Fact and Fiction in Saving Mr. Banks, Part Two

by Jim Korkis, contributing writer

Last week, I wrote about some of the facts and some of the dramatic inventions in the film Saving Mr. Banks (2013). I think one huge surprise for me was that Walt Disney never took author P. L. Travers to Disneyland, something that many people (including myself) believed for many years.

That trip is a pivotal moment in the film, but never took place in real life. The amicable chauffeur Ralph was also an invention of screenwriter Kelly Marcel. Storyman Bill Dover was actually Mrs. Travers' babysitter.

Again, I am not criticizing the movie. I thought it was a sweet little film, and I loved the performances and the attempt to capture the spirit of 1961. The film was never promoted as a documentary.

While the film should not be accepted as completely factual, it has proven to be a heartwarming story for many people and re-introducing the wonder of the Disney Studio when Walt was alive.

Walt did indeed promise his young daughters that he would make Mary Poppins into a film, although he had no idea it would take two decades or so to secure the rights to do so.

For the original Saving Mr. Banks script, the Disney Archives provided more than 250 corrections and suggestions, but the filmmakers were under no obligation to use them. Many of those recommendations were incorporated into the final film, but dramatic license still needed to be taken to tell the story.

It has been quite common practice for decades for motion pictures "based on a true story" to take the same type of liberties in trying to dramatize a moment in time within a limited amount of screen time. I believe that Saving Mr. Banks does capture the spirit of the people and the events, even if some specifics are not as completely accurate as some viewers may want.

Here are some more insights that might surprise you about the differences between the "real" and the "reel" world of Saving Mr. Banks.

Walt was there for those 10 days of meetings where 39 hours of tape recordings were made, right?

Fiction. First, less than seven hours of tape recordings exist and songwriter Richard Sherman kept them and labeled them "The Mary Poppins Trials" in reference to the famous Nuremberg Trials in 1945, noted for their intensive and stressful scrutiny.

These tapes were among the earliest recordings catalogued in the Disney Archives collection. To be exact, only a little more than 6.5 hours were recorded. The first 45 minutes or so of each the meetings were not recorded, supposedly because they were simple pleasantries, summaries, etc. and not commentary about changes and additions to the story. These recorded meetings took place over four days (April 5, 6, 7, and 10).

"I find myself getting angry when I relive it," said Richard Sherman when remembering those story meetings, "My stomach tightens when I talk about it."

You can hear an 11-minute excerpt from these tapes, but one of the reasons this excerpt was released to the public is it is a more "pleasant," less contentious excerpt even though you can clearly hear the rigidity in Travers voice.

You can hear that at this point the waiters in Jolly Holiday were clearly human beings, although prone to humorous antics like pouring tea in odd ways. It was not until after Travers was long gone from the Disney Studio that they morphed into animated penguins so she couldn't have gotten upset like she did in the film because at the time it was a non-issue.

Yes, Travers disliked animation and, in particular, Disney animation. Among other things she gave a very unfavorable, condescending review to the animated feature Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs when it was first released in 1937-38.

A part of that review included the following: "Oh, he's clever, this Disney! ... The very pith of his secret is the enlargement of the animal world and a corresponding deflation of all human values. There is a profound cynicism at the root of his, as of all, sentimentality."

Walt left for his Palm Springs vacation home after the first day of story meetings and remained there until after Travers left. It has always been assumed that Walt could not stand the level of negativism from Travers.

The Don DaGradi story sketch, shown during the end credits, where Travers is sitting down and surrounded by seemingly unending "no"s is a pretty accurate representation of the meetings.

A different perspective was recently revealed in songwriter Robert Sherman's new book, Moose: Chapters From My Life, where he suggests that Walt left so that he would not be held accountable (even with the audio tapes) for anything that Travers wanted changed. He could feign ignorance and do what he wanted. Moose was one of the books used as reference for the movie.

By the way, songwriter Robert Sherman did use a cane, although never in any of the official publicity moments of the time. For instance, he got up and walked away jauntily from the piano when he and his brother played "It's A Great Big Beautiful Tomorrow" for Walt in the promotional film for General Electric for the Carousel of Progress attraction for the 1964-65 New York World's Fair.

Robert had been shot in the knee as he charged up a hill while serving in World War II and was awarded a Purple Heart. Knowing that fact makes Travers off-hand remark that she was not surprised someone shot him all the more insensitive.

Did Travers get up and dance to the song "Let's Go Fly a Kite" that changed her attitude of the film and the use of songs?

Partly fiction. The song that finally broke her attitude was most likely "Feed the Birds" and, on the audio recordings, she sings along in the background quietly according to Richard Sherman. "Let's Go Fly a Kite," by the way, was not the original finale to the film.

The end of the film was to feature many of the characters that had previously appeared celebrating in the Banks household with rousing renditions of some of the songs heard earlier in the film, including "Learn To Laugh" (an early title of "I Love to Laugh").

As part of his sketches done of the story meetings, DaGradi drew one of a woman dancing, and it has always been assumed it was Travers. During the recordings of the "Learn to Laugh" reprise the participants seem to be out of breath, so it is possible that they all got up and danced during that moment.

However, this is just a reasonable assumption. Further research would be needed to completely verify it. However, it is definite that "Let's Go Fly a Kite" was not the song that got Travers up and dancing.

Did Walt deliver newspapers in the snow for his stern father?

Yes, this is all true. Walt's father, Elias, had a paper route for the Kansas City Star and the Times, morning and evening (1911-1917). "He insisted that it be delivered fresh and clean, without wrinkles. He was meticulous about it," stated Walt in a 1966 interview.

Yes, Walt and his older brother Roy delivered the papers without being paid to do so. Elias contended that he provided them with shelter, food, clothing, etc. and the boys were helping out the cash-strapped family.

For six years, Walt delivered the newspapers every single day (missing only four weeks during all that time because of illness). He delivered in pouring rainstorms and icy blizzards. He got up around 3:30 a.m. in order to get the papers from the delivery truck by 4:30 a.m.

Sometimes the skinny 9-year-old Walt never made it home in time for breakfast after he had hauled more than 30 pounds of newsprint through the neighborhood. There was barely time to hustle off to school where he struggled to stay awake during classes. The Sunday edition with all the inserts was three or four times the size of a regular daily edition.

Walt could remember with clarity those chilly cold days when he was just a kid. One time the snow drifts were higher than he was. The weather records for Kansas City at the time confirm that fact. On those freezing days he'd sometimes have to slowly crawl up those icy, slippery steps of apartment buildings. Walt once told his daughter Diane that he would sometimes slip down the steps and just cry because he was all alone and so cold.

Walt had reoccurring nightmares throughout his life and one of them was that he had missed customers on his section of the paper route. He'd wake up in a kind of a cold sweat and think, "Gosh, I've got to hurry and get back. My dad will be waiting up at that corner."

His dad really wanted to make that business a success after so many of his other business failures and Walt could sense that great anxiety that fueled Elias' sternness and stinginess. Yes, Elias would beat Walt with a belt, the handle of a hammer or anything else he could grab when he was frustrated and felt that Walt was not showing the proper respect.

You can read more about Walt's adventures as a paperboy in my book The Revised Vault of Walt.

However, the conversation between Walt and Travers where he brought up this story is pure fiction. I personally doubt that Walt told her this story and that he had any insight into her relationship with her father.

As screenwriter Kelly Marcel stated in a recent interview, "We know there was a conversation and he convinced her to give him the rights. What happened in that conversation? No one will ever know because it was a private conversation between he and Pamela. So I had to decide how I felt she gave him the rights and actually it came very late in the writing of the script for me … I found this book talking about his dad and the paper route and the snow and how he really had quite a harsh childhood. I was like 'Oh my god, They're the same person!' Of course they are; they had the same childhood."

Tom Hanks is the first actor to portray Walt Disney, right?

No. In the Cary Grant film Once Upon a Time (1944), actor Walter Fenner is dimly seen and heard as Walt Disney trying to buy a live dancing caterpillar. Fenner, a journeyman supporting actor, died three years after making this film. In 1991, in the five-minute short Mickey's Big Break shown at the Main Street Cinema at Walt Disney World, Roy E. Disney, Walt's nephew, portrayed Walt. Len Cariou, who might be better known to audiences as the demon barber Sweeney Todd from the Broadway musical production became Uncle Walt for the television biography: A Dream Is a Wish Your Heart Makes: The Annette Funicello Story (1995).

Well, at least the Australia setting was accurate, right?

Mostly Fiction. The surviving photos of Travers Goff show him wearing a full, bushy mustache, as was the custom of the time period. He was not clean shaven.

Goff had been a bank manager, but because of his drinking had been demoted to a bank clerk. While the official cause of death was listed as epileptic seizure delirium (after three days of high temperature from riding home in a downpour and fearful that he was about to be demoted again at work), it has always been assumed that his alcoholism was a contributing factor. He left his family destitute.

Stricken with grief and the burden of raising three daughters, Travers' mother did attempt to commit suicide by drowning herself in a nearby creek when Travers was 11 years old.

No, Travers did not save her but stayed in the house taking care of her two younger sisters by telling them a story of a magical white horse. The mother survived and returned that evening "her hair wet around her face; her clothes clinging to her body" as biographer Lawson wrote. Travers prepared her mother's bed and a hot water bottle.

The family lived on the charity from people like Aunt Ellie (whose real name was Helen Morehead, older sister of Margaret the mother of Travers) who did carry a carpetbag and said things like "spit spot." She was very assertive and obviously helped inspire the character of Mary Poppins.

"I don't know that it's based on my personal life," said Travers in a 1977 interview. "I think Mr. Banks is a little bit like my father, and Mrs. Banks in her most flustered is perhaps a little bit like my mother; but really, I don't think it's based on my childhood."

While originally there were plans to shoot the Australia sequences in Australia, all of the exterior filming was done in Southern California. In 1906, the town of Maryborough did not have three- and four-story buildings as in the film. The steam engine that takes them to the town of Allora ("The End of the Line") was an American "Western" style funnel and cowcatcher and would not have been in Australia at that time.

Did Aunt Ellie have a parrot-headed umbrella just like she did in the movie?

No. As Travers biographer, Valerie Lawson put it, "[Travers] admired a maid's parrot-headed umbrella so much that she decided to save (money) to buy one. With the umbrella swinging by her side, the maid was far more elegant (Travers) thought, than her mother."

Ridicule from her mother and father about it prevented Travers from buying such an umbrella.

Why is she called "Mrs. Travers" even though she was never married?

Because that is how she wanted it. When she was 40 years old [in 1939] Travers adopted a son, Camillus, but refused to take his twin brother. Her son grew up thinking Travers was his biological mother and that his father had died. It was not until he was 17 and his twin brother showed up unexpectedly that he learned the truth.

He hated being denied the companionship of his natural family and brother. Camillus eventually developed a drinking problem, even spending six months in prison for drunk driving without a license. At the time of the making of Mary Poppins, he had been estranged from Travers for quite a few years.

Apparently, Travers felt she could be like Mary Poppins, but found parenting required skills and self-sacrifice she did not possess. Her grandchildren once stated that she died not loving anyone or having anyone love her.

As a child, Travers did indeed make little miniature environments out of flowers and twigs "no more than a foot square" all over the garden, at one time creating a merry-go-round out of horse mushrooms.

Believe it or not, there are many more things to share about the differences between reality and the film, but my advice is just to sit back and enjoy the film. Every audience I have seen it with have had a large number of people in tears by the end of the movie and it is not my intention to spoil that wonderful outpouring of emotion.

I cry tears of joy at the end of the movie Casablanca and it is less accurate than Saving Mr. Banks.
Just remember, it is only a movie, not a real life depiction of an actual event.

Of course, I devote a chapter to the real struggle between Walt Disney and P.L. Travers in my recently released book The Vault of Walt: Volume 2.

If you are as interested in this topic as I am, I would highly recommend Valerie Lawson's book Mary Poppins She Wrote: The Life of P. L. Travers, which was used as a major reference for the film.

In addition, I also recommend Brian Sibley's book Mary Poppins: Anything Can Happen If You Let It, although it has been heavily edited by the Disney Company from Sibley's extraordinary original manuscript, which hopefully might be shared with the general public some time in the future.

Do yourself a favor and visit Brian's website. He is a wonderful writer and has been one of my inspirations for decades about documenting Disney history.



  1. By Jeff Kober


    Both articles have been great and very interesting. And you're right--sit back and enjoy the film. What it lacks in being factual it more than makes up in its message. Walt's soliloquy was and is profound in its own right. Thanks!

  2. By Pammer

    I really enjoy reading your insightful articles, Jim! And I loved the movie too.

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