Walt Disney and the Fight for Mary Poppins
Many writers and critics have suggested that the Disney Studios has cultivated such a rarefied image of Walt Disney that some people think of him as just a character -- like Betty Crocker or Aunt Jemima. While Walt was quite a character, he was also very much a real human being, and until the end of his life he stayed involved in individual projects throughout the company.
One of the last projects Walt was directly and heavily involved with at the studios was Mary Poppins, the story of a magical British nanny who brings a family together. The film -- a sort of labor of love for Walt -- became a hit with critics and the public alike and went on to win five Academy Awards.
Walt had his eye on the original novel as a project for the studio for two decades, when he first spotted his daughter Diane reading it. In his excellent biography of Walt, Walt Disney: An American Original, Bob Thomas picks up the story:
Walt read the book and recognized immediately that it was Disney material. The author, P. L. Travers, didn't agree. She was an Australian lady who had lived in England and had taken her son to New York to escape the London Blitz of World War II. Walt asked Roy, who was going to New York in early 1944, to call on Mrs. Travers and express the company's interest in acquiring the Mary Poppins stories.
Walt followed up Roy's visit with a letter to Mrs. Travers inviting her to visit the studio and discuss what kind of production she had in mind. She remained interested but noncommittal. That continued to be her attitude over the years... It was not until 1960 that Mrs. Travers finally agreed to deal with the Disneys. By this time, Walt's eagerness for the property had grown so acute that he paid an extraordinary price: he gave her approval of the screen treatment.
Mrs. Travers made two journeys to Burbank to view the storyboards for Mary Poppins. She objected to many of the liberties that had been taken with her characters, and adjustments had to be made. Walt Disney exercised his own considerable powers of persuasion to win Mrs. Travers's approval. By the time she returned to England, she seemed convinced that the Disney innovations had originated in her own books.
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