Saving Mr. Banks: The Dark Side of Mary Poppins and Her Creator, the Abandoned Helen Goff/PL Travers

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Poppins Stories Change In Transition From Book to Film

Helen Lyndon Goff (later, P. L. Travers) was born in 1899, the daughter of an alcoholic, inept - some say "bamboozling" - banker who died when Helen was just seven years old. Not helping the tragedy is that Travers R. Goff was also Irish - Helen likely endured taunts about her drunken Irish roots.

Concensus of literary critics' opinions is that she spent the rest of her 96 years in search of a father figure and the luxury of being left alone.

Amateur psychoanalyses aside, Helen, who became P.L.Travers on stage as an actress, was likely a lonely and melancholy person during at least part of her life. One cannot accurately evaluate an unmet person, but that is my best guess. After all, writer-historian-analysts Patricia Cornwell and ML Trow both studied the possible identities for Jack the Ripper long after the deaths of all involved in the case and although each proposal sounds dead-on accurate, they settle on different suspects.

I do mention Mary Poppins and Jack the Ripper in the same paragraph. The literary character Mary Poppins is not quite as bad as the real Jack, whoever he was. Certainly, that statement is a form of hyperbole, but Mary Poppins in the books was not a nice personality. She was a cactus among women.

Helen's Mary Poppins in a series of eight books for children is not the sugar-sweet governess who makes the medicine go down more easily. She is negative, darkly brooding, and authoritarian. She does strange and mystical things. This Mary Poppins should have been the governess in the Tim Burton film Dark Shadows (2012), or a handmaiden to Corpse Bride (2005).

I do mention Mary Poppins and Jack the Ripper in the same paragraph. The literary character Mary Poppins is not quite as bad as the real Jack, whoever he was. Certainly, that statement is a form of hyperbole, but Mary Poppins in the books was not a nice personality. She was a cactus among women.

Helen's Mary Poppins in a series of eight books for children is not the sugar-sweet governess who makes the medicine go down more easily. She is negative, darkly brooding, and authoritarian. She does strange and mystical things. This Mary Poppins should have been the governess in the Tim Burton film Dark Shadows (2012), or a handmaiden to Corpse Bride (2005).

Mary Poppins, Full of Shadows

  • Video credit: moviemker on YouTube

    Recut of the Disney classic 'Mary Poppins' was made by Chris Rule, with assistance by Nick Eckert. Music "A Violent Attack" composed by Caine Davidson for 'An American Haunting'; "Stay Awake" written by Richard and Robert Sherman for Disney film.

The 1964 Poppins

Julie Andrews as Mary Poppins, a little sooty after an outing with chimney sweep Bert. Not afraid to get dirty for a friend.
Julie Andrews as Mary Poppins, a little sooty after an outing with chimney sweep Bert. Not afraid to get dirty for a friend. | Source

Why "Poppins"?

Mary Poppins is Mary who pops in when needed and pops out on the wind when no longer needed. Nanny McPhee arrived and left similarly, except she announced her leavings - she stayed near the families she helped, in the houses of adults who were once her charges as children. They loved having her come to stay.

Behave or Beware

Nanny McPhee: The Collected Tales of Nurse Matilda
Nanny McPhee: The Collected Tales of Nurse Matilda

The book adaptation and the old stories of Nurse Matilda on which the films Nanny McPhee and Nanny McPhee Returns are based.

 

Travers vs. Disney

Various sources claim that Walt Disney attempted to purchase the film rights to the first one or two Mary Poppins books anytime between 1938 through 1944.The film Saving Mr. Banks (2013) illustrates the animosity that increased between Mickey Mouse's poppa and the spinster Miss Travers. Critics criticize one another about their opinions as to which of the two adults acted more selfishly and childishly. Regardless, Travers was not invited to the premier of the 1964 film and was required to ask Walt Disney for permission to attend, according to legend.

The reality is that Disney was running a business and Tom Hanks portrays him in 2013 as trying to figure out in 1964 who and what Mary Poppins is to Miss Travers. I am not sure that Walt actually had time to do that. However, comments by Hanks in character in trailers indicate that Mary Poppins was an entity whose purpose it was to instruct George Banks in the proper ways and attitudes of child rearing; and, George Banks is a proxy for Travers's father, Mr. Goff, who drank too much and abandoned her through death.

Ms. Poppins may have been an amalgam of personality traits of several people, or she may have been based entirely on a relative who cared for the children after Goff's death. The magical and mystical aspects of the character - talking umbreallas and psychokinesis - are often elements that fill a lonely or abused or abandoned child, if the child has an imagination.

Consensus does seem to be that Poppins helped Helen and her siblings, through Helen's storytelling, survive a difficult childhood time. Emma Thompson portrays Miss Travers well, even looking as pinched in expression: and at this point, I recall that Emma Thompson portrayed the ugly magical nanny that becomes beautiful as children learn good habits in the film Nanny McPhee (2005, rated PG), tagline: Behave or Beware. In the Poppins books, Mary unfortunately does not become more likable.

In the 1964 G-rated Poppins film, Mary is almost always lovely, perky, and song-filled. A more accurate telling of the story would rate at least a PG, becoming what critics call a "hard PG" (approaching PG-13) ala the film Rango (2011) with Johnny Depp.

Saving Mr. Banks is a PG-13 film, providing room for more of the less attractive truth behind Mary Poppins, her creator, and the first film production.

Who Is Mary Poppins?

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Poppins Exposed in 2007

Mary Poppins: Anything Can Happen If You Let It (A Disney Theatrical Souvenir Book)
Mary Poppins: Anything Can Happen If You Let It (A Disney Theatrical Souvenir Book)

Huge friend of Travers and co-write of an unproduced sequel to the 1964 film, author Sibley offers unique insights into the eccentric author's complex relationship to her heroine.

 

Is P.L.Travers Mary Poppins?

The biography of P.L. Travers was written in 2005, about a decade after Helen died at age 96. It is based on her private papers that she left behind and did not destroy (see the reference box to the right).

One characteristic behavior or attitude of many people affected by the actions of alcoholics is the desire to "make or help them act right." This allows some folks to feel special because they also feel that they can control the alcoholic and his alcoholism - but who wants to control terminal cancer rather that to eliminate it? Alcoholism is as bad a curse.

Making the alcoholic "act right" often places the other person in a nasty authoritarian role or takes up all of a friendlier person's time.

So, is Helen really Mary Poppins, making things right in her books, because she could not do so in her life?

Does Mary Poppins of the 1964 film really save Mr. Banks (Mr. Goff).

These are complex issues.

Helen was angry when she saw the 1964 film, especially with the animated penguins (NO cartoons!). Thus, she refused to sell stage rights for a theatrical production to anyone except UK professionals (absslutely NO Americans!).

Cameron Mackintosh purchased the rights and produced a new musical adaptation of Mary Poppins beginning in 2004. A version in American in 2012 and 2013 has been very good as well as successful.

The stage adaptation shows clearly that George Banks, a banker, was tormented in his childhood by a cruel and nasty nanny. Perhaps in Saving Mr. Banks, we'll find out who that nanny was.

Looking for Mary Poppins

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Short Interviews and Scenes with Emma Thompson and Tom Hanks

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Comments 18 comments

Anita Saran profile image

Anita Saran 3 years ago from Bangalore, India

How eye-opening! Thanks for this.


Patty Inglish, MS profile image

Patty Inglish, MS 3 years ago from North America Author

Fascinating, isn't it? I wonder how many peope with dress like Mary Poppins this halloween?


rcorcutt 3 years ago

I am very interested to see a movie based on a hypothetical Mary Poppins written seriously.


NiaLee profile image

NiaLee 3 years ago from BIG APPLE

It is very interesting to have that information about Mary Poppins. I love the Disney version and it is almost a tradition in my original and my nuclear family... Nany Mc Phee seemed to be another version of the same character to me and you confirmed it. I never did that much research about the subject taking to face value and as a very pleasing and entertaining even enchanting moment the Disney movie because we all need some magic in our lives, some hope, so music... THANK YOU now I need to see Mr Banks!!!


Patty Inglish, MS profile image

Patty Inglish, MS 3 years ago from North America Author

I also am eager to see "Saving Mr. Banks" and wondering what surprising information it may contain. Now I also want to see the Nanny McPhee films (2) again.

Thanks for the new messages!


rcorcutt 3 years ago

I never saw the Nanny McPhee films. Because you are watching them again I take it they are worth watching?


tillsontitan profile image

tillsontitan 3 years ago from New York

I certainly want to see "Saving Mr. Banks". Having seen Mary Poppins and Nanny McPhee I think it would be very interesting as is this hub. We never really get the true story behind a lot of movies. (I dressed as Mary Poppins two years ago.)

Voted up, useful, and interesting.


Patty Inglish, MS profile image

Patty Inglish, MS 3 years ago from North America Author

I like the Nanny McPhee films better than the 1964 Mary Poppins, but the stage musical of Poppins is pretty good, with new musical numbers.

Mary Poppins may be popular this yar for costumes, given all the press!


Maren Morgan M-T profile image

Maren Morgan M-T 3 years ago from Pennsylvania

I read Mary Poppins long ago. She had little sympathy for foolishness and had great difficulty showing affection.


rcorcutt 3 years ago

I will check them out. Thanks.


Smireles profile image

Smireles 3 years ago from Texas

Wow! Thanks for taking the time to tell us about the books and the author. I have never even thought about this. Great research. Great writing. Great Hub! I did enjoy the fairytale quality of the Mary Poppins movie.


Patty Inglish, MS profile image

Patty Inglish, MS 3 years ago from North America Author

Maren Morgan M-T - That's a quite good description!

rcorcutt - I hope you like them; they are only G, but they give me a lift and some entertainment.

Smireles - Thanks for your kind words! It all seems quite controversial in the press, too. Maybe critics tried too hard to dig into Travers's life without one-on-one contact -- The biography has some pretty dicey information about possible romantic partners and her involvement with mysticism. I feel bad for Helen, and for all kids brought up in homes with alcoholism and other addictions.


Alexander Mark profile image

Alexander Mark 3 years ago from beautiful, rainy, green Portland, Oregon

This hub is simply amazing. I have never heard or read anything about Mary Poppins or her creator, but I did see the preview a few weeks ago for the Tom Hanks version and I got the feeling it would present an alternate, sugar-coated, what-could-have-been version of events like the movie, "IQ" about Einstein and his fictional niece and her romantic life, and it seems more likely now that I perceived that correctly. Honestly, I have always found the whole Mary Poppins thing to be weird - I thought that was because I didn't grow up with it as many have, but now I can see there is a basis for that feeling! Still, this is all very interesting and a bit sad, an eye opener.


Patty Inglish, MS profile image

Patty Inglish, MS 3 years ago from North America Author

@Alexander Mark - As soon as I saw the first trailer for "Saving Mr. Banks" with Emma Thompson as P. L. Travers, a gong chimed in my brain and I had to find out why. I do so hope the new film has good information!


MsDora profile image

MsDora 3 years ago from The Caribbean

Very interesting! What would be still more interesting is to have their actual voices helping us figure out themselves and their actions. Thank you for sharing this information.


drbj profile image

drbj 3 years ago from south Florida

The Disney version was my favorite, Patty, so I am looking forward to viewing the Hanks/Thompson version of Travers and Poppins. Thanks for your enticing synopsis.


Patty Inglish, MS profile image

Patty Inglish, MS 3 years ago from North America Author

I am anxious to see the Hanks/Thompson version as well. I agree it would be fortunate to find something written by Travers or Disney that would help solve the mystery.


Patty Inglish, MS profile image

Patty Inglish, MS 3 years ago from North America Author

I was fortunate enough to attend a press screening of this film about Mary Poppins and Helen Goff: "Saving Mr.Banks." It will break your heart and then mend it. Few realize what eperiences P.L. Travers and Walt Disney shared in their childhoods in different countries.

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