How Disney Sold P. L. Travers Down the River (Twice)

Thanks for nothing, Walt.

tumblr_inline_mjigjwzjg51qcfo4qWalt Disney and those now running his company have sold P. L. (Pamela Lyndon) Travers down the river twice. They’ve done it by releasing Saving Mr. Banks in 2013 after giving the world Mary Poppins in 1965 as a devil-may-care adaptation of the beloved Travers character’s adventures. The Australian-born, England-based author despised the movie so much she determined that the Burbank studio would never foist off a sequel. It never has. Instead, we get this sanctimonious tribute to Walt Disney’s vision.

Watching the affront to how Travers (Emma Thompson in the role) was treated during the film’s production, you wouldn’t know the extent of her disdain, since it depicts the demanding Travers (born Helen Lyndon Goff) easing her resistance to Walt Disney’s ministrations so that when she finally sees the film, she dissolves in tears of appreciation.

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Those who knew her (she died in 1993) agree she was weepy, all right, but hers were sobs of frustration and betrayal. The character traits of her Mary Poppins, who she maintained was no pushover, had been radically altered despite her adamant requests that they not be. Other Travers requirements also depicted in the movie — such as there being no animation — were ignored. One friend comments in a documentary on Travers that her statements about the movie are “almost unprintable.”

Just so you know, I’m writing as a big Travers and Mary Poppins fan. I started reading the books when I was 10 or 11 and became instantly devoted, as have thousands (millions?) of readers, to the starchy nanny who arrives on a whim and a wind, treats the Banks children, Michael, Jane, John and Barbara, to magical escapades, and eventually departs on another whim and wind. None of it by cracking a smile.

Well, maybe smiling once in a rare while. That’s how I remembered her, but to test my memory I reread the first five of Travers’s Mary Poppins novels-the one straightforwardly called Mary Poppins. Sure enough, the tight-lipped heroine is reported as smiling only four times and not for long.

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mary-poppins-collage-2Furthermore, Travers writes explicitly in the kick-off volume, “Mary Poppins never wasted time in being nice.” Three paragraphs down on the same page, this appears: “‘Trouble trouble and it will trouble you!’ retorted Mary Poppins crossly, in her usual voice.” Throughout the book, she’s described as “stern,” “ferocious” and several other similar adjectives, none of which have anything like light-hearted connotations. She’s constantly given to sniffs of disapproval.

In other words, it’s not entirely a jolly holiday with Mary. Yet her brook-no-nonsense, suffer-no-fools-gladly style is what makes her so appealing to children and adults who share her outlook.

Granted, in the 1965 movie, Julie Andrews-who won the Oscar for her portrayal (perhaps because she’d been passed over as Eliza Doolittle for the same year’s Oscar-winning My Fair Lady)-includes some of the crisper mannerisms but also smiles up a storm while sometimes wearing dainty frocks. She avoids the sniffs as well.

But setting aside the Mary Poppins and Mary Poppins that Travers fought to keep unadulterated (no pun intended) the first time around, this second Disney assault may be even worse. Deliberately showing Travers crying at the premiere (to which she hadn’t been invited for obvious reasons but to which she insinuated herself) is undoubtedly the most egregious attack. Nevertheless, others come sniffingly close.

The major slap is splicing into the film’s narrative a piecemeal look at Travers’s Aussie childhood and the relationship to her father, an alcoholic banker. Not only is this history supplied as a pat psychological explanation for the origin of the children’s novels, but a manufactured scene in which Walt Disney himself explains it all to Travers in her London home is featured as proof that the benevolent entrepreneur understood her complex needs more than she did.

This is not to mention that when the young Goff sisters need someone to help their distressed mother, an aunt arrives in their far-flung Allora, Australia, doorway as if blown there by the east wind. She’s dressed like Mary Poppins, complete with umbrella.

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Ah-hah, so that’s where the young Helen first had the Mary Poppins seed planted in her imagination, the scenarists Kelly Marcel and Sue Smith implicitly inform us. That’s one Travers mystery solved by the perspicacious Disney folks. Marcel and Smith haven’t shied away from other ways of playing fast and loose with all sorts of facts, either. You can almost hear the exchanges:

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Marcel: How about we have Pam relieve her worries by snuggling with the stuffed Mickey Mouse we established earlier?

Smith: Why not? What’s she gonna do? Sue us? She can’t. She’s dead. (Both laugh)

tumblr_mxt7u52yRi1qcma3zo1_500And now let’s get to an apparently forgotten fact about Mary Poppins: Walt Disney wasn’t the first to offer a domestic adaptation. On Dec. 19, 1949, CBS’s Studio One ran a 60-minute version that starred Mary Wickes in the title role. And if you want to find someone perfect for the part, here she is. Wickes, by the way, is on record as approaching Walt Disney as early as 1951 about using her in a filmed treatment.

The Wickes version is available at Manhattan’s Paley Center for Media, and I’ve just watched the episode, for which CBS had obtained the rights long before Travers held out on Disney for 20 years. I can report it’s a truncated treatment (Worthington Miner did the adapting) and typical of low-budget black-and-white presentations of the time. But Wickes, paid $500 for the appearance, does sniff Poppins’s dismissive sniffs and looks as if she’s just been blown in from Travers’s pages. Moreover, she never deviates from Mary Poppins’ practical garments.

Wait a second, you might be saying. What’s Pamela Lyndon Travers’s beef? Thanks to Disney, she received 100,000 pounds and five percent of the movie gross and also watched her royalties rise significantly. Her books would undoubtedly have continued to sell, of course, but most likely not as they have on the movie’s promotion.

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To which I respond with a Marry Poppins sniff. (And so does Meryl Streep, who dissed Disney last week when handing Thompson the National Board of Review best actress award.)

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Wait a second, you might also be saying. Walt and crew did P. L. Travers an enormous favor by softening her for audiences-as they had her beloved character. Here she was, a cranky aging woman whom no one could like, but by the end of Saving Mr. Banks, she’s someone who hugs stuffed animals and is totally lovable.

To which I respond with an even more pronounced Mary Poppins sniff.