As you may have heard, Disney is going ahead with the movie about the making of Mary Poppins — “Saving Mr. Banks.” Tom Hanks is playing Walt Disney, Emma Thompson is playing Pamela Travers, the original book’s author.
They have also cast wonderful actors to play the Sherman Brothers. Jason Schwartzman is portraying my Uncle Richard and BJ Novak was just cast to play my late father, Robert B. Sherman. Pretty brilliant choices all around.
Many people have been asking me what I think about all this.
As many of you know, I got a chance to read a draft of this screenplay several months ago now and had issues with it. The script was full of inaccuracies that run afoul of mere poetic license. I lived through that period and recall it and the people involved very well. Of course, I intimately know my lovely late father and my uncle.
I was privileged to hear all of those wonderful songs before just about anyone. Some of my fondest memories were those acetate demos right after dinner. Those times I’d go to their office and Dick would sing me something new and they’d both watch my face for a response.
Dad read my sister Laurie and me the Mary Poppins books. They were good, but kind of creepy, too. Dad, though, was enthusiastic, his mind was racing, his eyes seeing all of the amazing magic as he excitedly told us some of his ideas of how he could adapt these episodic stories and weave them into a musical, moving film. I saw Dad step into his stride during the Poppins years, really feeling he was connecting and creating something magnificent with his brother, Walt Disney, Bill Walsh, Don DaGradi, Irwin Kostal and the other great minds involved.
I saw his highs, I saw his lows. This was his chance to truly merge his songwriting, poetic and story-telling skills.
"A man has dreams of walking with giants
To carve his niche in the edifice of time…”
Dad felt he was walking with giants at this time. He was a deeply humble and shy man, so this wasn’t an ego thing. He never really sought the limelight. Dad felt such deep respect for those artists around him and felt respected and safe and encouraged by them to open and shine, himself; contribute and convey in his own words — real and created — his heartfelt wisdom and philosophies on family, love, understanding, compassion, charity and, I think most importantly, the challenges parenthood. These were hard-learned lessons for him and he poured his soul into helping adapt the screen story and co-create the timeless song score.
"Before the mortar of his zeal has the chance to congeal,
The cup is dashed from his lips,
His flame is snuffed aborning
He’s brought to rack and ruin in his prime.”
I never actually met the “colorful” Mrs. Travers, but I did hear all about her at the time. In making “the boys: the sherman brothers’ story” with my cousin Gregg, we waded through the hours and hours — painful hours of tapes recorded at their couple weeks’ meetings with Travers at Disney Studios that are the basis of “Saving Mr. Banks.” Bear in mind, the script, the songs, the entire movie was fully developed and storyboarded and ready to go by the time the author flew in on her broomstick, but Mrs. Travers still had to grant the rights.
Truly, listening to those meetings was more than enough of that nutcase for me. I was so impressed by how my Dad, especially, kept his patience with the strange, clueless, vile woman and steadfastly tried to win her over though his passion, intellect and reasoning. She was a shrew and insulting and had nothing at all positive to say about anything they graciously presented. Her endless montra, “No-no-no-no-no-no-no” — even at hearing the brilliant story arc they created, the now-classic music and lyrics.
"My world was calm, well-ordered, exemplary
Then came this person with chaos in her wake
And now my life’s ambitions go
With one fell blow
It’s quite a bitter pill to take…”
Travers was a bully and nasty at that. She famously wanted “Greensleeves” to replace key songs and insisted the color red be nowhere in the film. This is also the eccentric woman who told my Dad that the way she got inspired to work was to take a pad out into her garden, sit in the tall grass and rotate in the grass until the feeling hit her.
My dog does that too, by the way.
Travers didn’t get it then and, I assure you, she never understood nor appreciated how my Dad and Dick and the others at Disney had passionately spent years, given arguably their finest work to develop “Mary Poppins” into the classic it eventually became. To boost her relatively obscure book into a household name.
Back to “Saving Mr. Banks.”
The Pamela Travers conceived by the screenplays writers is made to be a sort of hero. In the draft I read, at least, she comes up for key story and song notions I absolutely know were my father and uncle’s contributions. She points out that they’d better write a song about that bird woman, pointedly mentions flying kites and a spoonful of sugar. The screenplay suggests that, somehow, by “saving” her precious story from the hands of the bumbling songwriting brothers and their cartoon-making boss, setting them all straight, she will in some sense “save” her own deplorable, drunken loser father who, according to these screenwriters, was the entire basis for her “Mary Poppins” book.
For those of you who’ve read Travers’ original book, the ‘father’s responsibility to his family’ concept is nowhere to be found. That was my father’s and uncle’s added theme. So was the prayer for charity that is “Feed the Birds.” The kites were an ode to my Grandfather, Al Sherman, and his simple, inexpensive way of bringing family together. Yes, a man must work hard, but his first responsibility is to his family. Mary and Bert both get that across, singing and speaking my father’s words. All it takes is tuppence, just a spoonful of sugar.
With my Dad passing only a few months ago, it’s especially difficult to see, in “Saving Mr. Banks,” his genius and his legacy arbitrarily handed over to someone who, in truth, was bitter and demeaning and sought to stop him from sharing these gifts. The script also has Mrs. Travers making a snide quip about my Dad’s wounded leg and his limp. Those of you who’ve seen “the boys” know that my father was a World War II hero that, at 17, helped drive the Nazis out of Europe. He was shot in the knee charging a hill — a week after he liberated Dachau concentration camp. He was only 19 then.
Two years younger than my son, Alex. I can’t even imagine that kind of bravery. What an amazing man. He’s not here now to defend himself against this outrageous slight, so I am speaking out for my Dad.
I have expressed my feelings to the higher ups at Disney and, hopefully, these most blaring wrongs have been corrected. I would love to see a great movie about this time that correctly tells the story. It’s wonderful enough without fudging the facts, believe me. “Mary Poppins,” the movie and now the stage play, are a cultural phenomenon, in part due to PL Travers’ books, in part due to Walt Disney, the Sherman Brothers, the screenwriters, the actors, the dancers and the other artists involved.
Mrs. Travers did not “save” the movie with her stubbornness and insight, though, as this storyline suggests. She finally sold out her rights to Walt because of his persistence and because she needed the money.
Ironically, after the enormous success of the film and song score, she wrote additional Poppins books and even named one chapter “Supercalifragiliticexpialidocious” — a word my late Dad and Uncle created.
As I’ve written before, my Dad was an amazing father, first and foremost. He always embraced the message of their version Mary Poppins and, especially, the pivotal song he wrote (“A Man Has Dreams”) where Bert cleverly turns Mr. Banks to see, work is important, but family comes first.
"You’ve got to grind, grind, grind at that grindstone
Though childhood slips like sand through a sieve
And all too soon they’re up and grown
And then they’ve flown
And it’s too late for you to give…
Just that spoonful of sugar to help the medicine go down,
The medicine go down
Medicine go down
Just a spoonful of sugar to help the medicine go down…
…Well, goodnight there, guv’nah”
Dad was always there for me, so I will always be here for him and I’ll honor and defend his memory. So will his and Dick’s timeless words and music.