It is perhaps the expose that no one really wanted, a superficial look at the making of beloved classic “Mary Poppins,” all centered on the relationship between the prickly author P.L. Travers and sunshine personified, Walt Disney. Taken purely as entertainment, “Saving Mr. Banks” does deliver on the charm, and as Travers and Disney respectively, Emma Thompson and Tom Hanks absolutely shine. Yet, as our own review shared, the film “has all of the pieces in place to earmark it as a masterpiece – a stirring story, real life roots, wonderful performances, and a rich visual background – but it doesn’t fully deliver on its promise. There’s charm and delight here, to be sure, but it is occasionally obscured by attempts to make it somehow darker, deeper, and more dramatic.”
Too bad the real story is, indeed, dark and deep and damn dramatic.
The basics of the film, brought to life by screenwriter Kelly Marcel (who will next give us the big screen adaption of “Fifty Shades of Grey,” ensuring that, if nothing else, she’s got a varied resume to fall back on) and “The Blind Side” director John Lee Hancock stick to some hard-to-avoid facts – at the very least, “Saving Mr. Banks” doesn’t make any bones about the fact that Travers did not want a film version of her beloved book series to be made into a Disney-fied version for pop cultural consumption – but plenty else in the film is up for serious debate. The film (which is in limited release now, expanding this Friday) has recently started taking some big hits regarding its veracity and, as a service to you, we’re here to help clear some of the confusion up. Grab your UM-brellas, and lets get to dancing around the truth.
Did It Really Take That Long for Walt Disney to Get The Rights?
Yes, it really did. As a post over at Mental Floss tells us, “it took Disney—Walt himself, not a bunch of execs with money-stuffed briefcases—16 years of wheedling, convincing, and coaxing before author P.L. Travers would agree to let him make a movie. She believed that Disney would make Mary Poppins a twinkling, rosy-cheeked delight—and to an extent, she was right. Disney did give her script approval, but no doubt later regretted it, since script approval proved to be an extremely painful process. Every little word, every tiny detail, seemed to be a point of contention.”
“Saving Mr. Banks” doesn’t focus on the machinations of Disney’s early attempts to get the rights from Travers, though they are briefly discussed by the duo. Instead, it turns to the time after Travers finally relents to the demands – and how the author was royally screwed out of her creative control, even though she thought she was going to get it.
P.L. Travers Hated the Final Product More Than You Can Imagine
Despite demanding script approval, going over every page with a fine-toothed comb, and all but jettisoning the entire production more than once, Travers still wasn’t happy with what “Mary Poppins” turned out to be. As that same Mental Floss piece shares, after Travers saw the film, she “asked Walt, “When do we start cutting it?” Disney shook his head and explained that she had script approval—not film editing rights—and refused to change a thing. Travers was furious.” Oopsie!
Though Hancock’s film does make it seem as if Travers was reticent to attend the film’s star-studded premier, Thompson-as-Travers does eventually show up and appear to be sucked in by that old Disney magic (a man in a Mickey Mouse costume leads her into the theater, for goodness sakes!), and while Thompson pops off some wry commentary during the screening and doesn’t look too pleased, in real life, she was beside herself.
Mental Floss shares, “She cried when it was over, feeling her characters and ideas had been butchered.” She later said that her character was “already beloved for what she was—plain, vain and incorruptible—(and now) transmogrified into a soubrette…And how was it that Mary Poppins herself, the image of propriety, came to dance a can-can on the roof-top displaying all her underwear.” While the film glosses over the final result of the Travers and Disney pairing, instead focusing on the success of “Mary Poppins” and its cultural implications, it doesn’t quite drive home just how badly things ended when it came to Travers.
She was so distraught by the film that her “last will and testament stated specifically that if a stage musical was to be made, the Sherman Brothers could not be involved, only English-born writers could be used—no Americans—and absolutely no one from the original film production was to be involved.” The demands are played for laughs in the feature, but Travers didn’t think any of this was funny in the least.
What Kind of Person Was P.L. Travers?
Over at the New York Post, writer Brian Sibley (who once worked with Travers on a sequel to the film that never panned out), “She was an immensely complex person. Amazingly independent and strong, very determined, very strong-willed.” Hancock’s film tends to focus on the persnickety nature of ol’ P.L., but the author was much more than a slightly doddery old lady who adhered quite firmly to the “my way or the highway” side of personal philosophy. In short, Travers was a pistol.
Personally speaking, Travers was often the subject of much chatter and gossip, mainly due to her dalliances with both men and women, though the poet and critic Francis Macnamara is considered her “great love.” But no, you won’t hear about any of that in “Saving Mr. Banks.”
Travers also pursued some big interests outside of the scope of just writing – she spent two summers living with Navajo, Hopi, and Pueblo peoples in the American West, mainly to study their mythology and folklore (Travers was reportedly very interested in myths, spirituality, and shared stories, and had been for much of her life).
Her travels weren’t confined to just America, though, as she also studied Zen mysticism in Japan for a spell of time. Most interesting about that, however, is that said trip happened in 1960 – just one year before the events of “Saving Mr. Banks.” You tell us, does Thompson’s Travers seem anything like a woman who recently traveled halfway around the world to study a religion she didn’t even practice? The film even imagines that Travers is a bad flyer, a person not adept at taking to the skies for adventure or business.
Yes, P.L. Travers Did Have Children of Her Own
While the “real” Travers certainly seems have been far more multi-faceted and just plain interesting than “Saving Mr. Banks” gives her credit for, that doesn’t necessarily mean she was a person with purely good facets. This is some straight up salacious gossip right here, but a recent long-form story about the author from The Daily Mail comes with some wrenching personal details about the author that add more than just color to her life story.
In the film, when Disney asks Travers if she has children of her own, the character hedges her answer. In real life, it’s an understandable answer. In 1940, Travers adopted the young grandson of Joseph and Vera Hone, a baby that had the “Irish blood and a strong literary lineage” she was looking for.
While that sounds like a fine thing to do – adopting an impoverished child! – Travers didn’t really go about it the right way, reportedly using the advice of an astrologer to pick which of the Hone children she should take. The astrologer (there’s that spirituality bent again) instructed her to take young Camillus Hone, which would have been fine, had Camillus not be one-half of a set of twins, leaving his twin brother Anthony behind. The Daily Mail report holds that “Joseph Hone pleaded with Travers to spare the twins the pain of separation. ‘Take the two of them,’ he implored her, ‘they’re only small.’ Fatefully, the author refused his entreaties.”
Travers took baby Camillus to England, America, and then back. His life was a rarefied one, and he had only the best. He did not, however, have his brother – in fact, he didn’t even know about Anthony, as Travers had told him that he was her natural child and that his father was dead. Camillus believed it all, at least until Anthony showed up on their doorstep one day, prompting Travers to faint, wake up, and demand he never come back to Camillus ever again. The boys didn’t listen, and instead went out on a drinking binge – which eventually seemed to be the only thing they could bond over, having grown up in such very different homes.
Camillus never seemed to get over the shock (and neither did Travers), and she ultimately left her money to his children via trust, along with “instructions that he should only be paid a modest allowance.” Camillus died two years ago. Anthony died in 2005, partly thanks to his overindulgence in alcohol, which has been partially attributed to his dismay that he was not the one taken in by Travers and granted the same kind of wealthy life as his brother.
P.L. Travers’ Career Was Much Richer Than Just “Mary Poppins”
Even Travers’ own Wikipedia page is peppered with more colorful information than “Saving Mr. Banks” presumes to share. Young Travers’ poems were first published when she was just a teenager and she even had her own newspaper column, all around the same time she went to work as an actress (and, yes, that’s when she adopted the stage name "Pamela Lyndon Travers"), touring both Australia and New Zealand as part of a Shakespearean company.
Travers published more than just the Poppins series and some early poetry, she also authored three works of non-fiction (including a book about her beloved folklore), dabbled in erotica, and was long preoccupied with Irish poetry and mythology of all kinds. “Saving Mr. Banks,” however, is only interested in Travers as the author of “Mary Poppins,” and none of her other successes are ever mentioned.
Wait, Who Was Mary Poppins?
In the film, Travers repeatedly tells Disney that Mary Poppins is like family to her, before revealing that she was not like family, she was actually family – a beloved aunt who helped “save” her family after the death of her father. In reality, that’s not true – Wikipedia shares that “while appearing as a guest on BBC Radio 4's radio program Desert Island Discs in May 1977, Travers revealed that the name ‘M Poppins’ originates from childhood stories that she contrived for her sisters, and that she was still in possession of a book from that age with this name inscribed within.”
As is so often the case with “true life” tales, it seems like facts can go fly a kite when it comes to “Saving Mr. Banks.”