Mary Poppins Author Was No “Spoonful of Sugar”

“That revisionist history — that’s part of the myth of Walt Disney.” Before P.L. Travers became known as the creator of one of the most cherished characters of all time, she was a film reviewe...
Mary Poppins Author Was No “Spoonful of Sugar”
Written by Mike Tuttle
  • “That revisionist history — that’s part of the myth of Walt Disney.”

    Before P.L. Travers became known as the creator of one of the most cherished characters of all time, she was a film reviewer who called Walt Disney out as being a shameless purveyor of cheeseball crap, according to the New York Post.

    “There is a profound cynicism,” she wrote, “at the root of his, as of all, sentimentality.”

    After young Travers’ review of “Snow White” in 1937, she went on to experience her words firsthand, as the forthcoming Disney movie, “Saving Mr. Banks,” portrays.

    The movie hinges on Walt Disney’s struggle to spin Travers sometimes dark stories about “Mary Poppins” into a magical tale. However, Travers holds tight to her ideas and opinions.

    “I don’t think Disney had the faintest idea of what to expect when she turned up [on the ‘Poppins’ set],” says Brian Sibley, a British writer who worked with Travers in the 1980s on a sequel to the film that never came to pass. “She was an immensely complex person. Amazingly independent and strong, very determined, very strong-willed.”

    In a time when women battled to be heard, Travers had no fear of standing up to Disney and demanding a high level of involvement in the movie. After all, she alone invented Mary Poppins out of her vivid imagination. Truth be told, Travers was as stubborn and strong-willed as Disney himself.

    “Disney brought her to Hollywood and decided he would charm her into making this film,” says Marc Eliot, author of “Walt Disney: Hollywood’s Dark Prince.”

    “But she wasn’t very charm-able. She was a tough woman — not quirky or cute. She didn’t like American movies, and she hated animation more than anything else.”

    Travers, born Helen Lyndon Goff in 1899, grew up in the Austrailian Outback and never married, a fact that was not highly looked upon at that time in history. Also going against the grain, she dated both men and women, had a deep interest in mysticism, and spent two summers living on an American Indian reservation, studying the culture. As an adult, she changed her name and moved to London where she worked as an actress, a dancer, a jounalist, and a writer of erotic literature.

    Disney never managed to charm Travers and she was never happy with the sanitized movie he made out of her book. She had demanded no cartoon elements in the movie, which became a battle she eventually lost. The song “Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious” was absurd to her and she never approved of the romantic relationship that was portrayed between Mary Poppins and Bert the chimney sweep.

    At 1964 the premiere of the movie, an event she was not initially invited to, Travers wept tears of frustration (not tears of joy as portrayed in “Mr. Banks) and spent the rest of her life brooding over the mess the studio had made of her beloved character.

    Travers died at the age of 96 and was tiresome to the end. In 1994, two years before her death, she snapped at a reporter who asked about her previous quote of knowing all the answers at an old age. “Here I am, sitting in my chair, and I don’t think I’m going to know all the answers. I’m human!”

    With the upcoming movie, “Saving Mr. Banks,” the Disney studio once again romanticizes not only her book, but the woman herself, leaving out the dismissiveness of Disney to her opinions.

    “Disney had no creative respect for this woman,” says Marc Eliot. “He wanted a property, and once he got it he completely ignored her input and all the restrictions she had agreed to. And that’s how the film got made.”

    In “Mr. Banks,” Tom Hanks plays a likable Walt and Emma Thompson, who refers to Travers as “awful and irritating,” plays the author herself.

    image via: Wikimedia Commons

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