Because the clashing powers of Walt Disney and P.L. Travers is the most infamous and soap opera-worthy aspect of the filming of Mary Poppins, we sometimes forget about its low-key director. He might seem like the Ringo of the group—you know, quiet, inauspicious, and untalented in comparison.
But don't dismiss him. (Don't dismiss Ringo, either—dude wrote "Octopus's Garden.")
Stevenson was actually an extremely prolific director, taking the helm on tons of Disney live-action classics, like Old Yeller, The Absent-Minded Professor, Bedknobs and Broomsticks, and Chitty Chitty Bang Bang. He was Disney's go-to live-action guy. (Source)
Stevenson was British, and cut his teeth as a filmmaker by helping film the liberation of Rome sequence in Frank Capra's famous Why We Fight propaganda films, which were designed to bolster the Allied cause in World War II. So we can add "helped beat Hitler and Mussolini" to the Stevenson resume.
Also, before becoming the Big Kahuna of Disney live-action, Stevenson got involved in television, and went on to oversee about a hundred TV productions. (Source)
No, Stevenson didn't go in for moody, impressionistic noir films or abstract homages to Big Ideas—instead, his movies are all about having a family-friendly good time. But Mary Poppins did manage to secure Stevenson an Oscar nomination—so it's not like no one acknowledged his artistic talent.
Plus, he'd already helped fight the Nazis with Capra's film. And once you've helped to beat Hitler, the ultimate bad guy, there's no shame in taking it easy and directing things like The Love Bug and That Darn Cat! (Source)
Mary Poppins was a book before it became a movie. And its author was, apparently, not the easiest woman to get along with.
A wee bit of background: P.L. Travers had a tough childhood in Australia. Her father was a kindly man, but he was also an alcoholic. He died when she was a little girl. So, later in life, when she wrote Mary Poppins, she wanted Mr. Banks to become the same kind of dad her father had been, a kindly man with an enthusiastic sense of life. (Just with less of a debilitating disease.) (Source)
Her 1934 book Marry Poppins created most of the characters in the movie—and some who aren't in the movie, like the younger siblings of Michael and Jane, a pair of infant twins named John and Barbara. The story covers fairly familiar territory but with some different adventures and excursions thrown in, like an excursion to see different animals at the corners of the earth. But the basic idea of the movie is there.
Travers went onto write a series of Poppins books, and Mary P.'s later adventures got pretty trippy: some infamous plot points include a domineering sun who runs an interplanetary circus, alien cats, and creepy people who live inside the illustration on a ceramic vase and who kidnap Jane. (Source)
And Travers, unsurprisingly, had very strong ideas about what these books meant. In an interview with The Paris Review, Travers explained what she considered Mary Poppins basic appeal:
"How wonderful it was to be able to have somebody other than your parents that you could talk to, who treated you as though you were a human being, with your proper place in the world. Your parents did so, too (my parents were most loving, I had a most loving childhood), but the extra friend was a tremendous plus." (Source)
Fast-forward, and Travers had sold the movie rights to Mary Poppins to Walt Disney. But she was still determined to have her say on how it would be filmed. And things between Mr. Mouse and a kindly children's book author got…surprising gnarly.
Travers headed to L.A., where Disney's studios were located, and got into a major power-clash—with none other than Walt Disney himself.
Disney had hired two screenwriters, Bill Walsh and Dom DaGradi, to adapt Travers work, along with the songwriting team, The Sherman Brothers. The Shermans had already written 32 songs for the movie, having worked on it for two years previous.
According to Richard Sherman, Travers immediately upset the whole creative team:
And her opening line to us was, "I don't even know why I'm meeting you gentlemen, because in fact we're not going to have music in this film and, in fact, we're not going to have any prancing and dancing." We were completely dashed. (Source)
But, of course, Walt completely overrode Travers' suggestions—which started to get pretty arbitrary. For instance, at one point, she demanded that the color red not be featured in the movie. Her squabbles with the other filmmakers were recorded on over 39 hours of audiotape—later used as the basis for the film Saving Mr. Banks, in which Tom Hanks plays Disney and Emma Thompson plays Travers. (Source)
Sherman said that he and the other writers came up with a plot for the movie in which the Banks were a dysfunctional family—the plot that was actually used to make the film. He stated that while Travers' original work was full of great characters and inventions, it was relatively plot-less. They needed to invent the tense Banks family dynamic in order to give Mary Poppins some problems to sort out—a way to propel the movie.
But Travers kept running interference, and the bad blood lingers to this day. Sherman continued to bash Travers in this interview:
[…] she was a walking icicle. She didn't like anything we did. She resented the fact that the father had been made into a flawed character who changes during the course of the film. She'd made him the hero, an idyllic man, and wanted that preserved; her own father had been a drunk. Showing her our ideas was like walking out of a hot shower and having cold water thrown all over you. Her opening line was that she didn't see why she should meet us since she didn't want music in the film. In the two weeks we spent with her, she managed to destroy all the dreams, hopes and love we had built up. (Source)
We'd try to provide a differing opinion on Travers, but it seems like everyone who worked with her on the movie tended to agree with Sherman's assessment. There aren't too many positive opinions out there…
But Travers should still be honored for, you know, creating Mary Poppins in the first place.
Disney has a monopoly on family fun and whimsy. It's their thing. If you make a cartoon with a lot of chirping birds and cute bunnies waltzing through the woods—you're gonna get called out for ripping off Disney. They know their turf and will defend it with a switchblade—er, a magic wand.
But Disney's not just about animation. They're all about live-action movies and the pre-teen television market. The Suite Life of Zack and Cody, anyone? Disney is an indomitable force.
But, as far as live-action goes, it wasn't always that way. And if Lao Tzu is correct and "The journey of a thousand miles begins with one step," Mary Poppins helped Disney take some of those first steps. (Though not the very first step: they'd already made live-action movies like Treasure Island).
Mary Poppins wasn't Disney's first live-action feature, but it was a pioneering example of what Disney could achieve with live-action. It's probably the defining non-cartoon Disney production, though it also contains an extended scene mixing live action with an animated sequence, featuring cute, singing animals. (They had to pay homage to their roots, after all.)
At the time Mary Poppins came out in 1964, the original creative genius named Disney—Walt himself—was still alive and deeply involved in the production of his company's movies. He hadn't yet been cryogenically frozen and placed under the Pirates of the Caribbean ride. (We know, we know; that's an urban legend. But it's such a cool urban legend.)
Disney began his career as a humble cartoonist for newspapers. But he gradually built an animation empire, beginning with a character named "Oswald The Lucky Rabbit." But the rights to Oswald were deviously stolen from Disney, and he and animator U.B. Iwerks had to create a new flagship character—Mickey Mouse. Maybe you've heard of him?
Eventually, Disney made the first feature-length animated movie, Snow White and the Seven Dwarves in 1937, and the rest, as they say, is history. (Source)
When Disney bought the rights to Mary Poppins (which was originally a book), the company had very specific ideas about what they were going to do. They were going to give it the maximum Disney treatment: amp it up, make it extra-sparkly, and give the audience a potent injection of the warm and fuzzies. And Disney hired expert songwriters, The Sherman Bros., to make the movie a classic musical.
This method worked with all the feature-length cartoons, right?
But before he could start spritzing the magic around, Walt ran into one little problem. Even though the author of Mary Poppins, P.L. Travers, had sold him the rights to adapt her workinto a movie, he'd promised her creative input in the movie's creation. This proved to be a sticky wicket, to use a ridiculous Britishism (Ms. Poppins would be proud.)
Unlike Walt, Travers wasn't all about the warm and fuzzy feelings. She wasn't vibe-ing with Disney at all. She hated the animated sequence and wanted to make Mary stricter…you know, like she was in her books. Walt delicately steered her away from these designs, even though she was harshing his mellow and alienating everyone else involved with the movie. (Source)
But Walt wasn't entirely tolerant of some of Travers' attitudes. After he called her "Pamela"—her first name—she insisted that Disney call her "Mrs. Travers," even though they were almost the same age. Disney wasn't about to fall for this power play, so he jokingly shortened her name even more, calling her "Pam" instead. (Source)
When Mary Poppins finally graced the silver screen, people loved it. It was Disney magic at its most lighthearted and pure, and earned Julie Andrews the Oscar for Best Actress in 1965. It even got nominated for Best Picture. (Source)
So, if you admire Walt Disney's work, write him a nice letter. If they ever un-freeze him, maybe he'll read it.
The 1960s audiences who saw Mary Poppins probably thought they were hallucinating. Mixing animation and live-action…? How could they even…?
There'd been a few examples of cartoons mixed with real stuff before—Gene Kelly danced with a cartoon mouse, dressed up as a sailor, in 1944's Anchors Aweigh—but Mary Poppins served up an extended sequence. The magical secret, of course, was the "sodium vapor process," sometimes called yellowscreen—forerunner of the green screen. It actually earned Mary Poppins an Oscar for Best Special Effects.
Also, interestingly enough, Disney owned the only camera capable of filming with the sodium vapor process, and wouldn't rent it out to anyone else. It was like the recipe for secret sauce—you're not just going to leave that lying around. The process itself involved the actors performing in front of a white screen, illuminated by orange sodium vapor lights. This allowed you to add in animated footage, super-imposed behind the actors. (Source)
Also, Mary Poppins was filmed on…film. The idea of digitally filming a movie was just a twinkle in someone's Mom's eye back in 1964—computers, at the time, were still giant, clunky machines that filled up entire rooms, but with less power than your average Mac. So it was filmed in Technicolor on 35mm film. (Source)
But whatever works. Those cartoon penguin waiters still look pretty good, even today.
The Sherman Bros were the Drake of their day—if Drake specialized in composing scores for Disney movies and didn't ever rap. Our point is: they were important, and really good at their jobs.
Richard and Robert Sherman wrote the songs for Mary Poppins, Bedknobs and Broomsticks, and Chitty Chitty Bang Bang. But don't try to peg them as strictly live-action guys. They also did the soundtracks for cartoons like The Jungle Book, Charlotte's Web, and The Aristocats. They popped out children's songs the way frogs birth tadpoles, or the way the Pillsbury Dough Boy gets his biscuit on: prolifically.
They also wrote a song that's gotten stuck in the heads of millions of people—got stuck, and never came out. Instead, the song burrowed into their brains like an alien centipede and took it over and drove them totally insane. We're talking, of course, about the black magic incantation, "It's a Small World (After All)"—featured on the famous ride at Disneyland and Disney World.
But the Shermans normally used their powers for good. And in Mary Poppins they wrote classic song after classic song. It actually took them two years to do it, in which time they wrote over 34 songs for the movie. Sometimes, the songs are pure fun—like "Chim Chim Cher-ee" and "Step In Time" and "It's a Jolly Holiday."
"Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious" also tilts hard on the fun side of the scale—it actually came from a summer camp competition the Shermans entered in as kids, to find a word longer than "antidisestablishmentarianism," the longest word in the dictionary.
But other tunes go a little deeper...
For instance, "A Spoonful of Sugar" and "Feed the Birds" express the movie's message. "A Spoonful of Sugar" is about how a little loving kindness helps make the harshness of life more tolerable, while "Feed the Birds" is a tender song about how easy it is to be kind—it just costs a tuppence to feed the birds.
Richard Sherman (not to be confused with the Seattle Seahawks cornerback) said, in an interview:
The song "Feed the Birds" has nothing to do with ornithology: it's about how it doesn't take much to give love.
He also said of finally seeing the movie:
But the best moment came when I heard Julie Andrews singing "A Spoonful of Sugar." I was crying because she was articulating the whole essence of the movie—which was about the power of love. (Source)
The songs carry the movie's light tone along. There's no gloomy or ponderous or sour note. The songs mainly convey joy—or, in the case of "Feed the Birds," tenderness. The Shermans weren't writing a Metallica album.
Their cheery labors paid off. In the end, The Shermans won the Oscar for Best Score, and "Chim Chim Cher-ee" won the Oscar for Best Song. They slipped the world "a spoonful of sugar" and kept it coming back for more. (Source)
Everyone likes Mary Poppins. Everyone. Even Lin-Manuel Miranda.
Ghostface Killah from The Wu Tang Clan. The writers of the Simpsons. Vast oceans of kindergartners, and vaster oceans of nostalgic adults. They all love this movie. It has no enemies. (Well, except for P.L. Travers).
Mary Poppins still pops up in pop culture references—that's three pops in one sentence. Such is its fandom.
Ghostface Killah references "Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious" in a song entitled "Buck 50" (which, unlike Mary Poppins, is not family friendly), and The Simpsons parodied the movie in an episode where a nanny named "Sherry Bobbins" comes to look after Bart and Lisa. Instead of helping them clean up Bart's room through magic, Sherry Bobbins teaches them how to clean the room by randomly throwing things under the bed, explaining "It's the American Way!"
Also, the fact that Disney made a movie about how Mary Poppins was made, indicates just how famous it is. Saving Mr. Banks is all about how Mary Poppins came into existence, detailing the fight between the character's creator, P.L. Travers, and pretty much everyone who worked at Walt Disney. The fact that big name stars like Tom Hanks and Emma Thompson were cast in the movie demonstrates how much Disney thinks people might want to see this—it's not a Lifetime movie starring a bunch of no-names. (Source)
But Mary Poppins isn't popular because of the tense backstage clashes that attended its making. No. It's popular because it's got great tunes, it's lighthearted and fun, and there are no sudden and unexpected deaths (like, say, in Bambi—we're still not over that one).
People need Mary Poppins' "spoonful of sugar"—to help the bitter medicine of everyday life go down.