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  • Writer's pictureKarey Pohn

The History of Mary Poppins

Mary Poppins was called “Disney’s Masterpiece,” not only because it was a smashing success, but because in Mary Poppins, Disney used all of the movie magic that he had formidably amassed during his career.  Mary Poppins was Disney's crowning achievement: the biggest hit in the history of the Disney Studios up to that point; nominated for thirteen Oscars and winning five—the most any Disney film had ever won; and the movie took in $44,000,000 at the box office during its first release.  But Mary Poppins was special to Walt in other ways.  It meant something to him personally, expressing not only the power of the imagination, but also the power of love, kindness, and compassion—all of which are neotenous qualities.  Walt’s favorite song, “Feed the Birds,” captures this neotenous spirit and as songwriter Richard Sherman notes:

Walt saw in Mary Poppins something above the ordinary, something worth spending the time and money to turn into something that might live on and might be something more than just another good movie, and that’s what he built.  There was a wonderful magical aura that no one expected, whatever we forged, there’s that innate knowledge that’s always there side by side making it work. (Stevenson, 2004, DVD)

Like the movie Chicago (Marshall, 2002), Disney’s Mary Poppins (Stevenson, 1964) took a long time to get to the silver screen.  P.L. Travers, the author of the Mary Poppins children’s books, wrote the original novel in 1934.  Her last novel was written in 1988.  Walt Disney became acquainted with Travers’s Mary Poppins in 1939 when his daughter showed the book to him.  Negotiations with Travers began in 1944 when Roy Disney first approached Travers while she was living in New York during the war.  But at that time, she declined and was not interested.  In 1959, Walt Disney paid a personal visit to Travers when he was in London, and she seemed more open to the idea.  Initially, Disney wanted to make Mary Poppins into an animated character, but Travers would have none of it, so Walt agreed to make a live-action film, and even gave Travers script approval (something he had never done before) (Moseley, 1990). In 1961, Travers finally agreed to let Disney make a movie about her beloved character:

Mrs. Travers made two journeys to Burbank to view the storyboards for Mary Poppins.  She objected to many of the liberties that had been taken with her characters, and adjustments had to be made.  Walt Disney exercised his own considerable powers of persuasion to win Mrs. Travers’s approval.  By the time she returned to England, she seemed convinced that the Disney innovations had originated in her own books. (Thomas, 1976, p. 317)

Even before Disney had secured the rights, he gave the book to the Sherman Brothers to see what kinds of songs they could come up with, and at a later meeting, Richard Sherman reports that both they and Walt had picked the same six chapters from the book. After listening to the first few sons that the Shermans wrote for Mary Poppins, Walt put them under contract for the movie. The Shermans had written songs before for Disney, but being under contract for the entire movie was a first for them. The Sherman brothers also wrote the song for “It’s a Small World,” which similarly debuted the same year as Mary Poppins, 1964, at the New York World’s Fair. As we saw in Disneyland’s "Antistructure" excursion, Brode (2006) argues that “It’s a Small World” helped to change the world, ushering in multiculturalism.

The Sherman brothers then worked together with Bill Walsh and Don DaGradi on the story. Interestingly, the first song that they wrote for the movie turns out to have been "Feed the Birds—Tuppence a Bag," which was to become Walt’s favorite song. We will come back to this song later, when we explore the scene-by-scene-play. The premiere was a resounding success and afterwards, Travers approached Walt:

“Its quite nice,” she began.  “Miss Andrews is satisfactory as Mary Poppins, but Mr. Van Dyke is all wrong, and I don’t really like mixing little cartoon figures with the live actors.  When do we start cutting it?”  Walt smiled indulgently.  "The contract says that when the picture is finished, it's my property."  He replied, "we aren’t going to change a thing.” (Thomas, 1976, p. 322)

The movie Mary Poppins differs significantly from the original source, P.L. Travers's (1934) book Mary Poppins.  The movie itself is a bricolage, as it was based on episodes from “three of the novels: the original Mary Poppins (1934), Mary Poppins Comes Back (1935) and Mary Poppins Opens The Door (1943)” (Vogel, 2003, p. 237).

The Mary Poppins novels are episodic, “they star a sensational character but there is no story, only “funny bits of episodes” (Moseley, 1990, p. 272).  Walsh and DaGradi began working on the script “taking fragments from the original stories and weaving them into a continuous narrative” (Finch, 1983. pp. 374-375).  Finch, discussing of Travers’s stories notes:

Her delicate fantasies work beautifully in words, but literary artifice does not translate into film without undergoing a considerable change.  Walsh and DaGradi had to provide the movie with a structure, and they could only do this by altering the raw material to some extent. (p. 379)

Richard Sherman explains that Walsh was responsible for most of the dialogue, and that DaGradi was responsible for the visuals:

85 to 90 percent of the dialogue in the picture was Bill Walsh, but what you saw on  screen, those wonderful things that happened—the floating though the air, the flying down the chimney—that was Don DaGradi.  Everything that happened in the ‘Jolly Holiday’ sequence too.  This man worked literally for years developing those sequences.” (Kurtti, 1996, p. 96)

Though various people at the studio had been working on the Mary Poppins project for years, actual filming did not begin until February of 1963, and only a little more than a year and a half later, Mary Poppins premiered on August 27, 1964 at 8:30 pm.  The world premiere was held at the Graumann’s Chinese Theater in Hollywood and the movie was dedicated to California Institute of the Arts or CalArts. 

CalArts was created from the merging of the Chouinard Art Institute, which had trained many Disney artists, and the Los Angeles Conservatory of Music, which was founded in 1883.  In the late 1950s both of these institutions were on the brink of demise, and Disney, who for some time wanted to create a multi-disciplinary arts college, donated the land for the newly formed institute and hosted a benefit at the Mary Poppins premiere.  A fifteen minute movie was created about the school, which played before the showing of Mary Poppins (Kurtti, 1996).

Julie Andrews was a sensation as Mary, having been snubbed by Jack Warner as not being “movie material,” for role of Eliza Doolittle in My Fair Lady, which Andrews had made famous on Broadway. Julie Andrews was a bit “gun-shy” after being told that she was unphotogenic and was reluctant to take the part of Mary Poppins.  Walt was so convinced of Andrews's talent and presence, that he offered her the part without a screen test.

Marshall McLuhan (2003) contends that “artists are the antennae of the race,” meaning that they often pick up on things before others, or they pick up on things and then transform them in ways that a culture can understand.  This is definitely true of Walt Disney’s Mary Poppins.  The movie foreshadows the perils of psychologically absent parents, and our current culture’s devaluing of play with its stress on seriousness and achievement from an early age. 

Walt realized the importance of being child-like. Dick Van Dyke notes that Walt very much depended on this inner child-like knowing:

[Walt] maintained that it was the child in him that he never forgot and he said his child was very much alive and knew what children would like—he never asked what would parents want for their kids to see, but what would the kids want to see.  (Stevenson, 2004, DVD)

Although the Mary Poppins books took place in the contemporary society of the 1930s onward, the idea to switch the time to 1910 was Disney’s.  He really liked the turn of the Twentieth Century; it was for him a storybook time, and he set many of his movies in this time-period. [See more about this in the "Looking Back Looking Forward" Excursion, located in Tomorrowland in Disney's Extra Excursions chapter].  The Shermans remark that the Banks’s family dynamics were inspired by the history of the time (Stevenson, 2004).  Szumsky (2003) describes the movie’s setting as “the last year of Edward VII’s reign and onset of the ‘Georgian afternoon,’ typically described as a temporary extension as of the Victorian era” (p. 95).  Travers herself was born at the turn of the Twentieth Century, in 1899, as were Walt Disney and Milton Erickson, who were both born on the same day, December 5, 1901, along with quantum physicist Werner Heisenberg. 

Szumsky (2003) discusses Mary Poppins from a more Marxist standpoint, in terms of class struggle and political issues, and focuses on the colonizing aspects that are portrayed.  He sees the movie’s happy ending as missing the mark, because the movie carried many sociopolitical implications.  The marginalized and colonized members of society are absent at the end, which Szumsky sees as a retreat to the status quo.  He also mentions that Disney might have wanted to “sidestep issues and criticism of America’s own imperialistic endeavors which the materials might suggest” (p. 103).  What is of greater interest is Szumsky's discussion of Travers as a writer:

Though Travers is generally considered a “traditionalist writer and a social conservative, Patricia Demers points out that “part of her [Travers’s] subversive activity is to question accepted ideas” (11) . . . . She lauds the notion of indirect teaching, saying, “everything I do is by hint and suggestion” (qtd. in Demers 136).  Likewise, her creation, Mary Poppins, is equally indirect.  She refuses to answer questions and teaches “by the way.” (125).  In the film, her response to George Banks’s demand that she explain herself is “I never explain,” she does not sermonize but rather suggests her meaning through illustration and example, as in the Fidelity Fiduciary Bank-Bird Woman episode.  Further, Travers claims that as a writer, she works from “the hodgepodge of life” (qtd. in Demers 1), and that the Mary Poppins books were entirely spontaneous and not invented, not thought out” (qtd. In Burness and Griswold 122-23).  This working model of the writer implies the incorporation of observable elements into her fiction that in many ways tell their own stories—revealing as Travers says, “the truth of things and the one reality that underlies everything. (qtd. in Burness and Griswold 125).  Thus the story’s critique, while not consciously undertaken by Travers, writes itself through the chosen materials—a representation, however fabulous of a social order undergoing change.  Her refusal to admit full authorial responsibility enables her to maintain creative and, thereby, intentional distance and is summed up in her claim that “I never said, ‘well I’ll write a story . . . and call it Mary Poppins.’ I cannot summon up inspiration; I myself am summoned” (Burness and Griswold 123).  [emphasis added] (Szumsky, p. 94) 

As we will see, when we look further into it, Mary Poppins’ magic has much to do with indirect suggestion.  Milton Erickson was the unquestioned master of indirect suggestion, and he developed a style of hypnosis, now called Ericksonian hypnosis that is based on indirection, as opposed to authoritarian direct suggestions.  While we will explore this brand of Mary’s magic in the ongoing themes section below, as well as referring to it throughout the scene-by-scene-play, we will now turn, as movie critic Judith Crist would say to Disney’s “technical Wizardry” (Thomas, 1976, p. 322), to get a hint of the special effects that were used to make Mary Poppins so special.


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