Before the movie Mary Poppins, there were the beloved books about the nanny who swept in on an east wind to care for the Banks children at No. 17 Cherry Tree Lane, London.
As dreamed up by author P.L. Travers, Mary Poppins arrived with the umbrella, carpetbag and starched white apron familiar to many more millions from the Disney film that would come later — but she was not the bright, cheery Julie Andrews of the movie. And therein lies the story behind Saving Mr. Banks, in which Emma Thompson portrays Travers and Tom Hanks takes on the role of Walt Disney.
So desperately did Disney want to make Mary Poppins that he pursued Travers for years in the effort to secure the film rights. But P.L. — or Pamela Lyndon — Travers feared the Disneyfication of her character.
Still, in 1961 she traveled from London to Los Angeles, where she spent two weeks meticulously going over every detail of the Mary Poppins script.
What motivated Travers was a heartfelt desire to protect her version of Mary Poppins. She had emerged from a youth that was both magical and troubled; she had a father she adored but a girlhood that could have benefited from a nanny just like the one she'd later create.
"She had a very difficult upbringing, in the sense that her father was an alcoholic and her mother tried to commit suicide," Thompson says. "So her childhood was full of earthquakes and tremors, uprootings both physical and emotional."
Thompson and Hanks sat down with NPR's Renee Montagne to talk about the film in an old bungalow at the very same studios in Burbank where Travers and Disney first met.
On how Disney was a part of their childhoods
Hanks: Well at the time that it really mattered, it was [the Sunday night television show] Walt Disney's Wonderful World of Color. And we did not have a color television set until much later than everybody else did, and so I remember where I was. My parents had taken me to some friends of theirs, and I was relegated to the downstairs rec room. And I had at my disposal, on a Sunday night, a color television, and saw for the first time Tinkerbell come out and go "dink, dink, dink" with those fireworks. And it was blue and red — I thought it was magical. I could not believe.
And then what kicked in? A song by Richard and Robert Sherman: [sings] "The world is a carousel of color, wonderful, wonderful color." And so it was a staple of Sunday nights. It was magical to sit and watch Walt Disney's Wonderful World of Color.
Thompson: You have to remember that around this time I was being brought up by a man who was writing a children's program in which he used phrases like, "Hoist with your own petard." He'd have just been so pissed off by Walt Disney and Tinkerbell, my father.
On P.L. Travers' abhorrence at the idea of a Disneyfied Poppins
Thompson: I did understand, absolutely. If you read the books and then look at the film, you can see precisely why she objected. I mean, one of the gags about Mary Poppins was that she wasn't pretty but thought that she was and behaved as if she was — whereas Julie Andrews, of course, was exquisite. And actually P.L. Travers liked Julie Andrews a lot and thought she played it rather well. She was rather keen on her.
On when Travers and Disney met each other
Thompson: This man was expecting her to be delighted.
Hanks: Yeah, here you are, lucky you! You're meeting Walt Disney today!
Thompson: I think he probably felt that finally, when he got her on his turf, i.e., here to these studios — it is extraordinary to think that she walked down that lane over there that we're sitting right next to. [And] then this man, who could literally just charm the birds from the trees, just could not crack her. In fact, the more he tried to charm her, the more she resisted.
On the tapes that the real P.L. Travers made, recording her meetings with Disney staffers
Thompson: The tapes were hugely influential and helpful, because you can hear the distress in her voice. ... There's this noise in her. ... [She makes it] until you want to kill her. It's fantastically irritating. She was so defended and so blocked. And so you can hear the psychological tension; it's all written into the voice, as it were.
She objected to everything. She did absolutely insist at one point that there should be no red in the film, which is an insane stipulation to make. She was deeply irrational from time to time.
On Travers' desire to protect the character
Thompson: She had to make her own living, and the Mary Poppins books were not selling as well as they had, and she was in danger of losing her house in London. She needed the money. It's never very romantic, but that's what I like about it.
Hanks: The end result was still the movie that Disney wanted to make, part and parcel, without a doubt. It was probably — if she even hadn't been out there for those two weeks, they still would have made the movie as it comes out here. So whatever went down at the end of the day was something that — you surrendered. I mean, you know, Pamela Travers gave up at some point and just cashed the check.
On Disney's love of the story
Hanks: Particularly up to this point, Walt Disney did not put out anything that did not have his absolute imprimatur and affection. This might have been the last one. Mary Poppins was the last time it really had his fingerprints all over it. But he hadn't done anything that he didn't absolutely adore and love and think was magical up to that point. He believed heart and soul in everything that he put out prior to this. So this was, you know, a mission of love.
On what Travers and Disney would think of the actors' portrayals
Thompson: She would have liked the clothes, and I think she would have liked the attention, and the fact that the movie was sort of about her. She was quite self-important, really. I think probably more so than Walt, because, simply, she had less power than him. So I think that's what she would have liked about it.
Hanks: I think Walt would have said, "Boy, I wish I would have had days like that at the studio, because it looks like I'm sitting around doing almost nothing." Because what we should have had is five people in the room with me eating food and smoking cigarettes, pointing at stuff and trying to figure out storyboards and payoff schedules and construction permits. I'm sure he would have appreciated the suit and the mustache and whatnot, but I think he would say, "Hey, you don't seem to be working very hard there as Walt Disney."