Additional entertaining films based on 'Mary Poppins' possible beyond 'Saving Mr. Banks'

Published: Thursday, Dec. 19 2013 12:00 a.m. MST

A scene from the Walt Disney Company's "Mary Poppins."

Buena Vista Home Video

"Mary Poppins” has enraptured several generations of moviegoers since its premiere nearly 50 years ago. But it’s easy to forget the film was far from a sure bet. Walt Disney’s live-action musicals were not nearly as successful as his animated fare.

The film “Saving Mr. Banks,” which opens nationwide Friday, relates a portion of the development of “Mary Poppins” — how Disney persuaded author P.L. Travers to grant film rights to the book she was fiercely protecting.

And there are enough intriguing elements to the production of "Mary Poppins" to make many more entertaining, based-on-history movies. The most compelling stories revolve around the casting of Julie Andrews as the "practically perfect" nanny and Dick Van Dyke as chimney sweep Bert.

Broadway actress Mary Martin was first asked to play the Mary Poppins role, but she turned it down, according to the book “How to Be Like Walt.” After considering Bette Davis and Angela Lansbury, Disney saw Andrews perform her heralded role of Queen Guenevere in “Camelot” on Broadway and was convinced she would be the best actress for the part, according to "Mary Poppins" trivia at IMDB.com.

However, a film adaptation of “My Fair Lady” was to be produced, and Andrews was eager to re-create her stage role of Eliza Doolittle, and co-star Rex Harrison wanted Andrews to play the part. Learning that Audrey Hepburn was being considered, Harrison told an interviewer, “Eliza Doolittle is supposed to be ill at ease in European ballrooms. ... Audrey has never spent a day in her life out of European ballrooms,” according to IMDB.

Yet “My Fair Lady” producer Jack L. Warner didn’t consider Andrews “photogenic,” according to the book “Hollywood Stories” by Stephen Schochet.

Andrews won her only Academy Award for “Mary Poppins” — while Hepburn wasn’t Oscar-nominated for "My Fair Lady," which was released the same year. And Andrews’ revenge came with the first, and perhaps best, sarcastic barb in award acceptance speech history.

In her thanks for her Golden Globe award, Andrews indicated that one man made the award possible. Rather than an acknowledgement of Disney, though, she went on to thank “Mr. Jack Warner.” Zing! (Watch the speech at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=HeBCcfwWpug.)

Andrews had initially declined the role due to pregnancy, but Disney politely insisted, saying, “We’ll wait for you,” according to Wikipedia.

Travers heartily approved the casting of Andrews after hearing her on the telephone. Andrews granted the interview from her hospital bed after giving birth to her daughter.

Disney had only considered Van Dyke to play opposite Andrews. Van Dyke now considers “Mary Poppins” the best film he has appeared in, according to IMDB, but he originally thought he was miscast, suggesting Jim Dale or Ron Moody as better fits.

His preference for the British actors could easily be due to his struggles with a Cockney accent, which has been criticized as one of the worst accents in film history, according to Total Film magazine. In Britain, the “Dick Van Dyke accent” became an accepted slang term for an unsuccessful British accent, and The Ministry of Dick Van Dyke’s Accent blog was spawned (modvda.blogspot.co.uk). Van Dyke has blamed his performance on the assignment of the Irish-born J. Pat O’Malley as his vocal coach, but there’s been no official denouncement from the Disney studio.

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