21 September 2014

Picture This: Toast and starchy aprons

My column for BLink this month:

Walt Disney spent 20 years trying to persuade PL Travers before she granted him film rights. Travers was certain they would sugarcoat the tough love that defined Mary Poppins.

Mary Poppins turned 50 this August. The Walt Disney film released on August 27, 1964, and was nominated for 13 Academy Awards that year, including Best Picture — an unsurpassed record for any Disney Studios release. It won five Oscars — Best Actress for Julie Andrews, Best Film Editing, Best Original Music Score, Best Visual Effects, and Best Original Song for Chim chim cher-ee — and has since been a universally loved classic. It was a video rental favourite in the ’80s, and its technicolour magic still seems to work on kids.

But though millions of children and adults-who-were-once-children now think of the pixie-faced Julie Andrews as the magical English nanny who came out of the sky and took charge of the Banks children, the original Mary Poppins was much sharper — and three decades older. PL Travers published the first book, titled simply Mary Poppins, in 1934. It was followed by Mary Poppins Comes Back (1935), Mary Poppins Opens the Door (1943), and five more, ending with Mary Poppins and the House Next Door (1988). Walt Disney, whose daughters apparently fell in love with the books, spent 20 years trying to persuade Travers before she granted him film rights. Even then, she only agreed because she needed money, and a single 
Disney adaptation could fetch her a sum many times that of the books’ earnings, no matter how popular.

John Lee Hancock’s wonderful Saving Mr Banks (2013), starring Emma Thompson and Tom Hanks, is based on Travers’ trip to Disney Studios to approve the adaptation. The interaction was rather fraught. Travers, like many writers, was innately suspicious of the cinema, and certain that Disney would sugarcoat the tough love that defined the Mary Poppins character. (She was right.) Also, Disney had only made animated films until then, and although, on Travers’ insistence, the film had real actors, she was forced to accept several animated creatures: the now (in)famous dancing penguins, but also talking turtles, singing farmyard animals and a whole hunting party. Hancock shows us otherwise, but Travers never came round to liking Disney’s chirpy, glamorous version of her books.

I watched the film as a child, but we didn’t own a copy of the film or a VCR. What I did own was a candy-striped paperback copy of Mary Poppins Opens the Door, which I read devotedly from cover to cover, many times. I went back to it this week and found that it had lost none of its charm. What makes Travers’ Mary Poppins so memorable is the fact that she combines intense magicality with redoubtable solidity. She might sail down from the sky on a rocket, but her foot that Michael grabs hold of is “warm and bony and quite real and smells of Black Boot-polish”. Later, when the children are being tucked into bed, they happily inhale her old familiar smell: “a mixture of toast and starchy aprons”.

Andrews was younger, prettier, and less convincingly haughty. No matter what she did, or how long a black skirt Disney might put her in, no child could imagine her smelling of starchy aprons or Black Boot-polish. The pert-nosed, twinkling-eyed Andrews couldn’t give a “disgusted sniff” or a “contemptuous stare”. And if you’d told the real Mary Poppins to go about singing songs, she’d have certainly given you an Ominous Look. But there again, Disney had his way — and for most people today, their strongest Mary Poppins memory is probably one of the infectious Sherman brothers songs that Travers tried so hard to resist.

But something strange and magical happens when you watch Saving Mr Banks. The brilliant Emma Thompson plays Travers with a hard shell, one that almost never cracks to reveal a vulnerable interior. It is a portrait that will remind anyone who knows the books of that long-lost uppity Mary Poppins. The hilariously hard-fought Travers-Disney battle is interspersed with moving forays into Travers’ memories of a childhood in Australia with an alcoholic father she adored and a mother oppressed by the demands of three wild children and a wayward husband who encouraged their dreaminess. The film is not so heavy-handed as to state anything firmly, but it does suggest that these things might have been filtered through the child’s consciousness, to emerge in the grown-up’s fictional account of a stressed household. Her father’s sense of imprisonment by money trouble, her mother’s exhaustion, are things that I can now read in the books. Here is Mr Banks complaining as he leaves for office: “When I think of the things I could have done if I hadn’t gone and got married! Lived alone in a Cave, perhaps. Or I might have gone Round the World.” “And what would we have done, then?” asked Michael. “You would have had to fend for yourselves. And serve you right!”

There’s plenty more to observe: the upper classes as cold and disconnected from their children, and the fact that the children learn life lessons from constables and zoo attendants. On the other hand, there is Travers’ automatic recourse to such words as Blackamoor, Hottentot and, yes, Hindoo to describe the blackness of the chimney sweep (who isn’t the chirpy Bert of the film). The original 1934 edition had the children go magically around the world, seeing Chinese, Eskimo, sub-Saharan Africans and Native Americans. Criticised for these ethnic types, Travers apparently responded by changing them into animals! The Americans did away with all that colonial political incorrectness. But they added much more than a spoonful of sugar. It’s kind of nice that other Americans are now telling us a bit of that story. Even if they still insist on a fake happy ending.

Published in the Hindu Business Line, 20th September 2014.

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