Ink & Paint: Mary Poppins | SWITCH.
Keep up-to-date on your favourite artists and movies, track gig and release dates, and join in the conversation.
Ink & Paint
Ink & Paint is a podcast journey through the Disney animated classics! Each week, host Daniel Lammin and a special guest will look at each film in the official Disney animated canon, and talk about their artistic, historical and social context. Subscribe now to make sure you don’t miss an episode! Have comments or questions for Ink & Paint? Record a message for Daniel right from your phone, and we'll try to use it in our next episode!

Episode 20: Mary Poppins
Daniel is joined by award-winning performer and co-creator of the StoryKids podcast Verity Hunt-Ballard to look at the beloved musical classic ‘Mary Poppins’ and discuss why the character and film has become such a beloved cultural icon, the film’s transition to the stage, and the messages that lie at its heart.

Daniel Lammin
Verity Hunt-Ballard - Performer

Producer/Editor ∷ Alex Amster
Music ∷ Sam Porter
Show Artwork ∷ Nikolaos Pirounakis
Episode Artwork ∷ Lily Meek

Show Notes
Walt Disney had always been interested in live-action filmmaking. When he arrived in Hollywood in the 1920s, he had planned to be a live-action film director, before turning his attention fully to animation. Many of the now-classic animated films that began development in the 1930s were, at some point, considered as live-action or hybrid films, and only ‘Song of the South’ in 1946 would reach the screen in this form. By the 1960s though, live-action film production at Disney had become a self-contained department as significant at the studio as animation, and far more profitable. In the end, the turn to live-action was less artistic and more out of necessity - they were far cheaper and far quicker to produce. Looking back on them now, almost none of these films have any lasting legacy, certainly compared to the animated classics. They served a purpose, and that purpose was almost never creative.

In 1964, Walt Disney Productions would release a live-action film that would not only be the finest of its kind the studio would ever produce, but an artistic triumph as significant as the animated classics. It would, in many ways, be the culmination of everything Walt Disney had to say as a storyteller, his more remarkable creation in the later years of his life - a perfect storm of story, artistry and filmmaking. It would also owe much to the technical and narrative discoveries made by Disney animation over the past forty years. Just as she would do for the Banks family, the mysterious and magical nanny Mary Poppins would restore Walt Disney Productions’ faith in itself.

There's the whole world at your feet. And who gets to see it but the birds, the stars, and the chimney sweeps.”
Bert, Mary Poppins (1964)

In London in 1910, at No. 17 Cherry Tree Lane, Jane (Karen Dotrice) and Michael Banks (Matthew Garber) are in need of a new nanny. Though they want one with a cheery disposition, their highly-strung father George Banks (David Tomlinson) wants someone who will discipline the children and bring order to his home. To their surprise, a mysterious and eccentric nanny named Mary Poppins (Julie Andrews) arrives on their doorstep. Though George and his suffragette wife Winnifred (Glynis Johns) see her as the perfect disciplinarian, the children discover she has magical abilities, and along with jack-of-all-trades Bert (Dick Van Dyke), she takes them on incredible adventures across the roofs of London, high in the air and even inside chalk drawings. When an attempt to connect George with his children by taking them with him to his workplace at the bank goes horribly wrong, George sees his life unravel before his eyes, potentially losing his job and threatening to tear the family apart. Through their love though, George rediscovers the importance of compassion, love and charity, and the family finally clicks back into place. Her work done, Mary Poppins packs her bottomless carpetbag, opens her umbrella and takes flight into the skies of London.

‘Mary Poppins’, Walt Disney’s Oscar-winning musical masterpiece, is based on a series of books written by Australian-born British writer Pamela Lyndon Travers. The character first appeared in a short story in 1926, ‘Mary Poppins and the Match Man’, and a full collection of stories, ‘Mary Poppins’, was published in 1934 to great acclaim. Over the next 54 years, Travers would write a further seven books featuring her iconic creation, all of them illustrated by artist Mary Shepard, daughter of ‘Winnie-the-Pooh’ illustrator E.H. Shepard.

‘Mary Poppins’ illustration by Mary Shepard

Following the release of ‘Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs’ in 1937, a number of people approached Walt Disney with ideas for possible future projects. Amongst these was the American publisher of ‘Mary Poppins’, who sent the book to Walt with the note “It’s not Mickey Mouse, but I think you’ll like Mary Poppins.” The timeline of what happened next is a little unclear, but according to Walt, he first paid attention to the book when he heard his daughters Diane and Sharon giggling in their room, and checking on them, found them reading ‘Mary Poppins’. Not long after, Lillian also read the book and was similarly charmed by it. It’s not clear when these readings would have happened, or even if they happened years later, but in December 1938, Walt asked Roy to approach Travers for the rights to the book directly rather than going through her agent, unaware that he was about to begin a decades-long battle with her.

When the war broke out in Europe in 1939, Travers moved to New York with her adopted son Camillus to escape the London Blitz, working for the British Ministry of Information. It was here that Roy approached her about the rights to ‘Poppins’, and to his surprise, she wasn’t interested. Travers had a keen interest in folklore and fairy tales, and she took issue with the way Disney had been adapting these stories to the screen. Walt wouldn’t give up though, and after the war, continued to push Travers to give him the rights to the book.

‘Mary Poppins’ concept art © Disney

Many of the stories around the making of ‘Mary Poppins’ have entered into legend, especially the tempestuous relationship between the production and P.L. Travers, but at every turn, the film represented great artists working at the top of their game to create the best film they possibly could. Where the other live-action films had been able to cut corners, every rough edge of ‘Mary Poppins’ needed to be sanded to perfection, every mechanism perfectly calibrated. It would be a struggle of many, many years to bring ‘Mary Poppins’ to the screen.

Once the war was over, Walt Disney continued to pursue the film rights to ‘Mary Poppins’. He had made a promise to Diane and Sharon that he would make the film for them, and he wasn’t prepared to break that promise, and in the early ’40s, Walt assigned story analysts and writers Inez Cocke and Peggy Connell to do a feasibility breakdown on the book to see whether it would be suitable for adaptation. There was some movement on negotiations after the war, but the deal fell apart when Travers insisted on final script approval, something Walt was unwilling to grant anyone, especially after the debacle with Roald Dahl on ‘The Gremlins’. Once again, progress ground to a halt.

The book had been sitting around our house for a long time. I read it as a child.”
Diane Disney Miller

In the meantime, other parties began circling the rights to ‘Mary Poppins’. Actress Beatrice Lillie had tried in the late 1930s, and in the 1940s, composer Stephen Sondheim had composed a number of songs for a stage adaptation that never eventuated. Vincente Minelli and Samuel Goldwyn had also tried to develop screen adaptations, but Travers’ refusal to grant her final approval stopped all projects in their tracks. The closest anyone would come was a CBS Television special in 1949 for the program ‘Studio One’, where Poppins was played by Mary Wickes.

In the mid-1950s, Walt decided to try again, and this time he would take matters into his own hands. While visiting London to oversee one of the live-action films, he personally visited Travers at her home in Chelsea. The two formed a mutual respect for one another, Travers finding him far more amiable than she expected. Negotiations finally progressed, with an agreement for the rights signed on the 3rd of June 1960. It was an extraordinary relinquishing of power on Walt’s part, with Travers demanding 5 per cent of the profits, with an additional $100,000 guarantee and £1,000 for writing a treatment for the film, which she began in earnest with TV writer Donald Bull. Walt was determined to appease Travers with her concerns though, especially as the agreement didn’t yet grant him the screen rights. Even so, work could finally begin on developing the project.

I guess you could classify ‘Mary Poppins’ as a musical’, although we didn’t start out to make a musical as such, we just put the story of ‘Mary Poppins’ together, and let the music come in where it belonged…
Walt Disney

While Travers worked on her treatment, Walt approached the Sherman Brothers to begin work on the music. They were still relatively new to the studio and hadn’t yet been made permanent members of staff, mostly working on pop songs for the live-action films. Outside of the animated films, Walt Disney Productions weren’t in the business of making musicals, but the big-budget musical was a staple of Hollywood filmmaking. ‘Mary Poppins’ might fit into that mould. He handed the book to the Shermans and asked them to come up with some song and story ideas. At first, they weren’t sure there was a film to be made from the book’s episodic structure, but identified six chapters that they thought might work. To their surprise, when they presented these six chapters to Walt, he pulled out his own copy of the book and showed them the contents page, on which he had underlined the same six chapters.

Robert and Richard Sherman with Walt Disney, 1964 © Disney

The Shermans had also composed an initial collection of songs based on those chapters, many of which would not only end up in the final film, but be amongst the most beloved songs in any Disney film. Amongst them were ‘Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious’ and ‘Jolly Holiday’, but the one that caught Walt’s attention was a gentle, melancholy song they had called ‘Tuppence A Bag’, later renamed ‘Feed the Birds’. When they had finished presenting him with what they had, Walt asked them to play that song again. It would become the emotional heart of the film. “Symbolically, ‘Tuppence A Bag’ has nothing to do with tuppence or breadcrumbs,” Richard Sherman later remembered, “it’s about the fact that it doesn’t take much to give love; that it costs very little to make a difference to other people’s lives.” Impressed by their work, Walt not only gave them the assignment of working on ‘Mary Poppins’, but made them staff songwriters at the studio.

To help the Shermans with the adaptation, Walt assigned story artist Don DaGradi to the project. He had started as a production designer on ‘Dumbo’, and by the start of the ’60s had worked on a number of live-action films as a story consultant. DaGradi and the Shermans threw ideas back and forth, refashioning the episodes of the novel into a cohesive narrative while DaGradi drew their ideas up as story sketches. They decided to expand the part of Bert from a supporting character to a co-lead, possibly to attract the attention of actor Cary Grant, who Walt was courting for the part. They also decided that the central conflict should be with the parents, particularly George Banks, rather than with the children.

‘Mary Poppins’ concept art © Disney

In March 1961, P.L. Travers travelled to Los Angeles to visit the studio at Burbank on invitation from Walt. They were to present her with the work they had done in the hopes that she would finally grant them the rights. “When we sat down with Mrs Travers to present our treatment,” remembered Richard Sherman, “she hated everything we had done. Disliked with a passion! For every chapter we developed, she had a definite feeling we had selected the worst one. She started naming chapters she felt we should adapt - and they were the ones we thought were absolutely unusable!”

The team of Walt, Travers, DaGradi and the Shermans then began working through the treatment, but the first day was such a disaster, with Travers arguing emphatically with Walt, that she demanded to be flown back to New York. Determined to appease her, Walt convinced her to stay. The next day, Walt himself left for Palm Springs, saying to the team as he left, “She’s all yours!” From now on, as per Travers’ request, all of the meetings would be documented by stenographer and tape recording.

There was a continual tussle between us, though it was obvious that we liked each other as man and women - why not?
P.L. Travers, in a letter to her lawyer Arnold Goodman, 18th April 1961

These recordings reveal the arduous, exacting nature of Travers’ criticism. She tears apart every single detail of the treatment, often giving contradicting opinions as she herself battled with how she feels her work should be translated to the screen. Often, she would read all the characters, calling on her experience as an actor. In the process, she made significant contributions that would shape not just the narrative, but the look and tone of the film. It was Travers who suggested that they should shift the setting from London in the ’30s to the Edwardian Era in 1910. She also offered a tantalising view into the psychology of Mary Poppins herself. “She comes with a deep intent…” she said, “she comes to find something for herself as well as to bring something. The something that she comes to find is a happy family.”

One of her greater objections was the way George and Winnifred Banks changed over the course of the film. She argued that they shouldn’t change, that they should be good parents from the beginning, but DaGradi and the Shermans countered that this wouldn’t give Mary Poppins motivation to be there in the first place. The arguments in the recordings are rigorous and frustrating, but reveal the enormous investment they all had in making the film a success. Even Travers, often critical of the absurdity of the Shermans’ lyrics, can be heard humming along at points.

When Walt returned from Palm Springs, he was very pleased with the work that had been done, and especially that from Travers. As a show of good faith, he made her a consultant on the film. Now that the treatment had been cracked, the task of writing the screenplay was handed to writer Lowell S. Hawley, but when Walt rejected his draft, the job fell to Bill Walsh, who delivered a witty, energetic and thrilling screenplay that built perfectly on the work done by DaGradi and the Shermans. Travers still had enormous objections to the film, but was happy enough to finally hand the film rights over to Walt. After more than twenty years, he could finally bring this dream project to the screen.

Now he had to find the perfect Mary Poppins.

Over the course of our episodes on the Silver Age of Disney Animation, we are taking a look at each of the Nine Old Men, the core team of animators that defined the classical Disney style, and at their individual contributions to the art of animation. In this episode, we look at the bombastic work of John Lounsbery.

John Lounsbery during the making of ‘Lady and the Tramp’ © Disney

The youngest of the Nine Old Men and the youngest of three sons, John Lounsbery was born on the 9th of March 1911 in Cincinnati, Ohio, and grew up in Colorado. In 1932, after receiving his diploma from the Art Institute of Denver, he moved to Los Angeles and began working as a freelance artist while studying illustration at the Arts Centre School of Design. It was here that one of his instructors recommended him to Walt Disney Productions, and Lounsbery joined the studio on the 2nd of July 1935.

To begin with, Lounsbery was assigned to many of the classic Pluto shorts, but like many of the staff, was pulled onto ‘Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs’, working as an assistant animator. His first promotion to animator on a feature would be with ‘Pinocchio’, but his breakthrough would be on the ‘Dance of the Hours’ sequence in ‘Fantasia’, where he revealed a tremendous aptitude with both animal characters and comedy. He would later say that the lead alligator, Ben Ali Gator, was his favourite character he ever worked on. For ‘Dumbo’, he was promoted to animation director, and delivered another iconic character with his work on Timothy Q. Mouse.

Over the following decades, Lounsbery would continue to contribute some of the most energetic and comical characters in the Disney animated features. While he was never assigned sole responsibility of any major characters, his hand would guide many of the great supporting players, such as Tony and Joe in ‘Lady and the Tramp’, the Cheshire Cat in ‘Alice in Wonderland’, the Wolf in ‘The Sword in the Stone’ and the introductory scenes of Ichabod Crane in ‘The Adventures of Ichabod and Mr Toad’. For the animated sequence in ‘Mary Poppins’, Lounsbery was in charge of the farm animals that sing to Mary and Bert. Despite his shy personality, he would inject any film he was working on with a strong sense of fun and play. “Hardly subtle,” said Frank Thomas and Ollie Johnson, “John’s characters were always fun to watch.”

‘The Sword in the Stone’ rough pencil animation by John Lounsbery © Disney

As the Silver Age came to an end, John Lounsbery would continue to push his abilities, especially as the films put a greater emphasis on animal characters. Perhaps his most extraordinary work through the 70’s was with the beloved Winnie-the-Pooh shorts. He served as directing animator on the first two, ‘Winnie-the-Pooh and the Honey Tree’ (1966) and ‘Winnie-the-Pooh and the Blustery Day’ (1968), before being promoted to director on ‘Winnie-the-Pooh and Tigger Too’ (1974), which received an Academy Award nomination. Sadly, on the 13th of February 1976, while serving as director on ‘The Rescuers’, John Lounsbery died at the age of 64. Though he was the youngest of the Nine Old Men, he was the first to pass away.

The work of John Lounsbery is the perfect expression of the adage that there are no small parts, only small actors. Looking through the characters he contributed to is a star gallery of the supporting players of the classic Disney animated films, each one incredibly memorable, scene-stealing and incredibly funny. What makes them so impactful is the marriage of comedy and humanity, and an astounding understanding of behaviour and timing. He was inducted as a Disney Legend in 1989.

On the night of the 19th of March 1961, Richard Sherman, Robert Sherman, Don DaGradi and Walt’s secretary Tommie Wilck were all tuned in to the wildly popular Ed Sullivan Show. ‘Camelot’, the new musical adaptation of ‘The Once and Future King’, had just opened on Broadway, and Sullivan featured its two leads, Richard Burton and Julie Andrews, on the show. Watching the pair perform “What Do The Simple Folk Do?”, all four realised they had found their Mary Poppins. The next day, they raced to the studio to find Walt.

Julie Andrews during the cast album recording of ‘Camelot’, 1960

Julie Andrews had been performing since 1945 at the age of 10, beginning in musical halls in England with her parents. In 1954, she made her Broadway debut in ‘The Boy Friend’, and two years later, she delivered one of the great star-making performances as Eliza Doolittle in Alan Jay Lerner and Frederick Lowe’s ‘My Fair Lady’, garnering her ecstatic reviews. This success led to her once again working with Lerner and Lowe on ‘Camelot’, but apart from the Rogers and Hammerstein television special of ‘Cinderella’ in 1957, Andrews had not yet made the transition to film.

Encouraged by Wilck, Walt made the trip to New York to see ‘Camelot’ and to see Andrews for himself. As we have already seen, this was a fortuitous night for another Disney production, convincing Walt to choose ‘The Sword in the Stone’ over ‘Chanticleer’, but it would have an even greater impact on ‘Mary Poppins’. Walt had already considered a number of potential actors for Mary Poppins, including Mary Martin (who was appearing on Broadway in ‘The Sound of Music’) and Bette Davis, and P.L. Travers had even taken it upon herself to approach Audrey Hepburn to play the part. When Walt saw Julie Andrews though, he knew he had found his Mary Poppins. As soon as the show was over, he went backstage to meet Andrews and her husband, production designer Tony Walton, and immediately offered her the part. Andrews was hesitant, recently having fallen pregnant, but Walt insisted, inviting her to visit the studio. He then turned to Walton, asking what he did for a living, and when he replied that he was a designer, told him to come along too and to bring his portfolio.

During their visit, Walt courted Andrews by showing her storyboards and concept art, and having the Shermans perform the score for her. “The thing that was wonderfully appealing was that my background, long before I had been on Broadway, was vaudeville and music hall,” she recalled in 1998. “The songs they played me on that first day were wonderfully reminiscent. They had that knock-down, drag-out quality of the good old vaudeville songs and I loved them!” Andrews was still unsure, wanting to return to London to give birth, but Walt assured her that they would wait for her, and also offered Walton a job as a designer on the film.

There was another issue, as well as the pregnancy, that weighed on Andrews’ mind. Following the success of ‘My Fair Lady’, Warner Bros studio head Jack Warner had bought the film rights, and was setting up the film as a major production. While her co-star Rex Harrison had been announced to reprise the role of Henry Higgins in the film, there had been no news as to whether the same would happen for Andrews. In the end, Warner decided that she didn’t have the star power to carry the film, and the role of Eliza Doolittle was offered to Audrey Hepburn. With the matter of ‘My Fair Lady’ settled, Andrews finally agreed to play Mary Poppins, but now had one more hurdle to jump - P.L. Travers. The author insisted on having her say in the casting, and after speaking with Andrews over the phone, gave her blessing, remarking, “Yes, yes, you’ll do. You’re too pretty, of course, but you’ve got the nose for it.”

Dick Van Dyke and Chita Rivera during the cast album recording of ‘Bye Bye Birdie’, 1960

It was through television and Broadway that Walt also found his Bert. Actor and comedian Dick Van Dyke had become a staple of American lounge rooms with his hugely popular television show ‘The Dick Van Dyke Show’, and had also garnered great acclaim in his lead performance in ‘Bye Bye Birdie’ on Broadway in 1960-61. Walt reached out to Van Dyke, and the two men connected over their shared concern at the direction Hollywood was heading, leaning towards what they thought of as “dirty pictures”. It also helped that Van Dyke was an incredibly skilled mime and physical comedian, and despite an atrocious Cockney accent and concerns from Travers, was a perfect fit for the part. “Walt had rooms of storyboards that he showed me,” he remembered, “and his enthusiasm for the film grew as he spoke. He was like a kid, getting so excited about it that by the time I left him I was excited about it too. He had me sold. I wanted to be a part of that movie so much.”

‘Mary Poppins’ publicity photograph featuring (from left) Julie Andrews, Michael Garber, Karen Dotrice, David Tomlinson, Glynis Johns, Arthur Treacher, Hermoine Baddeley and Elsa Lancaster © Disney

Rounding out the rest of the cast were a superb collection of acclaimed British character actors, led by David Tomlinson as George Banks. Walt was determined to cast Glynis Johns as Winifred Banks, but Johns remarked that she could be convinced if she had a really good solo number. Walt improvised, saying that the Shermans had a really good number they would show her after lunch. In fact, they didn’t have a number at all, and frantically wrote one using music from a song they’d rejected. The result was the show-stopping ‘Sister Suffragette’. Another inspired piece of casting was Elsa Lancaster as Katie Nanna, most famous as the iconic Bride in ‘Bride of Frankenstein’ (1935). For the crucial roles of Jane and Michael Banks, Walt cast Karen Dotrice and Michael Garber, two young British child actors who had appeared together in another Disney production, ‘The Three Lives of Thomasina’ (1963).

In the meantime, the Sherman Brothers were looking for the perfect collaborator to bring their music to life. After their experiences on ‘The Sword in the Stone’, the Shermans had decided to compose both the songs and the score, but didn’t have the skills to orchestrate them for a musical film of this scale. They began listening to popular Broadway cast albums, and eventually settled on Irwin Kostal, who had recently worked on the Oscar-winning film adaptation of ‘West Side Story’ (1961). Their choice would elevate the music of ‘Mary Poppins’ to something truly extraordinary, Kostal crafting their music into a rambunctious, energetic and incredibly beautiful score. “When I do a picture,” he remarked, “...I try to use the songs as much as possible. You should try and incorporate it into the kind of background music you write.”

‘Mary Poppins’ concept art for Cherry Tree Lane by Tony Walton © Disney

The film would be entirely shot on the studio backlot, so the task fell to the production design team, including Tony Walton, to bring Edwardian London to life. They approached it with a very specific design aesthetic in mind, that it should look more like a Broadway musical than a realistic recreation of the period. To fill out the scale of the city, artist Peter Ellenshaw created over 100 extraordinary matte paintings for the film, used extensively throughout.

Filming on ‘Mary Poppins’ began on the 6th og May 1963, and the enthusiasm throughout the production was palpable. Disney had never made a live-action film of this scale before, let alone a musical, and yet by all accounts, the shoot went without significant dramas. For the enormous dance sequences, Dick Van Dyke recommended choreographers Dee Dee Wood and Marc Breaux, who would put their skills to the test creating some of the more complex and energetic dances on film. Andrews was concerned that her inexperience with film would put her at a disadvantage, but thanks to the care and patience of veteran Disney director Robert Stevenson, she began to light up every frame she was in. During production, she kept a constant correspondence with P.L. Travers, assuring her that all was well and the film was turning into something special.

As well as it was going, there were still a number of unknowns. As always, Walt was determined to push the boundaries and offer audiences something they had never seen before, and this meant pushing special effects technology to new limits. It was all well and good to write about jumping into chalk drawings and walking on clouds and flying with an umbrella. But how on earth would you actually do it on screen?

During a story meeting on the ‘Jolly Holiday’ sequence, Don DaGradi threw in the idea that Mary and Bert could be served by a troupe of waiters. Walt’s eyes lit up. “I have a better idea,” he said. “What if they were penguins?” This was the moment where the decision to combine live-action and animation in ‘Mary Poppins’ was born, a decision that, while not groundbreaking in conception, would be in its execution.

Disney had broken ground with their optical printing techniques to combine the two elements on ‘The Three Caballeros’, but by the time ‘Mary Poppins’ had entered production, that process was nearly 20 years old. A more sophisticated method was needed, and once again, Ub Iwerks came to the rescue. He had been looking into a new sodium vapour process, an adaptation of the chroma key or bluescreen method which had been developed by RKO in the 1930s. The principle was essentially the same, with actors filmed in front of a white screen lit with powerful sodium vapour lights whose yellow tint did not register on the colour spectrum for the red, green or blue layers of Technicolor film, but this offered a more reliable image than bluescreen was able to produce at the time. While there was inevitably colour bleed and loss of edge detail with bluescreen, the sodium vapour process required less re-exposure during the matte process that combined the elements together.

Diagram demonstrating the sodium vapour camera process

The camera was fitted with a beam-splitter prism, which captured the image on two separate strips of film. One preserved the red, blue and green layers while eliminating the yellow from the sodium vapour lights, while the other was a fine-grain black-and-white film that was extremely sensitive to it. This meant that there were no restrictions on the production in what colours they could use for costume, make-up and props. The level of detail also allowed for finer textures, such as the veil on Mary’s hat.

Both the bluescreen and sodium vapour processes were developed by American engineer and inventor Wadsworth E. Pohl. Sodium vapour was first used for the Arthur J. Rank Organisation film ‘Plain Sailing’ in 1956, and as with any new technology, soon caught the attention of Disney. Ub Iwerks purchased the rights to the process for $250,000, and along with Pohl and fellow engineer and inventor Petro Vlahos, began developing the technique further for ‘Mary Poppins’. It would be the most extensive and high profile use of sodium vapour until that point.

When the cast of ‘Mary Poppins’ stepped onto the soundstage to begin filming the animated sequence, they were met with the unusual sight of a piece of scenic floor and a large mustard-yellow screen. In any behind-the-scenes footage of the sequence, the yellow screen is simply empty black space, as the camera isn’t capturing the sodium vapour light, but in still photographs, you can see the large bright screen behind them. Because of the technology, it took far longer to film these scenes than usual, and it was to the film’s great advantage that the sequence would be driven by two experienced stage actors accustomed to using their imaginations. Karen Dotrice and Michael Garber required a bit more help. “Because the special effects were filled in later,” remembered Dotrice, “we had these large, sweaty props guys in braces dancing about with cutout horses and penguins to show us what was going on. They both had to try very hard not to cuss in front of us children.”

Dick Van Dyke and Julie Andrews filming the animated sequence © Disney

The problem was that, a lot of the time, they weren’t entirely sure what they were supposed to be reacting to. Director Robert Stevenson had storyboarded the sequence, but though such a sequence would today be carefully planned in advance with the visual effects animators before filming, Walt instructed Stevenson not to worry about the animation while he was filming, perhaps concerned that doing so would impede Andrews and Van Dyke from giving free and spontaneous performances. This made an already difficult assignment for the animation staff all the more so.

‘Mary Poppins’ rough pencil animation by Frank Thomas © Disney

Walt called on the best of the best for the animated sequence in ‘Mary Poppins’, with veteran Hamilton Luske directing, and many of the Nine Old Men called on to animate. There isn’t a lot of information about how the scene was realised, though by all accounts, the lack of planning on-set made the process a difficult one. “The animators would fuss and complain and call a few names,” remembered Frank Thomas and Ollie Johnson, “but in the end he would become more inventive and more entertaining than he would have been if everything had been made easy for him. No animator ever would back away from such a challenge. Walt knew that, too.” For the centrepiece moment where Bert dances with the penguin waiters, Frank Thomas achieved the extraordinary, working with the flailing spontaneity of Van Dyke as he danced with no-one and giving the illusion that every step was considered with the penguins in mind.

Iwerks was also working on a solution to a problem presented by the Xerox process. By the time ‘Sleeping Beauty’ had entered production, the inkers were using a wide spectrum of colours for their tapered lines, but colour hadn’t been something the Xerox machine was capable of replicating. For ‘Mary Poppins’, Iwerks had been able to solve this problem, but only to a point. The process could now accommodate for coloured lines, but only one at a time, which meant that a single cel needed to be printed with multiple layers depending on the number of colours used. If a certain colour wasn’t possible or if the cel was no longer able to accommodate any more layers, the small remaining staff of inkers would do it by hand.

‘Mary Poppins’ production cel © Disney

Recording the vocals for the sequence became a labour of love for the entire ‘Mary Poppins’ production team, with many of the crew lending their voices and musical skills to the many characters that Mary, Bert and the children meet in the chalk drawing. For ‘Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious’, Richard Sherman can be heard playing the kazoo, and Julie Andrews plays one of the Cockney singers.

This barely scratches the surface of the remarkable visual and practical effects used on Mary Poppins, including tipping gimbals and wires for the visit to Uncle Albert or a set of spongy stairs for the climb up the clouds. In many cases, Karen Dotrice and Michael Garber weren’t shown how the effects would work before filming, so many of their reactions in the film (including Mary pulling impossible objects out of her carpetbag) were their genuine reactions of surprise on set. Walt took a keen interest in the effects in the film, and was insistent that no trick should be used too often or in quick succession to prevent the audience from guessing how it was done. Even after nearly sixty years, many of the magical moments in ‘Mary Poppins’ still dazzle the imagination, whether you know the means of the artifice or not, simply because of the well-considered and ingenious way in which they are all executed.

Rather than relieved, Walt Disney was strangely unnerved by how well production was progressing on ‘Mary Poppins’. “As the original ‘Mary Poppins’ budget of $5 million continued to grow,” he later remembered, “I never saw a sad face around the entire studio and this made me nervous. I knew the picture would have to gross $10 million for us to break even. But still there was no negative head-shaking. No prophets of doom. Even Roy was happy. He didn’t even ask me to show the unfinished picture to a banker. The horrible thought struck me - suppose the staff had finally conceded that I knew what I was doing?”

Theatrical Poster, 1964 © Disney

Everyone was sure the film would work, especially once it entered post-production after its 105-day shoot, but to calm his nerves, Walt reached out to exhibitor David Wallerstein, who he thought had a good instinct for what would work. After watching a cut of the film, Wallerstein assured Walt that it would be “a tremendous success.”

While ‘Mary Poppins’ was in production, one of Disney’s strongest allies was in tremendous financial trouble. The Chouinard Art Institute had been a stepping stone for many artists into the company, but the school was now in financial trouble. The school’s founder Nelbert Chouinard, who was now in her 80s and fearing the school would need to be closed, came to Walt to ask for help. He sent over the studio’s accountants, who found that over $20,000 had been stolen from the school over many years. Walt made it his mission to save the school, and conceived of an ambitious solution. He suggested merging the Chouinard Art Institute with the equally struggling Los Angeles Conservatory of Music. In 1962, the two institutions merged to form the California Institute of the Arts, or CalArts. Before the film began at the premiere, Walt took to the stage with CalArts trustees chairman Lulu Van Hagen to present a short film on the school, ‘The CalArts Story’.

The premiere of ‘Mary Poppins’ was set for the 27th of August 1964 at Grauman’s Chinese Theatre. The elite of Hollywood was invited to the event, but one person who wasn’t invited was Mary Poppins’ creator, P.L. Travers. It was perhaps assumed that she would rather have attended the London premiere, but Travers took it upon herself to secure an invitation from a Disney executive and wrote to Walt, telling him to expect her on the night.

Julie Andrews, Walt Disney and P.L. Travers at the premiere of ‘Mary Poppins’, 27th August 1964 © Disney

The critical response to ‘Mary Poppins’ was universal and ecstatic. Almost every aspect of the film was praised, from Andrews’ debut film performance to the lavish sets and the raucous dance sequences. “For the visual and aural felicities they have added to this sparkling colour film,” wrote Bosley Crowther in the New York Times, “the enchantments of a beautiful production, some deliciously animated sequences, some exciting and nimble dancing and a spinning musical score—make it the nicest entertainment that has opened at the Music Hall this year.” “You have made a great many pictures,” Samuel Goldwyn wrote to Walt, “that have touched the hearts of the world, but you have never made one so wonderful, so magical, so joyous, so completely the fulfilment of everything a great motion picture should be as ‘Mary Poppins’.”

Audiences were likewise captivated by the film, and in its initial theatrical run, the film made an astonishing $32 million at the domestic box office, the most of any Disney production at that time. It was even shown in Moscow at the Sports Palace, specially converted into a cinema to accommodate for the eight thousand viewers at each of the two special screenings. ‘Mary Poppins’ was achieving something almost no Disney film had since ‘Snow White’ - almost unanimous critical and commercial acclaim. And it was about to do one better.

‘Mary Poppins’ was nominated for thirteen Academy Awards, one below the record set by ‘All About Eve’ in 1950. They included Best Actress for Julie Andrews, Best Director for Robert Stevenson, Best Score and Best Song for the Sherman Brothers, a bevvy of production and technical awards and, most importantly for Walt, the first Best Picture nomination for Walt Disney Productions. In the end, the film would win four Oscars - Best Score, Best Song, Best Editing and Best Actress for Julie Andrews. Much has been made of the reasoning behind Andrews’ award, gossip suggesting that she won, not because of her performance in ‘Mary Poppins’, but because of the revelation that Audrey Hepburn had been dubbed by singer Marni Nixon in ‘My Fair Lady’. A battle between the two actors was sold to the public and the industry, even to the cruel extent that Hepburn was not even nominated for her extraordinary performance in ‘My Fair Lady’, but the conflict was entirely invented, and the two women would remain friends for the rest of Hepburn’s life. Capping off the film’s Oscar success was a special award for Ub Iwerks, Wadsworth E. Pohl and Petro Vlahos for their work with the sodium vapour process.

Walt was disappointed about not winning Best Picture, losing to ‘My Fair Lady’, but for him, this was further proof of his place as an outsider in Hollywood. “Knowing Hollywood, I never had any hopes that the picture would get it”, he wrote to Julie Andrews in April 1965. “As a matter of fact, Disney has never actually been part of Hollywood, you know. I think they refer to us as being in that cornfield in Burbank.” It would be the only Best Picture nomination for the studio in his lifetime, an achievement that would not be repeated until 1991.

And then there was P.L. Travers. As she had been during the development of the film, Travers was contradictory in her opinion of the film. At the afterparty, she approached Walt and insisted on further changes to the film, such as removing the animated sequence she had consistently objected to. “Pamela, that ship has sailed,” he replied. For the most part, Travers seemed to be unhappy with the final film, writing to her lawyer Arnold Goodman, “As chalk is to cheese so is the film to the book... Tears ran down my cheeks because it was all so distorted... I was so shocked that I felt I would never write - let alone smile - again!” That very same day though, she wrote to Walt that the “whole picture was a splendid spectacle, and I admire you for perceiving in Julie Andrews an actress who could play the part.” For Pamela Travers, Mary Poppins was a deeply personal creation, one that she would continue to grow and develop for the rest of her life, and in hindsight, it makes sense that she should have been so conflicted about the film. In the 1980s, she would return to Disney to help develop a potential sequel to the film, but this project never eventuated in her lifetime.

‘Mary Poppins’ remains one of the crown jewels of the Walt Disney Company, beloved by critics and audiences just as emphatically today as it was in 1964. Its sweet and saccharine tone speaks directly to the heart of everything the company and its creator represents, both the stability of the family and the joyous anarchy of the imagination, and where other films collapse under the weight of their sentimentality, it is so genuine and heartfelt in ‘Mary Poppins’ that it somehow elevates it. There’s an unexpected emotional power to the film, especially when it shifts from childhood abandon to the careful importance of growing up to be the best person you can. “Despite the emphasis on childhood release,” wrote Neal Garber in his biography on Walt, “Disney’s best movies had only secondarily been concerned with liberation; his chief concern had always been maturation and the power that accompanied it.”

‘Mary Poppins’ limited edition commemorative print by Peter Ellenshaw © Disney

‘Mary Poppins’ was one of the biggest successes Walt Disney had ever experienced, certainly enough to rival the legendary release of ‘Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs’. He and his collaborators had poured everything they had learned at the animation desks and in the sweatbox sessions into the film, and for the first time in a very long time, they could look at the work they had done with collective pride.

Back in the animation department, work had begun on their next animated feature film. Once again, Bill Peet was leading the team through an adaptation of a great literary classic, one that would build on the confidence they had developed with the Xerox process on ‘One Hundred and One Dalmatians’ and elevate it to even greater heights. They were deep into the jungles of India, where a boy raised by wolves and mentored by animals must leave the safety of home and family to discover who he is meant to be.

Walt could feel a new creative energy beginning to build, energy he was not only directing into plans into an ambitious new amusement park and futuristic city complex in Florida, but back into the animated films he had neglected for so long. Just over two years later, that energy would come to a sudden crashing end.

Robert Sherman later recalled that, after work on a Friday, Walt Disney would often invite the Sherman Brothers back to his office. Towards the end of the evening, he would simply say to Richard, “Play it.” And Richard Sherman would sit at the piano and play “Feed The Birds”, Walt’s favourite song from any of the films he had made. He would stand there quietly, looking out the window as he listened. One evening, when Richard had finished playing, Walt whispered under his breath, “Yep. That’s what it’s all about.”

The 1980 U.S. VHS release, the 1993 US Exclusive Archives Collection laserdisc, the 1998 U.S. DVD release, the 2004 U.S. 40th Anniversary Edition DVD release, the 2009 U.S. 45th Anniversary Edition DVD release and the 2013 U.S. 50th Anniversary Edition Blu-ray.

  • ‘Mary Poppins’ made its home entertainment debut on VHS, Betamax, CED and LaserDisc in 1980.
  • The film was subsequently re-released in VHS a further ten times until 2004, twice as part of the Walt Disney Masterpiece Collection. It was also released as part of the Exclusive Archives Collection on LaserDisc in 1993.
  • ‘Mary Poppins’ was the first Disney film released on DVD in March 1998. It was again released in July 2000 as part of the Gold Collection, this time including a small selection of special features.
  • In December 2004, a two-disc 40th Anniversary DVD was released, featuring a much larger collection of special features. The DVD also included an Enhanced Home Theatre Mix with improved fidelity and some sound effects replaced to make it sound more “modern”. The original track was also included.
  • For the 45th anniversary, another two-disc DVD was released in January 2009, with new special features but with the Enhanced Home Theatre Mix not included.
  • ‘Mary Poppins’ made its Blu-ray debut for its 50th anniversary in December 2013, featuring a new restoration, some new special features (including material on the stage adaptation) and carrying over much of the material from the 45th Anniversary DVD.
  • The film is available on Disney+.

The Silver Age of Disney animation comes to an end with the ecstatic triumph of ‘The Jungle Book’.

© 2011 - 2024 SWITCH.
All rights reserved

Support SWITCH | Disclaimer | Contact Us!