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10 Things You Didn’t Know About ‘Mary Poppins’

This is a week chock-full of anniversaries, so here’s another: 49 years ago, the film version of Mary Poppins premiered to much fanfare at L.A.’s Grauman theatre. Much-anticipated at the time, it garnered rapturous critical reception, but in recent years people have complained it was an overly sugary version of the original P.L. Travers book. Here are 10 unexpected anecdotes arising from the production that you probably haven’t heard before.

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1. Walt Disney pursued the rights for 15 years before Travers would agree to give them to him. He was aware of the book because it was a favorite of his daughter, Diane. But Travers, who was a woman of a somewhat acidic temper, was skeptical about the sentimentality of Disney’s world view, and held out through many invitations and lunches. Finally he made her an offer she could not refuse, in light of her lack of income. She got a $100,000 advance on 5% of the gross producer’s revenue.

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2. P.L. Travers ended up hating the resulting film. When she attended the screening — to which she had to beg for an invitation — she cried all the way through. Later in life she would be more breezily disdainful of the experience, once referring to Disney as “George Disney” in a presentation at the New York Public Library, feigning that she didn’t remember his name.

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3. Travers once said she probably (albeit unconsciously) modeled Mary Poppins on a figure from Hindu mythology:

Not long ago, a young person, whom I don’t know very well, sent a message to a mutual friend that said: “I’m an addict of Mary Poppins, and I want you to ask P. L. Travers if Mary Poppins is not really the Mother Goddess.” So, I sent back a message: “Well, I’ve only recently come to see that. She is either the Mother Goddess or one of her creatures — that is, if we’re going to look for mythological or fairy-tale origins of Mary Poppins.”

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4. Julie Andrews wasn’t sure she wanted the role of Mary Poppins. She’d been holding out to reprise her My Fair Lady role in the screen version of the Broadway musical, but that eventually went to Audrey Hepburn. But when she heard that Andrews would be playing the part, Travers called immediately, although Andrews was still in the hospital recovering from the birth of her daughter Emma. “Well, you’re much too pretty, of course,” said Travers blithely. “But you’ve got the nose for it!” Andrews began to dread the role, telling the Christian Science Monitor in 1963 that she felt playing the role was “walking a plank,” because so many people loved the character. Obviously that worry was misplaced.

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5. Production odds-and-ends: The budget for the film was $6,000,000 and the entire thing was filmed indoors, on Disney soundstages. Travers got $100,000. Angela Lansbury and Bette Davis were both among Walt Disney’s top choices for the role. The actress who plays the little girl, Jane, was reportedly a suggestion of Travers’.

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6. Dick Van Dyke always wanted to play a second role in the film, and he eventually did disguise himself as Old Mr. Dawes, the banker. But Disney drove a hard bargain on that point, according to Van Dyke in his autobiography, forcing Van Dyke to donate $4000 to a youth program Disney was involved with. So he actually paid to play that part.

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7. P.L. Travers spent a semester as a writer-in-residence at Smith College. The appointment was a great controversy, because few at the college felt that she was intellectual enough of a choice. Ths was a strange characterization, because Travers corresponded with, among other people, W.B. Yeats, and was prone to long and epigrammatic statements of her particular philosophy. See, for example, this quote that she once gave to a newspaper reporter:

Fantasy is not a word I like. I prefer imagination. Fantasy has no relation to reality and is passive, but imagination is active and is the imaging of a portion of reality and requires conscious effort — not to invent but to remain quiet and still so the idea, if it wants, will come. I always recall D.H. Lawrence saying to remember that there is a truth of fact and a truth of truth — and I add that the truth of truth is imagination.

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8. San Francisco’s libraries once pulled Mary Poppins from its shelves because the book was deemed racist. The offense was given by the chapter “Bad Tuesday,” which tells of Mary Poppins traveling around the world — and meeting various sorts of people — with her charges. In its original incarnation, the chapter used slurs and stereotypes for, among others, black people, the Chinese, and the Inuit. When the criticism was brought to Travers’ attention in the 1970s, she substituted animals for the people in the chapter. Apparently this failed to assuage the San Francisco authorities, though the book indeed disappeared from circulation.

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9. A statue of Mary Poppins was once planned for Central Park. Travers herself said she posed on tiptoe for it. But the design, when released to the public, was deemed so offensive that the Times editorial board took a stand against it, calling it “atrociously bad art.” And they won; the plan was scrapped.

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10. Among Mary Poppins’ fans are the astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson, who in a fit of epic nerdery last year tweeted a bunch of thoughts on her. He concluded that she was likely a “Time Lord,” i.e. a member of the order that contains Dr. Who who can see both past and future occurring simultaneously — and thus manipulate both. Do you agree?

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