Do you know the story of Mary Poppins? I don’t mean do you know the plot of the 1964 Walt Disney version starring Julie Andrews in the lead. I mean, do you know the origin story of the flying nanny? Who was Mary Poppins based upon in real life? Are you aware of how her story went from book series to movie to musical and back to a movie about a movie, again? Is it news to you that the author of the Mary Poppins books disliked Walt Disney? Well, she did. In fact, by the time I am finished peeling back all the layers of this story you are going to need to sit down and rest for a while. The story of Mary Poppins is one wild ride that all begins in a lawyer’s office with the reading of author P.L. Travers’s will. Buckle up!
When I set out to begin my research for this post about the musical Mary Poppins, I thought it was going to be fairly standard stuff. Boy, was I in for a surprise! I was barely a paragraph in on my first article when I came across the news that securing the rights to adapt the story of Mary Poppins for the stage was fraught with difficulty because of stipulations in the Last Will and Testament of author P.L. Travers that forbade any new productions from employing Americans and/or anyone associated with the 1964 Disney movie. Wait…what?! My immediate question was what did Ms. Travers have against Americans that she would ban an entire nation? As I sought the answer to that question, I ended up going down a rabbit hole of epic proportions. As I think back upon it now, I am reminded of a scene in the movie All The President’s Men (about the Watergate scandal) when reporter Bob Woodward of the Washington Post is questioning his inside source code named Deepthroat about who in the Nixon Whitehouse he should talk to next. Deepthroat replied by saying, “This goes everywhere and involves everybody”. The story of Mary Poppins is like that, too.
In order to present this tale in the most coherent fashion possible, let’s start at the very beginning, before there ever was a Mary Poppins. The character known as Mary Poppins first came to the attention of the world through a series of children’s books written by a woman who went by the name Pamela Lyndon Travers or P. L., for short. That turned out to be a pen name that she used for privacy reasons. Her real name was Helen Lyndon Goff. Ms. Goff was born in Queensland, Australia. Her mother was a direct relation of the former Premier of Queensland. *(I have seen her referred to as his niece and also as his sister). Her father, on the other hand, was a failed banker who suffered from alcoholism and died while she was in her teens. Throughout her childhood, Helen Goff was often left to her own devices, so she whiled away the hours reading copious amounts of books, writing poetry and short stories and playing games that showed a vivid sense of imagination. After her father’s death, Goff began participating in plays and became a published poet, too. In her early twenties, she joined a traveling theatre troupe and toured New Zealand. It was at this time that she adopted her pen name. She picked Travers for her last name because it was her father’s first name. She opted for Pamela because she thought it was pretty. The middle name of Lyndon she kept as a means of retaining touch with her legal identity. Eventually, P. L. Travers moved to England where she continued to publish her poetry and write for several newspapers and magazines. During her time in London, Travers became acquainted with people such as the poet W. B. Yeats and the philosopher Carl Jung. It was also during this time that she published her first of eight Mary Poppins books. In interviews, Travers was quoted as admitting that the character of Mary Poppins was based upon her Great Aunt Helen Moorehead from Australia. Because of how busy her parents both were with their adult lives, young Helen Goff spent much of her childhood in the care of her Great Aunt Helen, who was her namesake. In those same interviews, Travers was always quick to paint a rather bucolic portrait of her childhood years and was very protective of her family members, especially when it came to her father’s reputation.
P. L. Travers published her first Mary Poppins book in 1934. A second soon followed in 1935. By 1940, both books were beloved the world over. Two children who loved hearing all about the adventures of the flying nanny were the daughters of a man named Walt Disney. Like many good parents, Walt Disney found time to read aloud to his children. The Mary Poppins books were among their favourite stories. Being fully aware of what their father did for a living, his girls asked him if, one day, he would turn the Mary Poppins books into a movie for them. Walt Disney promised that he would see what he could do. For the next twenty years, Walt Disney met with P. L. Travers in an attempt to acquire the movie rights to her book series. When he first decided to pursue this idea, he figured it would be a business negotiation like all previous negotiations before it. How wrong he turned out to be. In reality, P. L. Travers was fiercely protective of her stories and the characters within. She did not trust Walt Disney to be able to translate her vision onto a movie screen. She was afraid he would alter the characters, add in animation and create a musical score that would change the tone of how her characters appeared in her head and in her heart. Walt Disney entered negotiations thinking it would be all about money and financial considerations. What he discovered as the process unfolded was that the negotiations were all about trust and about Travers protecting the story of her childhood life (which was what the Mary Poppins stories were all about).
As part of the two-decades-long courtship of P.L. Travers by Walt Disney, Mr. Disney traveled to London to meet with her at her home. He also had her flown to Hollywood in First Class so that she could meet him at the Disney Studios and get to see how a movie of her book would be produced and who might be involved in such a production. Because he was so invested in acquiring the movie rights, Walt Disney granted Travers unprecedented access to his studio. She was present for all pre-production meetings, including those with the Sherman Brothers who would go on to write the classic musical soundtrack that included such gems as “A Spoonful of Sugar”, “Chim Chim Cher-ee”, “Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious” and the subject of today’s post, “Feed the BIrds”. Everyone at Disney Studios found P. L. Travers to be extremely difficult to work with. She objected to almost every aspect of the script. She particularly objected to how Walt Disney was attempting to portray her father. However, Walt Disney had one big advantage in these negotiations and that was the luxury of time. P. L. Travers, on the other hand, had a finite amount of income and could not afford to remain in Hollywood battling Disney executives and underlings, day in and day out. She needed to get back to work and earn her own income again. Eventually, Walt Disney made his final offer for the rights to her books. P. L. Travers felt as though she had no choice, so she finally agreed. With her signature in hand, Walt Disney no longer required her approval for any aspect of the movie. He hired the actors he desired. He commissioned the songs he felt fit best. Finally, he added in a few scenes that included animation because he felt it helped bring the story to life in a magical way. So frustrated was he with P. L. Travers that he did not even extend an invitation to her so that she could attend the Hollywood premiere of Mary Poppins in 1964.
So, flash forward to the year 2000 and place yourself in the shoes of producer Cameron Mackintosh. He is a British producer of musicals for the West End theatres in London. He was given the task of approaching P. L. Travers to see if she would sell the rights to her books so that a musical adaptation could be created. After her negative experience with Walt Disney, P. L. Travers had a lot of stipulations to set out before she would consider any agreement to sell the rights to mount a stage production to Mackintosh. Foremost among those were that no Americans were to be involved, and especially no one who had been involved in making the 1964 movie that she so disliked. Cameron Mackintosh was able to score one key triumph for the proposed stage adaptation, and that was that Travers agreed to allow him to reuse the songs from the film score. As a result, the Sherman Brothers (who write the Disney songs) are credited with being co-creators of the West End musical score for the stage version of Mary Poppins. One of the reasons that the Sherman Brothers’ music was allowed to remain had to do with one particular song from the movie, called “Feed the BIrds”. While not the most popular song to be included on the original movie soundtrack, “Feed the Birds” was viewed as actually being the key reason that P. L. Travers agreed to sell the movie rights to Walt Disney in the first place.
“Feed the Birds” is a song written by the Sherman Brothers for the film Mary Poppins. It is a song that appears four times throughout the movie and was used to set a more serious tone for the scenes in which it was included. Without going into the details of all four scenes, what is important to note is that we are introduced to the song by Mary Poppins and shown images of a beggar woman in Trafalgar Square who is selling bird seed to tourists so they can feed the pigeons who are found there. When Mary Poppins sings the song, the images are magical and filled with warmth. However, in a pivotal scene later on in the movie, the father, Mr. Banks, is seen walking through the same square on his way to a meeting at the bank, at which time he will be fired from his job. There is no joy in the scene with Mr. Banks. This was such an emotional song for P. L. Travers. It helped her to decide to trust Walt Disney enough to sell him the movie rights to her books. In her mind, with this song Mr. Disney had proven that he finally understood that her books were more than just fodder for movie scripts and were actually stories from her own life. The closing scene in which “Feed the Birds” is used isolates the father, Mr. Banks, illustrating how his life could have been different if he had invested more time in “feeding his own birds”, which Travers understood from the song to be his own children. In her heart, she knew that the Sherman Brothers were speaking directly about her and her childhood and how her life could have been different with greater attention afforded her and her siblings from her father. Perhaps he could have even remained alive and not been consumed by the stresses that led to his losing battle with alcohol. “Feed the Birds” was the one song that P. L. Travers approved of. It helped to get the Disney film made, and it helped get the West End musical made, too.
The final chapter of this story took place in 2013. Disney Studios knew that the 40th anniversary of the movie Mary Poppins was approaching. They also knew that the story behind how the movie came to be was an extraordinary one. So, a movie was made about how the original movie came to be made. This new movie was called Saving Mr. Banks. The movie starred Emma Thompson as P. L. Travers and Tom Hanks as Walt Disney. Jason Schwartzman and B. J. Novak starred as the Sherman Brothers. Emma Thompson was nominated for an Academy Award for her work in this movie. Unlike the real P. L. Travers, she was even invited to attend the film’s Hollywood premiere.
One of the very first pieces of advice given to new writers is to write about what you know. Helen Goff wrote under an assumed name in order to protect the integrity and privacy of those family members she wrote about, especially her father, whom she adored in spite of his alcoholism. To P. L. Travers, the Mary Poppins books were never just stories to her. They were semi-autobiographical chapters from her own life. Consequently, it is to be expected that she would be protective of them and cautious when it came to placing them in the hands of strangers to her life. For others, such as Walt Disney, her stories were a commodity to be purchased, repackaged and sold to generations of consumers for whom Mary Poppins has no emotional attachment. That is how show business works. It isn’t wrong. It is just how it is. I still view Walt Disney as a man of principle. I appreciate how he came to understand P. L. Travers’ point of view by including a song like “Feed the BIrds” that spoke to her heart. To me, it showed that he understood that the world of commerce from which he operated his business was built upon a foundation of creativity that came straight from the hearts of those who create…including himself. Creativity is an exercise in personal passion. Walt Disney understood that. So did P. L. Travers. My parting thought today to all of you is that I know real life can get busy at times, but always make room in your world to feed the birds in your life. In the end, nothing is more important than that.
The link to the video for the trailer for the movie Mary Poppins can be found here.
The link to the video for the trailer for the musical Mary Poppins can be found here.
The link to the video for the trailer for the movie Saving Mr. Banks can be found here.
The link to the official website for P. L. Travers can be found here.
The link to the official website for Walt Disney can be found here.
The link to purchase your own copy of any book from the Mary Poppins book series can be found here.
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