"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.
Reading the script, Van Dyke found the role of the senior, crotchety bank president so hysterical, he lobbied for the second part, even offering to play Mr. Dawes Sr. for free, the actor told CNN. Disney not only made him audition, in full makeup, for the role but also forced the actor to make a $4,000 donation to the California Institute of the Arts, the private arts university Disney founded. (“The CalArts Story” was first presented at the premiere of “Mary Poppins” and can be seen at calarts.edu/about/history.)
Years later when Van Dyke saw the theater adaptation of “Mary Poppins,” he volunteered to join the Los Angeles cast for one performance and reprise his role as Mr. Dawes Sr. The character is not included in the stage version but was written into a scene so Van Dyke could make a surprise cameo, the website Playbill.com reported. Now 84, he was old enough to play the stage character Disney considered him too young to play in the movie.
Because “Saving Mr. Banks” is not a documentary, there are discrepancies historians familiar with the actual production history of "Mary Poppins" will recognize.
“Saving Mr. Banks” indicates that Disney was working at the studio during Travers’ entire Los Angeles visit. But in reality, according to the website DisneyD55.com, once he recognized how difficult she was to work with, Disney left town for an unscheduled Palm Springs vacation. He also never visited her London home.
In “Saving Mr. Banks,” Travers and Disney eventually become firm friends, with the author being won over to enjoy "Mary Poppins" and applaud at its premiere. Wrong! “Saving Mr. Banks” director John Lee Hancock explained in an article written by Susan Wloszczyna on rogerebert.com, "We know Travers was not invited to the premiere. She invited herself. She did not care for the movie. She went to Walt afterward and said we have some work to do and he told her, 'That ship has sailed.'"
Travers remained so antagonistic toward the film that when "Mary Poppins" went to Broadway, she stipulated that no Americans of any stripe be involved. Robert B. and Richard M. Sherman — the composer team who contributed so mightily to the film's success, with “Mary Poppins” earning the brothers their only two Oscars — were shut out from writing the necessary additional songs.
According to the book “Hello Goodbye Hello,” seeing the "Mary Poppins" film was “an emotional shock which left me deeply disturbed,” Travers had said.
“I couldn’t bear it — all that smiling.”