Wednesday, 27 August 2014

Walt Disney's Mary Poppins's 50th Anniversary

It was 50 years ago today that the classic Walt Disney musical Mary Poppins premiered in Los Angeles, California. Upon its release the film proved to a phenomenal success. It grossed  $28.5 million, making it the top box office film for 1964. Mary Poppins was not simply a financial success, however, as it also received a good deal of critical acclaim. The film also received a number of awards, including five Oscars (it was nominated for a total of 13) and one BAFTA award among many others. Today it is not only regarded as a classic, but as one of the greatest musicals of all time.

The character of Mary Poppins originated in the 1934 novel Mary Poppins by poet, actress, and journalist P. L. Travers. Mary Poppins proved successful and was followed by another novel, Mary Poppins Comes Back, in 1935. Ultimately there would be six more Mary Poppins books, published from 1943 to 1988. With the success of the very first book P. L. Travers started receiving offers from movie executives for the film rights. For various reasons P. L. Travers turned down most of the offers to adapt Mary Poppins over the years. Eventually she did accept one, but it was not from the ever-persistent Walt Disney. Instead the offer she accepted was from the American network CBS-TV. Ultimately the network aired a live adaptation of Mary Poppins as an episode of their prestigious anthology show Studio One. The episode starred Mary Wickes as Mary Poppins and E. G. Marshall as George Banks. Julie Andrews was then not the first actress to portray Mary Poppins.

Of course, Walt Disney was among the number of movie executives eager to adapt Mary Poppins to film. It was in 1944 that his brother and fellow executive Roy Disney visited P. L. Travers about adapting the books as a motion picture. At the time Walt Disney would be rebuffed, but he remained persistent. On and off for the next sixteen years Mr Disney enquired about the rights to Mary Poppins. With the royalties to her books declining, it was in 1960 that P. L. Travers finally agreed to sell the film rights to Walt Disney.

To write the songs for the film Mary Poppins Walt Disney looked to brothers  Robert B. Sherman and  Richard M. Sherman. Over the years the Sherman Brothers (as they were collectively known) would not only write the songs for Mary Poppins, but those for many other Walt Disney films as well as songs for the Disney theme parks. For the all important role of Mary Poppins, Walt Disney cast actress Julie Andrews. Miss Andrews already had an extensive career on stage, having appeared in The Boy Friend and My Fair Lady. Walt Disney decided upon her when he saw her on Broadway in Camelot. For Julie Andrews there were only two problems with taking the role of Mary Poppins. The first was that she was three months pregnant at the time. Walt Disney told her that they could simply delay production until after she had the baby. The second was that Warner Bros. was producing a film adaptation of My Fair Lady. Julie Andrews had originated the role of Eliza Doolittle in My Fair Lady on both the West End and Broadway. It was possible, then, that she might be cast in the role for the film. Miss Andrews was concerned that she could back out of Mary Poppins if she was cast in the role of Eliza in the film version of My Fair Lady. As it turned out Jack Warner chose superstar Audrey Hepburn over Julie Andrews because Miss Andrews was not yet a household name. Walt Disney then had his Mary Poppins.

Mary Poppins proved to be an unqualified success upon its initial release. The film proved a huge success at the box office. As mentioned earlier, it became the highest grossing film of 1964 (ironically, among the films it out-grossed was the one for which Julie Andrews had been passed up, My Fair Lady). It also received overwhelmingly positive reviews. In The New York Times Bosley Crowther referred to it as "...the nicest entertainment that has opened at the Music Hall this year (the "Music Hall" to which he is referring is Radio City Music Hall--Terence)." In The Miami Times Herb Kelly wrote that Mary Poppins " everything one could ask for in the way of entertainment and Walt Disney's magic touch is everywhere."As mentioned earlier, Mary Poppins also won a number of awards, including quite a few Oscars.

Of course, while audiences and critics loved Mary Poppins, there was one very notable person who did not. Author P. L. Travers actually disliked the film and objected to many aspects of it. She was upset that the Mary Poppins in the film was a much cheerier character than the somewhat cold and intimidating nanny of her books. She also disliked the use of animation in the film, something to which she had objected from the very beginning. According to Richard Sherman, P. L. Travers even hated the songs in the film. P. L. Travers disliked the film adaptation of Mary Poppins enough that she left the premiere in tears. Afterwards she would never again allow any of the Mary Poppins stories to be adapted to the screen or television.

While P. L. Travers hated the film, it is clear from the past fifty years that many people have loved Mary Poppins. It is not only counted as one of Walt Disney's finest achievements, but among the greatest musicals of the Sixties. In a survey conducted in the United Kingdom  in 2009 by the biscuit/cookie brand Oreo, Mary Poppins topped the list of the best family films, beating out even The Wizard of Oz and Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory. The character of Mary Poppins ranked #41 in a list of the "100 Greatest Movie Characters" compiled by Empire magazine. In 2013 the Library of Congress selected Mary Poppins for inclusion in the National Film Registry. Over the years Mary Poppins has come to be regarded as a classic and there can be no doubt it will continue to be regarded as such for a long time to come.

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