For more than 50 years, generations of Disney movie lovers have grown up with flying nannies and one ridiculously long word, but the making of Mary Poppins was far from practically perfect. Released in 1964, the movie made Julie Andrews a household name, gave Walt Disney his first Best Picture Oscar nomination, and advanced special effects to new levels. Number six on AFI's 25 Greatest Movie Musicals, Mary Poppins also inspired a 2018 sequel, Mary Poppins Returns, and the 2013 film Saving Mr. Banks, which chronicles Disney's attempts to buy the book rights.
Pamela Lyndon Travers, AKA P.L., wrote the first of the Mary Poppins books in 1934. She had a personal connection to her story, inspired by her experiences with her alcoholic father who died young, her mentally unstable mother, and the stories she told her siblings to keep up their spirits. Travers wrote Mary Poppins as a proper lady and the Banks parents as warm and loving. Given the personal connection, Travers did not hand over her work to Disney easily, as she feared what his famously sentimental touches might do.
Stories behind Mary Poppins show more conflict and problems than those that came from Travers, though. Creating advanced special effects in the 1960s took a lot of work and often made production difficult, as did the task of creating the timeless Mary Poppins songs. The movie may have become a beloved piece of film and Disney history, but what went on behind the scenes may make you appreciate Mary Poppins even more.
Walt Disney did not invite P.L. Travers to the Mary Poppins premiere in 1964. Determined to see what the studio had done, she persuaded a Disney executive to allow her to attend by embarrassing him. As depicted in Saving Mr. Banks, Travers did cry at the screening. Unfortunately, her tears were not due to happiness about her story making it to the screen, but rather despair at what she perceived Disney had done to her book.
Travers hated the songs and animated sequences so greatly that she went to the after party and confronted Disney, telling him, "The first thing that has to go is the animation sequence." Knowing he was about to have a hit film whether Travers liked it or not, Disney famously replied, "Pamela, the ship has sailed."
In addition to hating how Disney changed the characters and plot of her story, Travers despised the sentimental elements he injected. Travers held a deep, personal connection to her story that colored her feelings towards the changes, as songwriter Richard Sherman noted to The Guardian:
She resented the fact that the father had been made into a flawed character who changes during the course of the film. She'd made him the hero, an idyllic man, and wanted that preserved; her own father had been a drunk.
Her offense to the movie was so great, she refused to let anyone else touch her Mary Poppins story until 1994. She requested in her will that neither the Sherman brothers nor anyone involved in Disney's Mary Poppins be included in any future stage productions of her work.
Flying effects in the 1960s required the use of creative camera angles and actors hanging from wires. Since Mary Poppins featured several scenes with characters flying for one reason or another, the actors had to get used to wearing uncomfortable harnesses, acting while in the air, and risking possible injury. In 2017, Julie Andrews revealed just how dangerous the wirework could be as she described an accident that occurred on set.
Appearing on The Late Show, Andrews told host Stephen Colbert, "I was hanging around up there for the longest time with the umbrella. I thought I felt the wire leave and drop about six inches. I was nervous and very tired." She called down to the crew to let her down slowly, but a wire broke as she was lowered, causing her to fall. Andrews remembered, "I plummeted to the stage... And there was an awful silence for a minute, and I did let fly with a few Anglo-Saxon four-letter words, I have to admit."
Disney considered a number of actors to play Mary Poppins, including Angela Lansbury, Bette Davis, and Mary Martin. At the time, Julie Andrews had never appeared in a film and was starring in Camelot on Broadway. A few Disney employees happened to be in the audience of the Ed Sullivan Show when she appeared along with Richard Burton to perform a number from the musical and realized she would be perfect.
Walt Disney himself flew to New York to see a performance and immediately went backstage to offer Andrews the role. He even promised her husband a job as a costume designer for the film. Andrews signed on, partly because she had been turned down for the film version of My Fair Lady; a role which she had previously played on Broadway to rave reviews. When she beat her replacement, the more famous Audrey Hepburn, for a Golden Globe that year, Andrews thanked My Fair Lady's director for freeing her up to take on Mary Poppins.
At the time Disney offered her the part, however, Andrews was pregnant. He made an exception since he considered her a must for the role and allowed production to be delayed. Although Disney remained adamant that Andrews play Mary Poppins, P.L. Travers wasn't so sure. She called Andrews in the hospital the day after she gave birth to find out what kind of person she was.
Andrews remembered being surprised at the phone call, explaining to Travers, "I'm feeling a bit woozy right now. I just had a baby yesterday." Although she was less than excited about the casting, Travers eventually accepted her in the role, according to Andrews, saying, "Well. You're far too pretty, of course. But you've got the nose for it."
In a break from studio tradition, Walt Disney gave P.L. Travers script approval of Mary Poppins when he bought the rights. Disney's writers noted Travers's stories didn't have a single plot, but were rather made up of short adventures. To fix this, they added a dysfunctional element to the Banks family to create a need for Mary Poppins to help them come together. Despite the studio already starting a script, planning production, and creating songs, Travers sent them her treatment of the script, completely different from what they envisioned. To bring her on board with their plans and gain her approval, Disney paid for Travers to visit the studio in Los Angeles.
Disney gave Travers access to Disneyland, swimming pools, and social events with the movie stars of the time. He alerted none of his people in advance, however, and left most of the responsibility of dealing with Travers to others. Songwriter Richard Sherman told The New Yorker, "Walt told us two days before she came - and then he went to the ranch in Palm Springs."
Artist Don DaGradi and the Sherman brothers songwriting team held more than a week of meetings in which Travers argued and resisted their ideas. Sherman told USA Today that Travers's first words to him were, "I don't even know why I'm meeting you, gentlemen, because, in fact, we're not going to have music in this film and, in fact, we're not going to have any prancing and dancing." Eventually, they managed to persuade her to sign off on their script and songs, but Travers continued to voice objections throughout production.