A little knowledge, as they say, can be a dangerous thing. It’s particularly true in the case of movies based on real events. If you know absolutely nothing about the actual history the movie is based on, you can watch it without wasting a second of your moviegoing time worrying about what the film is getting wrong. If you know enough to write a thesis on the events in question, you can make a choice to pick apart what the film gets wrong, rejoice in what it gets right, or ponder the reasoning behind whatever changes have been made to the real story. But if you know just enough to realize that what you’re seeing probably isn’t 100% true, you’re left with far more questions than certainties. If you know that the movie got a few things wrong, is everything you’re not certain of total fiction?
This is the situation I found myself in while watching Saving Mr. Banks, Disney’s recent film about the making of Mary Poppins, specifically the pre-production stages that author P.L. Travers was involved in. I did enjoy the film, but I frequently found myself wondering about whether certain events depicted in the film actually happened that way. I may know more about the making of Mary Poppins than the average person, but I still don’t know everything there is to know about the behind the scenes dramas and the people involved. I was left with a lot of questions.
Fortunately, this being the internet age, the answers weren’t very far away. So if anyone finds themselves in the same boat I was in, or just wants to learn a bit about what went on during the making of Mary Poppins, here’s what I’ve learned about what the new movie got right, got wrong, got partially right, and completely forgot about.
The following sections contain spoilers for the film Saving Mr. Banks. Read at your own risk.
P.L. Travers’ difficult childhood – Though some of the facts may be embellished or out of order, the basic story of Travers’ early life that the movie presents is true. The girl originally known as Helen Lyndon Goff was born in Australia. She did have a vivd imagination and often pretended to be a hen, as shown in the movie. Her father, Travers Goff, was a banker, whose drinking problem got him demoted from manager to clerk. Sadly, he did die of influenza when Helen was just seven years old. Even more sadly, Helen’s mother really did come very close to drowning herself, though the suicide attempt came after her husband died, not before. It’s not clear whether Travers Goff was actually the troubled yet caring father who nurtured his eldest child’s love of fantasy that we see in the film. But his daughter clearly loved him, so much so that she took his first name as her last when crafting her stage name – which later became her pen name.
Travers had a lot of demands – The difficult working relationship that the Mary Poppins team had with Ms. Travers is well documented. It’s so well documented, in fact, that some of the tapes of the story sessions with Travers are played over the film’s end credits. Travers was notoriously demanding about even the smallest details, requesting fabric from a specific shop in London for Mary Poppins’ dress and insisting that the color red be completely absent from the movie. It’s debatable whether she was purposefully being hard to work with, out of touch with the filmmakers’ needs and capabilities, or trying to protect the integrity of her work. To its credit, Saving Mr. Banks presents all three as possibilities and leans most heavily on the last one.
She didn’t like the animation – One of the major points of contention between Disney and Travers in the movie is the inclusion of animation in the movie. Travers is shown as dead set against it and furious when she discovers that Disney is going against her wishes and including a partially animated sequence in the film. The real Travers was not a fan of animation either and never warmed to it or the way the combination of live-action and animation ultimately looked.
The creation of “A Spoonful of Sugar” – Robert Sherman actually did get the idea for this famous song when one of his children told him about getting a polio vaccination delivered on a cube of sugar rather than in a needle. He and his brother Richard also had a discussion about having the melody go up on the word “down” and how that would be a very Mary Poppins thing to do. They may not have struggled with a version of the song where this didn’t happen before arriving at this breakthrough, but the core idea is true.
Vintage Disney – This isn’t so much a “fact” as much as a long series of visual details large and small that help to give the movie a feeling of authenticity. There are the obvious things, like the scene from the old Disneyland TV show with Tom Hanks in place of Walt Disney or the retro looking Disneyland park. But how many audiences are going to notice the slightly different costume for the walkaround Mickey Mouse or the nearly perfect recreation of Walt Disney’s office? Speaking of that office, if you look at the wall in the first shot of the last scene that takes place there, you’ll notice a map of a particular state that would be the site of Disney’s next big venture.
Travers wasn’t invited to the premiere – Given how difficult Travers was to work with and how cold she remained toward the film through the entire scripting process, it’s not too surprising that Travers was not invited to the world premiere of Mary Poppins. The main worry was that the sight of the book’s author criticizing the movie based on her work would mean bad press for the film. Travers sent a telegram informing Disney that she just so happened to be available for the premiere and managed to get in.
What’s False (or Partly False)
Disney getting the film rights – Saving Mr. Banks does move a couple of events around to heighten the dramatic tension, but this one is more major than the others. Walt Disney did indeed spend a very long time pursuing the film rights for Mary Poppins, prompted by his daughters’ affection for the books. He did fly out to England, where he finally convinced P.L. Travers to sign over the rights. But all of this took place before Travers came to Hollywood to work on the script with Disney’s team. She was there because her contract stipulated that she had script approval, not because Disney still needed her to sign over the film rights. The idea that Travers could pull the rug out from under Disney at any point and that Disney needed to be personally involved in trying to keep her happy makes for a more exciting movie, but it’s not what actually happened.
Travers dancing – One of the emotional high points of the movie is the scene where the Sherman brothers finally win Travers over by playing her what would become the film’s closing number, “Let’s Go Fly a Kite.” Travers is shown as delighted by the newly added scene where Mr. Banks has the children’s kite mended, even going so far as to start dancing. A lovely scene, but not at all true. Travers was never entirely won over by the idea of Mary Poppins being a musical. Richard Sherman has said that it was “Feed the Birds” that won her over and there was another song she may have liked, which we’ll get to later. I also find it highly unlikely that Travers had to tell Disney’s team that the film should be about the redemption of Mr. Banks and that he should not be portrayed as an unfeeling monster, though she did actually express concerns about Mr. Banks tearing up the children’s list of qualifications for a new nanny.
Travers’ tears at the premiere – My biggest worry when I heard that Disney was making a movie about Walt Disney and P.L. Travers was how they would handle the Mary Poppins premiere. In the movie, we see Travers tapping her feet to “Let’s Go Fly A Kite,” rolling her eyes at the animated “Jolly Holiday” sequence, and weeping as Mr. Banks faces trials very similar to those her father struggled with. There is ample evidence that Travers shed tears during the premiere, but it wasn’t because she was so deeply moved by the film. Travers hated the movie version of her book and wasn’t afraid to say so. The decision to sell the film rights was a difficult one for her and her main reason for giving in was the financial troubles she was experiencing. Though her opinion of the movie evidently softened over the years, her initial reaction to it was far from pleased. The movie Travers’ response to her lawyer’s question about whether she will sell the movie rights to any future books – “Never again” – is far more true to the real Travers’ feelings about the filmmaking experience than the premiere scene.
What’s Left Out (or Easy to Miss)
After the premiere – Right from the start, Travers wanted her feelings about the Mary Poppins movie known. As early as the afterparty for the premiere, she approached Walt Disney demanding additional edits. Unlike the kindly Walt we see reassuring Travers that Mr. Banks would be all right in Saving Mr. Banks, the real Disney gave Travers the brushoff, telling her “the ship has sailed.”
Who drew Mickey? – Early on in the movie, Walt Disney is explaining to Richard Sherman that he can at least partly understand how hard Travers is fighting them because he’s been on the other side of this battle. He goes on to describe when he was a poor unknown with no prospect beyond a sketch of Mickey and had to decide whether to sell the rights to Mickey to distributor Pat Powers. That’s all true, but it omits the fact that the “sketch of Mickey” probably wasn’t Walt’s own work. Disney animator Ub Iwerks was largely responsible for the original design of Mickey, as well as the lion’s share of the animation on the first Mickey Mouse cartoons. In the context of the story, it makes more sense to leave Iwerks out rather than confusing the audience. But it perpetuates the myth of Walt the lone creative genius, when in fact, Walt Disney benefited hugely from the talents of the people in his employ.
Travers the Mystic – The first shot of the adult Travers in the movie shows her meditating by a couple of Buddha statues before she is interrupted by the arrival of her lawyer. This is a brief nod to Tarvers’ deep interest in mysticism and folklore, which included the studies of Buddhism, Zen mysticism, and the folklore of several Native American tribes of the southwest.
Travers had a kid – For those of you have seen the movie, did you catch Travers’ weird response to the question of whether or not she has children? “No,” she answers, but quickly adds “Well, not exactly,” before being cut off. That brief exchange just barely hints at one of the stranger aspects of Travers’ life. She actually did have a child, a son who she adopted when she was forty years old on the advice of her astrologer. That’s not even the really strange part. The strange part is that the boy, Camillus, had a twin brother who Travers did not adopt. Camillus didn’t even know he had a twin brother until the two met by chance at a pub at age seventeen. This was also when Camillus learned that he was adopted. The fact that his adoptive mother had withheld so much information about his life from him for so long caused a rift between the two. Camillus and Travers were estranged by the time she went to Hollywood to work on Mary Poppins, explaining her odd answer to a usually straightforward question. The damage to the relationship apparently affected later generations as well. Travers’ grandchildren expressed no fondness for their grandmother, stating that she died loving no one and unloved herself.
Travers’ love life – Travers romantic life does not figure into the plot of Saving Mr. Banks, though I don’t know whether this is by luck or by design. Travers was bisexual and had a number of relationships with both men and women. Whether Travers sexuality would have been relevant to the story or not is debatable, but sadly, I think we’re not to the point where Disney would include a bisexual character in a film for family audiences.
Travers fought for “Stay Awake” – Given how averse Travers was to the whole idea of Mary Poppins being a musical, it’s strange to think that she might have saved one of the film’s songs from the chopping block. The song in question was “Stay Awake” and it was once nearly scrapped for fear that the film had one lullaby too many. “Feed the Birds” was likely safe as Walt Disney loved the song. But it was Travers who argued that “Stay Awake” still belonged in the film. She felt that the use of reverse psychology – Mary ostensibly urging the children to stay up while simultaneously describing all the comforts of a cozy bed – was exactly what Mary Poppins would do. It was a rare case where Travers believed that Disney had got the character right and, whether because of her feelings on it or in spite of them, the song remained.
Hav you seen Saving Mr. Banks? Do you like films that take some liberties with history, or avoid them? Does “Feed the Birds” bring a tear or two to you eyes every time you hear it? Let us know in the comments.