In the early 1940s, Walt Disney made his daughter Diane a promise: he would adapt her favorite 1934 children's book, British author P.L. Travers' Mary Poppins, into a big-screen masterpiece. What the famed animator didn't know at the time, however, is that it would take much longer to make the film than it took audiences to learn how to spell "Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious."
Disney offered Travers a big payday for her book
By the time Julie Andrews' titular heaven-sent nanny quite literally descended from the clouds into the Banks family's Cherry Tree Lane home — and into theaters across America — in August 1964, about 20 years had passed since Disney made that promise to his young daughter. The holdup: notoriously prickly Travers was staunchly against selling the screen rights, particularly to a studio she feared would overly sentimentalize her work. What ensued was nearly two decades of Disney himself personally appealing to Travers before she finally relented in 1961.
Her eventual change of heart, it turned out, was motivated less by Disney's apparent charm, but more so by money. The royalties from her Mary Poppins series had begun to dwindle by the '60s, and Disney reportedly offered to pay her $100,000 (more than $800,000 by today's standards), plus five perfect of the movie's multi-million-dollar gross earnings. Disney also agreed to allow Travers (or "Mrs. Travers," as she demanded that she be called) to act as a consultant on the film. She spent several weeks at Disney's Burbank, California studio, where she became notorious for the “No No No” mantra she constantly barked at Disney's creative team. (This particular catchphrase was immortalized due in large part to the fact Travers also insisted that all of their meetings be recorded.)
Travers' aunt inspired the character of Mary Poppins
For Travers (born Helen Lyndon Goff), her extreme investment in the story of Mary Poppins was rooted in dark, painful personal experience. After her beloved banker father Travers Goff (who inspired her later pseudonym) fell victim to alcoholism and died when she was just seven years old, Travers' great-aunt Ellie (also known as Aunt Sass) stepped in to support her mother Margaret Goff, as well as Travers' sisters.
"I thought to myself, 'Someday, in spite of her, I shall commit the disrespectful vulgarity of putting Aunt Sass in a book,'" she later wrote. "And then it occurred to me that this had already been done, though unconsciously and without intent... I suddenly realized that there is a book through which Aunt Sass, stern and tender, secret and proud, anonymous and loving, stalks with her silent feet. You will find her occasionally in the pages of Mary Poppins."
What resulted from Travers' later collaboration with Disney (which was also depicted in 2013's Saving Mr. Banks, with Tom Hanks portraying Disney and Emma Thompson playing Travers) was the much-beloved film, which starred Andrews, along with Dick Van Dyke. The film's legacy remains undeniable. Mary Poppins won five Academy Awards (of a total 13 nominations), with Andrews taking home the Oscar for Best Actress that year for the role — her first in a feature film. In 2013, the Library of Congress also added Mary Poppins to the National Film Registry, which showcases "the range and diversity of American film heritage to increase awareness for its preservation."
The author ripped the movie to shreds
Despite the films' critical acclaim, many accolades, and commercial success, Travers was not among the movie's many fans worldwide. Disney granted her final script approval, but she was not given any film editing rights whatsoever. After screening the film, she reportedly asked Disney, “When do we start cutting it?” The filmmaker, however, refused to change anything, and Travers was furious, vowing never to work with him again.
Travers allegedly wept at the movie’s premiere. “I said, ‘Oh God, what have they done?’” she later revealed. Among her dislikes were: the animated sequences, the Banks' family home, the shift in the time period from her original story, Poppins' attractive appearance, Van Dyke's casting, and the songs penned by brothers Richard and Robert Sherman. In an interview with the New York Times, Richard, who was partly behind such songs as "Spoonful of Sugar" and "Feed the Birds," admitted that Travers "didn’t care about our feelings, how she chopped us apart.”
Despite Travers' lifelong objections, Mary Poppins will soon be given new life, hitting theaters once again in the December 2018 sequel, Mary Poppins Returns. The film, which will star Emily Blunt this time in the titular role, will also include appearances from Hamilton scribe Lin-Manuel Miranda, Angela Lansbury, Colin Firth, Meryl Streep, and even Van Dyke himself. (Travers, of course, won't be able to gripe about his casting, as she died in 1996 at age 96.) The Rob Marshall-directed project will depict the nanny coming back into the Banks' family's life in the 1930s — ironically enough, 20 years following the original film's story. It is both an ode to Travers and to the decades-long plight of Disney himself.