The Walt Disney Company is close to signing a deal to produce a movie about its founding father’s dispute with P.L. Travers over the creative direction taken by Disney’s film of Travers’s “Mary Poppins.” Pamela Lyndon Travers fought tooth and nail with Walt Disney to preserve the integrity of her classic children's novel about the inscrutable nanny who descends on the unsuspecting nurseries of Edwardian London.
The project, “Saving Mr. Banks,” is named for the bank manager father of Jane and Michael Banks, the neglected children who become Mary’s charges at 17 Cherry Tree Lane. The script, by the British writer Kelly Marcel (“Terra Nova”), was on the 2011 Hollywood “Black List” of best unproduced screenplays.
Deadline reports that Meryl Streep and Tom Hanks are rumored to be considering the roles of Travers and Disney, who were 64 and 62 respectively at the time of the film’s premiere on August 27, 1964.
Marcel would no doubt accept the idea of Streep playing the Australian journalist and author, but the 17-time Oscar nominee wasn’t whom she originally had in mind. Travers was, Marcel uncharitably told the Independent newspaper, “a tyrannical old cow who absolutely didn’t want that film to be made….You can imagine one of our dames playing the curmudgeonly battle axe.” Perhaps she had Dame Judi Dench in mind. There is, however, another dame whose casting would be a stroke of genius. Her name is Julie Andrews.
Although Marcel said that the film covers “a three-week period in which Disney invited [Travers] to L.A. to try and get the script for ‘Mary Poppins’ right,” their wrangling went back to the forties, Disney having been alerted to Poppins Power by his daughter Diane. With telegrams and visits, he wooed Travers to buy the film rights all through the fifties, campaigning eventually for 15 years before she finally made a deal in 1961, reportedly because of declining sales for the four Poppins book she had written up to that point (the first was published in 1934, the eighth and last in 1988).
For the rights, Travers was given $100,000, a five per cent cut of the gross (which, given the film’s $44 million earnings, would make her wealthy), and script approval. Even though she prevailed on Disney not to make “Mary Poppins” an animated film, had she seen what the studio had done to “Alice in Wonderland” in 1951 and “Peter Pan” in 1953, she might have withheld her signature.
Disney would come to regret giving her script approval as Travers continually harangued him over the changes that were being made to her story during the development and pre-production stages. Having received her own treatment for the film, he invited her to visit the studio for consultation meetings. He left for Palm Springs two days before she arrived. The songwriters he had hired to score the film, the brothers Richard and Robert Sherman, were left to Travers’s mercy, according to the writer Caitlin Flanagan, who interviewed Richard about their lively encounter.
“The story meeting was punishing,” Flanagan wrote in her illuminating account of "Mary Poppins"’s psychological origins in the New Yorker in December 2005. “It lasted more than a week, and consisted of the Sherman brothers trying to sell the Disney version, while Travers, whose youthful self-confidence had gathered over the years into an oppressive self-righteousness, interrupted, corrected, bullied, and shamed them. Like countless novelists in Hollywood, Travers sought to salvage every last detail from her original. The sessions were tape-recorded, and on the tapes you can hear Travers’s booming, imperious voice in terrifying counterpoint to the Sherman brothers’ chipper young voices.”
She continued to demand substantial changes even after it was too late to make them. At the premiere at Grauman’s Chinese Theater in Hollywood she wept at the damage done to her vision of a world much less twee than the film's manipulated by a nanny much sterner and plainer than the one played by Andrews (who would win the Best Actress Oscar). When, according to Flanagan, she approached Disney at the after-party and demanded of him that the animation sequences be cut, she was told by him, “Pamela, the ship has sailed.”
Disney died two years after “Mary Poppins” opened. Travers may have taken grim satisfaction in outliving him by 30 years. She died at the age of 96 in 1996, having failed to market a “Mary Poppins” movie sequel but having sold the theatrical rights to Cameron Mackintosh. The resulting West End and Broadway musical – the book for it written by “Downton Abbey” creator Julian Fellowes – is not much closer in spirit to the “Mary Poppins” books than the film. Of course, the Walt Disney Company, which supplied the songs, had a hand in that, too.