke's cockney accent, they should realize that he was only copying faithfully his vocal coach, actor J. Pat O'Malley, who did British voices for many Disney animated characters, including Colonel Hathi of the elephants in The Jungle Book, and he was far from an expert on cockney accents.

Portrayal of Mrs. Banks

Travers was horrified that gentle Mrs. Banks would become an ardent but silly suffragette. She also felt that children would not understand any of the feminism jokes.

"How could dear, demented Mrs. Banks, fussy, feminine and loving, become a suffragette?" Travers questioned.

She hated the first name that the writers had been given Mrs. Banks as cold and unlucky and suggested 11 other names from which Walt picked "Winifred".

She did not like the richness of the Banks' home that had been described in humbler terms in her book that took place during the Depression. She felt the little house had been transformed into a mansion. She felt the servants were portrayed as too common in their speech and manners.

Other Concerns

As previously mentioned, she saw no need for the original Sherman brothers songs at all. She emphasized that it would be preferable to use the old Edwardian songs like Lily of Laguna or at least the same rhythms to suggest those songs.

She did not like the idea of Mr. Dawes, Sr., the chairman of the bank dying. She suggested that he retire and then spend the rest of his life laughing.

She pointed out terms that were not used by Edwardians. "Go fly a kite" simply must be "go AND fly a kite" she insisted. One does not "hire" a nanny but "employs" or better still "engages" a nanny. (Director Robert Stevenson had actually grown up in the Edwardian era and had a nanny, as had art director Peter Ellenshaw.)

She felt that Disney had disappointed her readers by not including the twins, in addition to Michael and Jane.

The checks from Disney kept rolling in year after year, not just for the film but other related things like arena theater productions that featured the characters.

In 1970, Travers established the Cherry Tree Trust, a foundation that gave grants to children. Travers used just a small slice of the Disney money that left her incredibly wealthy for the rest of her life.

Her lawyer, Arnold Goodman, when Travers would complain about how Disney had "tricked her" and mutilated her books, reminded her "You should repeat three times nightly—before and after prayer… ‘But for dear Mr. Goodman, I would never have sold Mary Poppins to Walt Disney and would not now be rich'."

To learn more about the battle between Disney and Travers, I recommend adding to your library the following two books:

As you might suspect, I am eagerly looking forward to how this Battle of the Titans will be portrayed in the December film Saving Mr. Banks. I believe that the conflict probably resulted in Mary Poppins' turning out to be so extraordinarily good.



  1. By DwarfPlanet

    Thanks Jim, these were good reads and I never realised what an absolute horror Travers was. Thank goodness Walt and company did what they did otherwise Mary Poppins probably would not have been so successful.

  2. By Jim Korkis

    Quote Originally Posted by DwarfPlanet View Post
    Thanks Jim, these were good reads and I never realised what an absolute horror Travers was. Thank goodness Walt and company did what they did otherwise Mary Poppins probably would not have been so successful.

    Yes, P.L. Travers could be a bully but just this last week I talked with Brian Sibley who not only enjoyed the columns but my sending some folks over to his sites to read his experiences with Travers.

    We both agreed that some of P.L. Travers behavior was because she was very vain (so felt she should be the primary source of attention....in truth, most reporters had never heard of her until the film came out and was a hit and it annoyed her to be asked about the films and not her books). Mary Poppins was vain as well...check out how many times the character checks herself out in mirrors in the film, something taken directly from the book.

    Travers was also flirtatious...one of the things I left out was her suggestion that Walt had "an interest" in her. Walt never had an "interest" in any other woman other than his wife and perhaps his lack of romantic responsiveness had something to do with it as well since it didn't validate her as attractive. Walt could be entirely charming and attentive to women but he never even got close to crossing any lines.

    Travers was also scared....she was in an area she was completely unfamiliar with...and was fearful that Disney was like a shark gobbling up a minnow. She was also scared that she would lose her "credibility" in her intellectual community by working on such a "common" thing.

    Sibley told me if he had been able to tell actress Emma Thompson one thing, it would be that Travers was not as prissy and fussy as most people saw her.

    My feeling is that the struggle between Walt and Travers resulted in it being such an outstanding film. Other reviewers (including my friend Leonard Maltin) have pointed out that other films were made by the same Disney team (minus Travers) but never had the same impact.

    Again, a fascinating story and I am looking forward to "Saving Mr. Banks" and to the Blu-Ray being released in December with new extras, although I have been pretty disappointed by some of the recent "extras" on Disney Blu-Rays.

  3. By Jimbo996

    Good story. I never knew. It is nice to hear of happy endings even if it wasn't happy for her. The Pooh story, I suppose, is worse.

    Emma Thompson played a nanny herself as "Nanny McPhee".

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