Tag Archives: Mary Poppins

Mary Poppins – by P.L. Travers

Mary Poppins (Mary Poppins, #1)Mary Poppins by P.L. Travers

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I first read Mary Poppins when I was twelve, but at the time I was more interested in authors like Jane Austen or Agatha Christie. But when Saving Mr. Banks came out my interest in the book was renewed, though perhaps I read it too intellectually. I think I would have enjoyed it more if I had let myself read it for pleasure instead of looking for it’s meaning.

The general assessment is that is all about order. Mary Poppins comes and puts the Banks’ lives in order, but she also introduces them to quite a few disorderly things…at least to the children. She has a kind of dual nature.

She is a mysterious nanny. She comes, she bides a while and takes care of Jane, Michael and the twins, John and Barbara, and she departs…with the promise that she will return. She doesn’t come with any stated or unstated goal. She just takes care of the children, and because of knowing her they are exposed to the magical world that she lives in. She interacts quite as a matter of course with animals, she pops into a chalk picture with Bert the match man, she is acquainted with a star from the constellation Pleiades, her uncle gets filled with laughing gas on certain birthdays and floats in the air.

There is stability in the house, but also the expectation that something marvelous could happen at any time, though usually not in the house. Mary Poppins is both reassuringly solid, stable and no-nonsense, but also extraordinary, mysterious and slightly unpredictable (unpredictable not because she is capricious, but because she is unknown).

One thing that fascinated me is this subtle theme of terror or the frequent use of the word ‘terrible.’ The word is used several times by Travers. She uses the word in reference to Mary Poppins, Mrs, Corry and the snake they meet at the zoo. Mrs. Corry’s children are terrified of their mother, the animals are terrified of the snake. Jane and Michael never quite feel terror, but Mary Poppins certainly gives them a lot of terrible glances.

According to Valerie Lawson in her book, Mary Poppins, She Wrote: The Life of P.L. Travers, “But Poppins had yet another aspect. Something sinister lay behind the blue button eyes and flowerpot hat. As P. (Pamela) L. Travers…wrote, every good fairy has her evil counterpart, the necessary antagonist.” She continues, “Poppins has lasted because she is as peculiar as she is kind, as threatening as she is comforting, as stern as she is sensual, as elusive as she is matter of fact.”

Mary Poppins is a fairy tale, but in a much more traditional way. Our modern understanding of fairy tales is hugely influenced by Disney films, but the original fairy tales were far darker. Mary Poppins comes from older fairy tales, with a dash of mythology – the snake, a Hamadryad, is a mythological creature that bonds with a tree and is related to nymphs. The star, Maia, is also a mythological character.

Travers said in an interview that the book was “entirely spontaneous and not invented, not thought out.” However, she said that it had been pointed out, and she had come to believe, that Mary Poppins represented the Mother Goddess and that it was a Zen story that people could read anything into.

She also commented that she did not write the book specifically for children. She felt that children’s literature is a genre created by the publishers. However, she did feel that reading myths and nursery rhymes is the best method for teaching children because they are not a direct means of teaching, but lessons are imparted indirectly. One example she gave was Humpty-Dumpty, which teaches that not all things are possible. Her book, Mary Poppins, is the same. With Mary Poppins leaving at the end, she imparts the understanding that not all things last.

Another thing that interested me about Mary Poppins is how she does not seem to command magic, she is part of the magic. The Hamadryad tells Jane and Michael, during their Zoo adventure, that they are all one and Mary Poppins somehow seems to be able to do what she does because she is actually aware that she is one with everything. This is what makes her unique from everyone else. Her knowledge is her power.

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Posted by on June 3, 2014 in Children's Literature


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Saving Mr. Banks and Thoughts on Disney and Travers

2013  Starring Tom Hanks, Emma Thompson, Paul Giamatti, Colin Farrell – Directed by John Lee Hancock


Saving Mr. Banks was a bit of a disappointment to me, but it did make an impact, mostly before I’d even seen it. I was not aware of the story of how Walt Disney coaxed, cajoled and finessed his way to the rights of Mary Poppins by P.L. Travers, who was a complicated woman (to put it mildly) and highly protective of her work; so even before I saw the movie, I developed a reawakened interest in the film version Mary Poppins, Walt Disney, the Mary Poppins books and a new interest in P.L. Travers. In that respect, the movie was highly successful.

However, when I finally saw it, the actual movie was a letdown. I was slightly bored. I feel it was a movie that would have benefited from a tighter narrative. Tom Hanks and Emma Thompson are marvelous as Disney and Travers. Hanks is exactly how I imaged Disney was (at least when dealing with people outside his staff) and Thompson’s Travers is so acerbic, but brittle and seems on the verge of breaking any minute. But what I wanted was to see more of them.

But there are frequent flashbacks to Travers’ childhood, which contain no particular tension and goes by like a sluggish dream. I’ve been watching a lot of old movies and it has surprised me how effective it is to eschew flashbacks and simply have a character tell their story or the story of someone else, and perhaps that would have been difficult to do, but it seems Saving Mr. Banks would have been stronger if it had stayed in the present tense and revealed her past in some other way.

What really intrigued me about the film were the reactions to it. Many people enjoyed the film and though they sympathized with Travers, were glad the books were turned into the movie so many know and love. On the other hand, other people viewed the film as a travesty, perpetuating the travesty of another film. One writer felt Saving Mr. Banks showed Travers being steamrolled by corporate Disney, which then committed artistic rape and turned her books into a simplistic, sugary concoction.

They argued that Travers was not portrayed as a fully creative human, but a one-dimensional pill. Others argue that the film is about a specific slice of time and that she really was a pill in those recordings of their meetings.

The author of the screenplay, Kelly Marcel, defended her choice to change the ending (Travers cried during the premier because she was dismayed by the movie, but Marcel turns her tears into a cathartic moment regarding her father) and she said, “It just wasn’t the story I was telling. I was telling the story of the father and the daughter. For me, this movie is not about the making of Mary Poppins, it’s about parents’ relationships with their children, and redemption, and forgiveness, and how our relationships with our parents affect us as adults.” The interviewer, however, came down on the side of Travers’ books and felt that the ending is a betrayal of her.

In fairness, I think one’s reaction might have a lot to do with how much you like the movie and how much you like the books. If you feel the movie was a cloying, simplistic version of the more complicated books, then the movie might look like a celebration of a desecration. If you liked the movie, however, then it might seem like an interesting story about the making of a movie you cherished and a bit about the life of the woman who inspired it.

Saving-Mr-Banks-660x330[1]Whatever the film is, it is not meant to be biographical. It could have dealt with other aspects of her life, like the fact that she was a mother, but perhaps the screenwriter felt that if we had dealt with it the audience might have had less sympathy for her since she apparently had a fraught relationship with her son, Camillus, whose widow said she was relieved that he was not mentioned in the film.

It’s fairly respectful of P.L. Travers, despite concerns that the film wants us to celebrate Disney bullying her into giving him the rights. There is some self-reflective, gentle poking at Disneyfication. It’s subtle, but the audience is clearly invited to identify with Travers and not Walt Disney. We are looking at Disney through her eyes when he invites her to go to Disneyland or when her room is filled with Disney paraphernalia. Walt Disney is largely opaque in the movie, which is appropriate, since the film is not about him. The movie allows the audience to see their opinions reflected in Travers’ expressed opinions, like when she complains that the movie makes life seem too easy when Mary Poppins used her magic to do things like clean their room.

If Travers seems one-dimensional in the film, it’s possibly because the script is focused specifically on her and her relationship with her father. People are made up of many relationships, but because of the specific focus, we only see one side of her. Perhaps if the flashbacks had included more of her life past her childhood…perhaps not. Perhaps I don’t know what I wanted from the film. 🙂

Some Thoughts

The film has also brought out some debate regarding Walt Disney. I’ve been a little surprised at the animus directed at him. I’ve been reading a biography about him and honestly, he seems no more worthy of animus than any other studio head at the time. He’s been called antisemitic, a closet Nazi and a racist – none of which is true, though he had the usual insensitivity of his era. It’s not that I’m excusing him, but I feel that he is as much a fully human, creative individual as Travers and they both deserved to be understood as such.

The truly lovely aspect to all the debate is that whatever movies are made and however people are misunderstood or misrepresented, the original books still remain to be read, the real Travers and Disney remain to be understood, the movie Mary Poppins remains, and at least what Saving Mr. Banks did is to remind us of that.

Some Links

Margaret Lyons writes in an article on Vulture about some of the things the movie did not cover about Travers’ life and also felt that the film portrayed Travers as a “joyless, loveless pedant finally giving herself over to the delight and imagination of the Wonderful World of Disney” instead of “a creative, passionate person, with dignity and real emotions, getting steamrolled by one of the most powerful companies in the world.”

Aisha Harris, on Slate’s Culture Blog, analyzes the accuracies and inaccuracies of the film’s portray of the meeting between Disney and Travers.

Jerry Griswold, in an article on SDSU Children’s Literature, agrees largely with Lyons. He writes, “call Emma Thompson’s character anybody else, and I have no problem. But associate her with P.L. Travers – a generous and kind woman, albeit with a no-nonsense manner of a Zen master – and I have to cry foul.” He goes on to write that “her book Mary Poppins is profound – though let me tell you from experience, it’s hard to persuade people to sample it because of the Disney movie…” In an aside on Griswold’s statement, I can appreciate how it would be difficult to watch a movie version of someone you knew and admired. I wouldn’t appreciate it, either, simply because no film portrayal could ever hope to encompass the multidimensional flesh-and-blood person you knew. However, I, and several people I know, did come to the book through the movie.

For an interesting look at Travers’ life and her relationship with he son, David Jones gives a fairly detailed look at her life and a bit about her son, Camillus, and his twin brother, who she chose not to adopt.

And for a fairly thorough look at Walt Disney and his life and studio, Neal Gabler’s book Walt Disney: the Triumph of the American Imagination is highly informative, not only about Disney, but the making of his cartoon and featured films.

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Posted by on May 15, 2014 in Comedy, Drama, Movie Thoughts


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Revisiting Mary Poppins – A Rediscovery

Mary Poppins1964 – Directed by Robert Stevenson – Produced by Walt Disney – Written by Bill Walsh and Don DeGradi – Based on Mary Poppins by P.L. Travers – Starring Julie Andrews, Dick Van Dyke,  David Tomlinson, Glynis Johnson, Karen Dotrice, Matthew Garber

I recently watched Mary Poppins for the first time in many, many years. In fact, it was so many years that I had forgotten significant chunks of the plot. I had certainly forgotten how many songs were in it, and how much dancing. And I definitely had forgotten how delightful it was…if I ever properly realized it. Oddly enough, I think I enjoyed it more as an adult than I ever did as a child. Sometimes, I think children’s movies and books are wasted on the young.

When we finished watching my sister turned to me and said with some awe:

I love their expressions here

I love their expressions here

“That was really, really good.”

And I felt the same way.

I had been thinking about Mary Poppins because I had been reading about Saving Mr. Banks, which I haven’t seen yet, but want to. I was also in something of a Julie Andrews phase (Sound of Music, My Fair Lady Cast Recordings), so we put it on.

And were enchanted like a couple of children. My sister was reduced to a puddle of giggles during the entire “Step In Time” sequence. She said she had never realized just how whimsical it was; all these grown men quite joyously flapping like birds just because they can.

And is there anything better than Julie Andrews’ prim walk and demeanor as she does the most extraordinary things? And you’ve got to love anyone who wears pink shoes with a red dress, with soot on her face, marshaling her charges like a general, quite calmly explaining to their father that she never explains anything.

Notoriously, Jack Warner passed over Julie Andrews when he produced the film version of My Fair Lady. She was still relatively unknown outside the theater, despite the euphoric reviews of both the musical and her performance as Eliza Doolittle. So Audrey Hepburn was cast instead. However, our loss was also our gain. I guess we never could have had it both ways, since Mary Poppins and My Fair Lady were filmed at the same time.

Walt Disney was considering many different actresses (like Angela Lansbury) for the role of Mary Poppins, but when he and others saw Julie Andrews’ performance during The Ed Sullivan Show from the musical “Camelot,” they knew she was the one they wanted (see here for performance with Richard Burton of “What Do The Simple Folk Do”).

The book’s author, P.L. Travers, was less enthusiastic and told Julie Andrews that she was too pretty to play the part, but that she had the nose for it.

Dick Van Dyke is likewise utterly winning as Bert – who was created as a composite of many characters that appear in the book. He said in an interview that he was once listed in a British paper as having one of the worst accents ever, but his unique blend, of whatever it was, has its own charm and fits naturally in a film that is partially impressionistic, anyway.

Dick Van Dyke had never danced before making Mary Poppins, which I had not known. Apparently he did mime in his early career, so that may account for his good body control. The one things that usually tips me off if someone has danced before is how in control their movements look while dancing.

One thing that cracks me up about Mary Poppins is that she’s a bit of an egoist (though not as strongly as in the books). She primps, keeps a rather large mirror in her room, and declares herself to be “practically perfect in every way.” Also, if you think about it, the chalk/cartoon world they go to is all her doing, so when the penguins declare she’s their favorite person, all the farm animals sing about how much they love her and the jockeys let her win the horse race, it could be seen as an ego trip for her…all harmless, of course.

mary-poppins-w1280[1]Another interesting bit I heard in the documentary that was on the Mary Poppins: 40th Anniversary Edition, was that for the robin that sings with Mary Poppins during “A Spoonful of Sugar,” they hired a professional whistler (I didn’t know those existed), but Walt Disney thought he had no personality so Julie Andrews did it herself.

There is something slightly unreal, magical, impressionistic, about the film. The backgrounds are painted mattes, which contribute to that feel. The music, especially songs like “Chim Chim Cher-ee” and “Feed the Birds” also contribute – suggesting a world beyond what we see. Mary Poppins admonishes Michael: “Never judge a book by it’s cover. I’m sure I never do.” And Bert sings:

Up where the smoke is all billowed and curled

“Tween pavement and stars, is a chimney sweep worldmary_poppins_chimney_sweeps[1]

When there’s hardly no day nor hardly no night

There’s things half in shadow and halfway in light.”

But in a poignant way, Mary Poppins kind of takes the magic world away with her. The children will never again jump into chalk pavement pictures or laugh on the ceiling. It makes me think of Peter Pan a little bit. There is a magic beyond, but we don’t live with it. It was just a moment when somebody lifted the curtain for us to see.

Mary Poppins won 5 Oscars: Best Leading Actress (Julie Andrews), Best Film Editing, Best Visual Effects, Best Original Song (“Chim Chim Cher-ee”), and Best Music: Original Score (Richard and Robert Sherman). Julie Andrews was the “sentimental favorite” to win, partially because of being overlooked for My Fair Lady. During her acceptance speech, Julie Andrews was able to thank Jack Warner for making it all possible (see here).



Posted by on March 21, 2014 in Movies


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