Fact and Fiction in Saving Mr. Banks, Part One

by Jim Korkis, contributing writer

I am still surprised by the controversy that surrounds the recent movie Saving Mr. Banks.

Some people have been vehement in their criticism from complaints that they could just not relate to a movie about such an unpleasant woman to the belief that the Disney Company tried to deify Walt Disney to questioning the accuracy of the material.

First, the film is not intended to be a documentary, nor a biography, of P.L. Travers or Walt Disney. In fact, Walt is just a supporting character in a film that is primarily about Travers and her struggles.

It is a fictionalized version of just part of the story of the making the iconic film Mary Poppins concentrating on a specific time period early in the production.

As a result, there is a compression of certain time frames, composite characters that were created to advance the narrative, and dramatic scenes that never happened in real life in order to capture the spirit of what was going on at the time and tell an interesting story. It is "based" on the "true story."

"You can't fit everything about a person's life into two hours," actress Emma Thompson, who portrays writer Travers, told The Advocate, when asked about her portrayal of P.L. Travers and why certain elements like the relationship with Travers' estranged, alcoholic son weren't included.

The Disney Company definitely did not make an effort to obscure Walt's flaws. At one point he even says "damn" which Walt did in real life. A small handful of common curse words like "shit" were part of Walt's Midwestern vocabulary, but never used in public or in front of women.

"Of course there were discussions about [showing Walt] drinking and smoking and having a cough. But, ultimately, he died of lung cancer. Everybody knows that," said screenwriter Kelly Marcel. "It's very well documented that he smoked and he drank and it would have been completely disingenuous not to have nods to that. I was like 'These are all things that they are totally going to strip out of the film. No way they [Disney] will keep those in there,' but Disney was very, very conscious about not putting out a white-washed version of Walt. They really wanted it to be as truthful to him as they possibly could."

There are moments and settings that are amazingly accurate mixed in with a sort of dramatic fantasy.

When screenwriter Don DaGradi says "Man is in the forest" (a reference to a line from the animated feature Bambi), it was indeed a phrase used at the Disney Studio to acknowledge that Walt was in the building. Walt did carry pre-signed slips of paper with his autograph on them to hand out when he was at Disneyland so he wouldn't be slowed down or overwhelmed by autograph seekers.

The Mickey Mouse helium balloons were two-toned at the time. For the film, 750 had to be hand dyed because the machine that originally made the balloons no longer exists. Walt did have portraits by Norman Rockwell of his two daughters in his formal office.

Yet, other references weren't quite as truthful.

Most, if not all, biographical films stray from complete accuracy. In the recent film Lone Survivor, the heated debate about whether to release an innocent goat herd captured by four Navy SEALS never happened. All of them were on board immediately to let the person go, even though it resulted in disaster. The surviving SEAL who wrote the original book was on set as a consultant and informed the director who replied, "This is not a documentary. We need that scene so the audience understands what is at stake." In addition, the SEALS were up against 20 Taliban soldiers, not 200 as in the movie.

There has been so much interest in what is real and what is not in Saving Mr. Banks that I was recently interviewed in January by Orlando Weekly writer Seth Kubersky about the factual accuracy in the movie.

I received a lot of positive feedback on that interview from many people I respect, but there is always more to the story. No one can know everything, especially not me. Just in the last few weeks doing additional research and re-watching the film again, I have gained even more insights.

From the reactions I have received, many Disney fans are indeed very interested in this topic, so, hopefully, this article will help enhance viewing the film, especially when it is released on Blu-Ray.

Here are some extended answers to material not fully covered in the Orlando Weekly article.

Did Walt Disney take P.L. Travers to Disneyland?

Fiction. I certainly believed that Walt had taken Travers to Disneyland, as did some Disney old-timers that I interviewed over the years. Apparently, they were confusing it with a trip where Walt took Julie Andrews and her family to Disneyland when she signed on to do the role of Mary Poppins.

Walt intended to take Travers to Disneyland on her first full day in Los Angeles, which was Easter Sunday, 1961. In a letter dated March 31, 1961, Walt Disney wrote, "I'm sorry I can't be on hand to greet you on your arrival in Los Angles, but I have been fighting a cold for some time and have been spending as much time as possible in the dry desert air hoping to shake it…It was my thought that you might like to go to Disneyland on Sunday. Mr. Dover will take you down there—perhaps going down to the Park in time for lunch and spending the afternoon there. He will discuss the details with you."

Storyman Bill Dover had been assigned to "babysit" Travers. Walt gave them full access to his apartment above the firehouse on Main Street, use of his personal electric car, and the assistance of a guest relations hostess.

Despite later claims by Travers that she was not pleased with her one and only time at Disneyland, according to Dover's trip notes she seemed to have enjoyed the experience.

So Walt never had her ride Jingles the horse on the carousel?

Fiction. Whether she rode on the carousel at all is conjecture. No details were recorded of what attractions Travers rode. While cast members anecdotally called the lead horse "Jingles" or "Mr. Jingles," there is no documentation that Walt himself called the horse that name or that it was his favorite one to ride.

In the film, Tom Hanks, portraying Walt, calls Jingles his "wife's favorite horse."

Remember that it was cast members who claimed that Gracey is the master of the Haunted Mansion where Imagineer X. Atencio's intention when scripting a "Master Gracey" tombstone was to make reference to the term used at that time period of a young boy too young to be addressed as "Mister."

Imagineer Yale Gracey had a boyish spirit and used his childhood book The Boy Magician to come up with the Pepper's Ghost illusion. Gracey was never meant to be the master of the mansion but it became such a popularly accepted version that it is now official. Please don't get me started on the cast members' insistence that the bride's wedding ring is imbedded in the walkway.

On April 8, 2008, Julie Andrews came to Disneyland for a ceremony that recognized her service as Honorary Ambassador of Disneyland's 50th Anniversary Celebration. Jingles had been "goldenized" in 2005, along with vehicles on other attractions in honor of Disneyland's 50th Anniversary and Andrews was photographed with the horse during the festivities.

At the 2008 ceremony, with Imagineer Marty Sklar and Disneyland Resort President Ed Grier, Jingles had been repainted and they dedicated the horse to Andrews. The new paint job included references to Mary Poppins on both the saddle and the blanket, including Poppins' famous umbrella.

It is my understanding that the horse was never officially called Jingles until this ceremony, even though the cast members referred to it by that name. With its connections to Mary Poppins, it seemed a perfect prop for the film.

With the 1980s New Fantasyland, the carousel was moved north approximately 20 yards to have more room at the congested area where guests entered through the castle. So filmmakers had to do some subtle editing because, in 1961, there were twirling teacups right next to the carousel.

Wait a minute. You mentioned Bill Dover. Wasn't Ralph the chauffeur for Travers?

Fiction. The genial Ralph, who did portray the attitude of many Disney Studio employees at the time period, was a creation of screenwriter Marcel as was his disabled daughter. Marcel claims one of the hardest scenes she had to write was Ralph telling Travers about his daughter.

The purpose of the character of Ralph was for Travers to have someone to talk with so she could reveal her thoughts to the audience. It was also an opportunity to soften the character somewhat by giving Travers someone she could warm up to and show a bit of sympathy for the author.

Storyman Bill Dover picked Travers up at the airport, dropped her off at the airport after her time in Los Angeles and was her escort to the movie premiere. He was the official babysitter for her during her Los Angeles visit. Travers did have Disney Studio chauffeurs available for her use, but apparently did not take much, if any, advantage of them to explore Los Angeles, but simply to transport her back and forth between the studio and the hotel.

There is no record in the Disney Archives, nor in Travers' personal papers, to indicate what she did on her time away from the Disney Studio.

After Travers left in 1961, Dover maintained a correspondence with her, primarily passing along copies of articles and reviews about the film for which she seemed appreciative. When his wife passed away, she wrote back to him with a sympathetic letter about what it means to lose someone close to you.

Did Travers have to sign off on a story treatment before Disney could make the film?

Yes, in a unique concession on the part of Walt Disney, Travers did have final approval on a story treatment. Walt Disney Productions and Travers' publisher, John Lyndon Ltd., had already signed a preliminary agreement in April 1960.

It was in the contract that Travers also had the opportunity to submit her own treatment for consideration.

Working with British television writer Donald Bull, she submitted a story that was focused on the transformation of Jane Banks, the daughter, rather than Mr. Banks. The treatment, which exists in the Disney Archives, is basically a story about Jane's fear of change and of growing up.

If that sounds similar to Wendy in James Barrie's Peter Pan, it is important to remember that Travers loved Barrie's story, her early publisher was Peter Davies (one of the Davies boys who inspired Barrie to create the character in the first place), and that it was how Disney handled Barrie's work, including making it for generations DISNEY'S Peter Pan that made her fearful of Walt's treatment of her character.

In the film, that same fear is supposed to be represented by the plush Winnie the Pooh dolls in her hotel room and how Walt handled the work of British author A.A. Milne, once again making it DISNEY'S Winnie the Pooh and even including a new character, a gopher, who was "not in the book." However, while Walt obtained the rights to the Winnie the Pooh characters in 1961, the first featurette did not appear until 1966, so that merchandise would not be produced for another five years or more.

Travers' treatment was that Mrs. Banks was going to give birth to her fifth child. Talking with her father, Jane determines that the old year ends on the first stroke of the clock at midnight and the new year begins with the last stroke, so she decides to live between those strokes so nothing changes and there is perfect harmony. Jane Banks soon realizes that this is not a good idea and learns about the need to grow up.

At the time that Mrs. Banks does give birth, Jane starts acting "motherly" toward her brother Michael, and Mary Poppins realized that Jane is ready to accept growing up and leaves.

Yes, Travers always insisted in her notes to the Disney Studio that Mary Poppins is "not a name but a title" and so the full name must always be used.

Travers' visit to the Disney Studio was to work through an acceptable story treatment (not necessarily a final script). When Travers left, Walt Disney did not hop on the next flight to try to convince her and in fact, never flew to London to talk with her in person at all for the rest of his life, although he apparently did talk to her over the phone occasionally.

After the story meetings and Travers was back in England, on May 2, 1961, Bill Dover informed Walt Disney that Walt Disney Productions has received a written confirmation of an executed contract that is an unconditional approval of the script. Cyril James, representing Travers, wrote, "May I, on Mrs. Travers' behalf, formally record her appreciation of the many kindnesses bestowed upon her in Hollywood and her hope that the film will be a very successful one."

A month later, Travers sent an inscribed copy of her book Mary Poppins In The Park (1952) to Walt, writing on the title page: "To Walt Disney, hoping that your association with Mary Poppins will bring you joy & satisfaction & be as she herself has so often put it – a Pleasure & a Treat! With greetings from P. L. Travers June 1961."

While Travers always insisted that Walt took advantage of her lack of knowledge about the film-making process, Walt did send her the final shooting script in spring 1963 and she responded with 14 pages of typewritten notes.

Many of these notes were about proper English phrasing. Instead of "when a cat has got your tongue," she suggested "when at a loss for words." Instead of "vends her wares", she suggested "sells her wares." Travers was very precise at all times of the proper English terminology to be used. She abhorred any word or phrase that sounded "American."

To me, the most surprising thing is that in the notes she comments on the animated Jolly Holiday sequence. She suggests that Mary Poppins tell the children to be careful to not smudge the chalk drawing when they enter, a line which was incorporated into the final shooting script.

She questioned why the animated fox would talk with a brogue because, after all, he was an English fox. She was adamant that the animals not use Cockney accents because: Where would they learn that accent?

This insight helps me better understand why, in an interview in the Ladies' Home Journal, she particularly complained about the animated horse and pig in that sequence.

She also requests that the penguins do not say the name "Pamela." The song lyrics were changed accordingly.

So it was eye-opening to me that she was clearly aware of the animated sequence and animated penguins.

What was even more eye-opening for me was that many of her requests for changes were incorporated into the film, even though others were not. She was not being ignored, even though, once she signed the contract, she did not legally have any authority about the actual filming.

This action of accepting many of Travers' suggestions reinforces my belief that it was the struggle between Walt and Travers that helped make Mary Poppins a better film than either one could have produced on their own.

Next Time: Believe it or not, there is even more to this story about what is "real" and "reel" in Saving Mr. Banks. In Part Two, I cover some items about Travers life, some specifics of the tape recorded story meetings, Walt's struggles as a young boy delivering newspapers, and a few surprises.



  1. By Pammer

    Thank you for another insightful article...I finally saw "Saving Mr. Banks" a couple of weeks ago and thoroughly enjoyed it; I then went back and re-read your articles from last summer that I also enjoyed reading!

  2. By oregontraveler

    Excellent insight to a complex movie: both MP & SMB. I know that the message boards on both IMDB and here on MP have given me proof on how hard it was to market this movie. And what people's expectations are of Mary Poppins. Looking forward to part 2.

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