- Written by Randal C. Hill Randal C. Hill
On an August night in 1964, 1,200 people packed Hollywood’s legendary Grauman’s Chinese Theater for the premiere of what would become Walt Disney’s biggest film success to date: Mary Poppins.
When the curtain dropped after the final reel had spun, audience members rose together to offer a thunderous, five-minute standing ovation.
But not everybody stood to cheer that night; one holdout was a prim lady in her mid-60s. Her name was P.L. Travers, and she was the creator of the iconic Mary Poppins tales.
Travers was born Helen Lyndon Goff in 1899 in Australia. She began writing as a teenager and later adopted Pamela Lyndon Travers as her pen name. (Travers was her father’s first name, and to Helen, the name “Pamela” had a rather delightful lilt.)
In 1926, Travers published a short story called Mary Poppins and the Match Man, which introduced her legendary nanny character, as well as Bert the street artist.
Seven years later, Travers began work on a full-length Mary Poppins narrative. The resultant book became her first literary success the following year — 1934 — with numerous successful sequels to follow later.
When Walt Disney’s daughters Diane and Sharon were children, they both loved Travers’ books. Urged on by the girls’ enthusiasm, Disney spent 20 years in pursuit of Travers’ approval to allow her creation to become a flesh-and-blood movie character. Disney even paid Travers a visit at her London home.
Finally, in 1961, Disney earned a reluctant “yes” from Travers, but only after offering her a huge-at-the-time $100,000 advance, 5% of the film’s gross, and script approval (although Disney would actually have the final say).
At the Mary Poppins premiere, P.L. Travers despised what she saw on the screen and what Disney and company had done to her now-iconic character.
Especially concerning to Travers was that Mary’s rougher edges had been smoothed out; in the author’s mind, the fictional nanny had always been one who avoids mawkishness and fanciful behavior as she seriously went about her tasks. (“She never wastes time being nice!”)
Travers was also ambivalent about the movie’s original music, which she labeled lightweight and disposable. She especially disliked Dick Van Dyke’s dancing among a group of animated penguins.
Travers decided to speak her mind. At a party following the movie, she loudly announced to Disney, “Well, the first thing that has to go is the animation sequence.”
To which Disney calmly replied, “Pamela, the ship has sailed.”
Mary Poppins won Hollywood’s heart and brought the Disney outfit five Academy Awards, including Best Actress for Julie Andrews (in her first movie role) and Best Visual Effects.
Mary Poppins became Disney’s first movie to earn a Best Picture nomination.
In 1977, a mellower P.L. Travers agreed to discuss Disney’s release on a BBC radio interview.
“I’ve learned to live with it,” she said. “It’s glamorous and it’s a good film on its own level, but I don’t think it is very like my books.”
Although Randal C. Hill’s heart lives in the past, the rest of him resides in Bandon, Ore. He can be reached at email@example.com.