Mary Poppins went into pre-production with the Sherman Brothers, Don DaGradi and Walt Disney brainstorming ideas. After about a month, Mr. Disney flew Ms. Travers in from England to join the pre-production process. That’s when the sparks began to fly.
Ms. Travers’ participation at this point in the production process was unheard of in Hollywood. Most of the time the authors who license their books to Hollywood do little more than cash the sizable checks they receive. Hollywood sees the authors as knowing little about how a film is made and more often than not sidelines them in favor of more seasoned screenwriters. In cases where the author gains the right to submit the first draft of the script, the studios will often discard the script by default. Ms. Travers was given unprecedented access to the production process at its earliest stage.
Many people have criticized the 2013 film Saving Mr. Banks for “smearing” the name of P.L. Travers by portraying her in a negative light. While the movie did take some liberties- the movie depicts Walt Disney hosting Ms. Travers at DISNEYLAND when it was Don DaGradi who took her to the park- it actually softened her abrasive attitude. Richard Sherman has said that the depiction of Ms. Travers in the film made her seem much nicer than she actually was. The proof is in the recordings made of their intense sessions with her. Ms. Travers criticizes the songs, voices her strong opinions and seems to have vastly different ideas of how the film should be. The sessions were recorded so that they could refer back to them after P.L. returned to England, but they ended up proving that the author seemed to have little patience for these Hollywood types and their eccentric (to Ms. Travers) boss. Richard has voiced the opinion that his experience on the pre-production end of the film was more stressful due to Ms. Travers.
Eventually, this part of the pre-production ended and Ms. Travers flew back to London. She didn’t leave on the best of terms and still expressed doubt that they were on the right track with the picture. While she still provided written notes now and then, the next time she would be back in Hollywood would be for the grand premiere.
With P.L. Travers on board, Walt Disney set about arranging his production team. Prior to Mary Poppins, Walt Disney and his animators would storyboard a feature and determine where the songs should go. At that point, the studio’s songwriters would be brought in to work on the music. They were told what the song should convey and how it should fit into the film.
For Mary Poppins, Walt Disney wanted to change the process. He wanted the songwriters to be involved from the very beginning so that the music would be fully integrated into the picture. This would involve the hiring of full time staff songwriters, which was becoming a rarity in Hollywood. After the collapse of the studio system, most of the studios had shed their full time staff. Walt Disney Productions, on the other hand, had so many musical projects in the hopper that it still had staff writers- Richard and Robert Sherman to be exact.
Richard and Robert Sherman were the sons of legendary song writer Al Sherman. Despite their father’s discouragement, they decided to join the family business and become song writers. They mostly wrote bubblegum songs, which caught the attention of Tutti Camarata, who hired them for DISNEYLAND Records. Tutti had been tasked with turning Annette Funicello into a pop star and he felt the Shermans could do the job, as well as write other songs that might be required for the label. Annette’s string of hits caught the attention of Walt Disney, who offered “the boys” the chance of a lifetime- to write the music and songs for Mary Poppins. The brothers were surprised; not only did Walt Disney apparently know who they were (they hadn’t had much direct contact with him up to this point) he also entrusted them with a massive film project that was near and dear to his heart. They had never undertaken such a project before, but they could hardly say no to Walt Disney. They eagerly accepted this new challenge.
When it came to scripting the action, Walt Disney selected the person at his studio who he felt was the best at script and story writing- Don DaGradi. Don was asked to work with the Sherman Brothers to craft a fully realized story that was completely integrated with the music and songs. While Don knew he was fully up to the challenge, he would have to do some on the job training with the Shermans to get them up to speed on what was required for a movie script and how their songs could become an indelible part of the final picture. The biggest challenge, however, would be working with the strong willed P.L. Travers. It would be an experience nobody involved would ever forget.
Mary Poppins is considered to be one of Walt Disney’s greatest films, howeverthe film didn’t have an easy path to production. When Walt Disney began his effort to make the film, his daughters were young children. By the time the picture was released, his daughters had children of their own. Along the way, Walt would face his biggest challenger yet- P.L. Travers, the author of the famed Mary Poppins books.
The saga began when Mr. Disney’s daughters were quite young. The book they loved to have read to them at bedtime was Mary Poppins and once they realized that their father was the Walt Disney, they asked him to turn their favorite book into a motion picture. Mr. Disney promised that he would and quickly made an offer to acquire the rights from the author of the book- P.L. Travers.
Despite the extremely British setting of her books, P.L. Travers was born and grew up in Australia, moving to England as an adult. Ms. Travers was known as a blunt perfectionist; a less kind version of Mary Poppins. When she was first approached by Mr. Disney, she quickly declined his offer. She didn’t want Mary to be a cartoon character and when he first approached her, Disney was only producing animated films. World War II would intervene and Walt Disney had other worries to deal with, so the project would take a long rest. After the war, England would try to rebuild itself by freezing foreign assets, including those of Walt Disney Productions. If Disney wanted to do anything with its British earnings it would have to make pictures in England. Walt figures this would be an excellent opportunity to ask Ms. Travers to purchase the film rights again.
Prior to this time, Disney hadn’t produced a fully live action film yet and Ms. Travers was still reluctant to entrust Mr. Disney with Mary Poppins. Walt Disney Productions would eventually begin producing live action pictures, but it would also find itself extremely busy throughout the 1950’s, with numerous television shows, DISNEYLAND and a full slate of pictures. By the end of the decade, fate would finally intervene; Walt Disney would be ready to make the film and Ms. Travers would find herself in diminished circumstances. She finally agreed to sell the movie rights to Walt Disney provided that she be given unprecedented access to the pre-production process. Walt Disney enthusiastically agreed.