P.L. Travers: “Mary Poppins”

P.L. TraversAsk my family, and they’ll tell you that my favorite movie of all time is Mary Poppins. I have watched it many, many times with my mother and sister – and have treasured it every time.

Yes, I know it’s a children’s movie. Yes, I know Dick Van Dyke puts on a terrible Cockney accent. Yes, I know the film departs radically from P.L. Travers’s series of Mary Poppins books (published between 1934 and 1988). And yes, I know Travers detested the film Walt Disney made in 1964.

Nevertheless, to me Mary Poppins is practically perfect in every way!

Let’s start with the last two criticisms. As made evident in the 2013 film, Saving Mr. Banks, Travers was horrified by what Walt Disney and the Sherman Brothers did “to” Mary Poppins. If you read any of Travers’s Mary Poppins books, you’ll quickly see the huge discrepancy between Travers’s nanny and Disney’s. Travers’s Mary Poppins is firm, no-nonsense, almost taciturn. Yes, she’s magical – but sometimes she doesn’t seem to be any better than the stern nannies she blows away at the start of the Disney film.

As far as Dick Van Dyke’s Cockney accent goes, yes, it’s horrible – but his singing and dancing and his physical humor all more than make up for his butchered Cockney. As a child, I relished the viewing during which I finally realized that Dick Van Dyke also played Mr. Dawes, Sr. He is simply brilliant as the tottering old man.

Finally, there’s the issue of this just being a children’s film. Like all good children’s literature, the Mary Poppins novels work for adults, too – and the same can be said of the film. It’s magical and compelling, fun and uplifting. Many of the film’s jokes – such as Mrs. Banks’s suffragette protests – are surely lost on children. Don’t get me wrong: there’s plenty here for children to love (and they do love it!). But there’s quite a bit of depth for adults to enjoy as well. And of course, Julie Andrews – in her film debut – is just outstanding as Mary Poppins!

Now there’s a new generation enjoying the Mary Poppins industry, this time around via the stage musical. Produced by Cameron Mackintosh and Walt Disney Theatrical, the stage show opened in London’s West End theater district in 2004, and from 2006 to 2011, the show ran on Broadway. The musical features some of the Sherman Brothers original songs from the 1964 film but adds some new music and lyrics by George Stiles and Anthony Drewe. As I discovered when I recently saw the Boulder Dinner Theater’s production with my nephews, Spencer and Trevor, the musical sticks a bit more closely to Travers’s books – though even here, Mary Poppins is jollier than Travers’s character.

Though I’ve read the Travers novels, enjoyed the musical adaptation, and seen Saving Mr. Banks, for my money the Disney film is still the version of Mary Poppins I like best. P.L. Travers is probably rolling over in her grave as I say that – but as Bert says in the film, “cream of the crop, tip of the top – it’s Mary Poppins, and there we stop!”

If you want to revisit your childhood, there are so many ways to learn more about Mary Poppins. Of course, you simply must watch the 1964 Disney film if you haven’t seen it in a while. (Want to be reminded of some of your favorite bits of dialogue? Visit this page from IMDB!) There’s also a 3-CD set of the film’s soundtrack and additional goodies, including demos, newly recorded songs, and excerpts from interviews and meetings between P.L. Travers and the Sherman Brothers, along with storyboards, newly illustrated artwork, and an informational booklet. The original Broadway cast soundtrack from Mary Poppins: The Supercalifragilistic Musical is a must-listen. Believe it or not, Duke Ellington recorded songs from the 1964 film, and there’s even a karaoke sing-along CD!

Then if you want to discover the original Mary Poppins, read the P.L. Travers series: Mary Poppins (1934), Mary Poppins Comes Back (1935), Mary Poppins Opens the Door (1943), and Mary Poppins in the Park (1952). There’s a wonderful 80th-anniversary collection of these first four Mary Poppins books, and there’s also a boxed set of the first three.

Curious about P.L. Travers herself? I highly recommend The New Yorker’s article “Becoming Mary Poppins: P.L. Travers, Walt Disney, and the Making of a Myth.” And if you can stand a little more of the Disney take on Travers and her famous nanny, you might want to watch Saving Mr. Banks, starring Tom Hanks as Walt Disney and Emma Thompson as P.L. Travers. Keep in mind that the film was made by Disney, so you might want to dig a little deeper to learn more about P.L. Travers, especially since she was – to say the least – not a fan of Disney productions.

But no matter what version of Mary Poppins you explore, you’ll have to admit she’s supercalifragilisticexpialidocious!

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Watch:There are numerous clips of the 1964 film available online, but one of my favorite scenes is Mary’s initial arrival at 17 Cherry Tree Lane. Enjoy!

Image Credit: P.L. Travers, http://www.playbill.com/features/article/the-hunt-for-p.-l.-travers-136301