Program Notes: Mary Poppins (1964)

The best ever film for kids?

No contest. It’s The Wizard of Oz.

The second-best film for kids?

Mary Poppins. Again, no contest.

If Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs was Walt Disney’s ultimate statement in animation, then Mary Poppins (1964) holds the same title for the live-action division.

I recall some 30 years ago watching a theatrical re-release with my then-little daughter sitting (not squirming) in my lap. I remember thinking that any movie that could captivate a 2-year-old and her father was doing something right.

Film Screening:
Mary Poppins (1964)
Saturday, Sep. 15 at 1:30 p.m.
Central Library

A recent re-watching of this classic left me once again amazed and amused by the film’s ability to blend a childlike sense of awe with some very sophisticated humor and storytelling.

There are moments here – usually those involving Robert and Richard Sherman’s absolutely brilliant songs – so perfect that they reduce the toughest critic to lump-in-the-throat moistness.

Everyone walks away from Mary Poppins humming. The only question is which of the songs you’re going to hum: "Chim Chim Cher-ee," "Feed the Birds," "Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious," "A Spoonful of Sugar."

So many possibilities.

The many examples of Disney visual magic are as lovely as ever. Maybe even lovelier because we recognize it was all accomplished without the help of today’s ubiquitous computers.

The performances – especially from Julie Andrews, who won an Oscar for playing the title role, and Dick Van Dyke as her Cockney pal Bert – have grown past the merely wonderful to the iconic.

Yes, yes, purists have long complained that Andrews was far too affable, that the Mary Poppins of P.L. Travers’ books was rather stern and intimidating.

Get over it. Andrews’ Mary is better than the one in the book. At least I’d much prefer to spend time with her than her literary counterpart.

OK, I realize those are fighting words. And in fact Travers had a very conflicted view of Disney’s Mary Poppins.

Apparently Disney was introduced to Mary Poppins in the mid 1940s when his wife and two young daughters adopted the books (three of them, at the time, written between 1934 and 1944) as their regular bedtime reading. He was impressed that all the women in his household were so smitten by the adventures of a magically empowered British nanny.

Disney soon asked his brother and business manager, Roy Disney, to contact Travers about purchasing the film rights. The Disneys were politely rebuffed.

But they didn’t give up. In 1946 Disney was poised to buy the rights from Travers for $10,000 but the deal fell apart when Travers announced she wanted script approval and wouldn’t back down.

Also, Travers wasn’t a big fan of the very broad American sense of humor displayed in Disney’s cartoons. She wasn’t looking forward to having her subtle, gently sardonic Mary Poppins undergo the Disney treatment.

Thirteen years later, Disney resumed his quest for Mary Poppins. By now Travers was in dire financial straits. Sales of her books had bottomed out and she was living mostly on the rents from tenants in her London home.

Still, she didn’t cave overnight. She dithered and dawdled, repeatedly asked for more time, and even submitted her own treatment for a Mary Poppins movie.

Disney invited her to visit America and tour his studio. He agreed to eliminate from the film anything Travers’ disapproved of (no doubt knowing all along he wasn’t going to honor that promise). Still Travers kept the studio dangling for nearly two years before signing.

She proved a hard audience.

The song-writing Sherman Brothers, whose score for the film won them an Oscar, recalled that when they played their compositions for Travers, “she hated everything we had done. Disliked it with a passion! For every chapter we developed, she had a definite feeling we had selected the worst one. She started naming the chapters she felt we should adapt, and they were the ones we thought were absolutely unusable.”

Finding an actress to play Mary provided drama as well.

Travers wanted Julie Harris for the part. But Disney had seen The Sound of Music on Broadway and wanted Mary Martin for the role. Martin turned him down.

Then Disney saw the new musical Camelot starring Julie Andrews, who had made a huge splash a couple of years earlier in My Fair Lady.

Andrews wasn’t sure that she wanted to make her film debut in a “children’s movie.” But she was eager to get on the big screen after being snubbed by Jack Warner, who had chosen the non-singing Audrey Hepburn to play Eliza Doolittle in the film version of My Fair Lady.

Disney had hoped to get Cary Grant to play Bert the chimneysweep, and in order to land this major star he had Bert’s role beefed up until it was the equal of Mary Poppins’. Travers protested that Grant was too old.

In any case, Grant wasn’t interested, so Disney looked at Laurence Harvey and Anthony Newly, finally settling on TV comedy star Dick Van Dyke.

Made for $5.2 million, Mary Poppins would gross $50 million worldwide. It pulled down 13 Oscar nominations, including the one for best picture, and won five: visual effects, score, song, editing, and actress.

The movie’s success spurred a run on Travers’ books (she ended up writing seven volumes starring Mary Poppins), and the author also got a piece of all the Poppins merchandize authorized by Disney.

This was enough to put her in a charitable mood, at least for a while.

“The whole picture is a splendid spectacle,” Travers wrote to Disney. “And I admire you for perceiving in Julie Andrews an actress who could play the part.”

Still, for years Travers could be called upon to criticize the movie, especially when in the presence of those with no fondness for Disney.

Other films in the series “Kids’ Classics”

Saturdays at 1:30 p.m.:

 

Admission to these films is free.

About the Author

Robert W. Butler is a lifelong Kansas City area resident, a graduate of Shawnee Mission East High School and the William Allen White School of Journalism at the University of Kansas. For several decades he was the movie editor of the Kansas City Star; he now writes a movie-themed blog at butlerscinemascene.com. He joined the Library's Public Affairs team in 2012.

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