It’s been more than 50 years since the classic Disney film Mary Poppins was released, and it’s still as popular as ever. Disney fans are fascinated by what happened during the making of it, too. A film about its creation, Saving Mr. Banks, was released in 2013, but even that barely scratched the surface. What was going on behind the scenes of Mary Poppins as they adapted P.L. Travers’ book was almost as interesting, and sometimes just as delightful, as the movie itself.
20. Dick Van Dyke apologized for his bad cockney accent
The accent Dick Van Dyke adopted to play Bert has been the subject of much mirth over the years. And no one likes to mock it more than Van Dyke himself. When he collected a BAFTA award in 2017, he said, “I appreciate this opportunity to apologize to the members of BAFTA for inflicting on them the most atrocious cockney accent in the history of cinema.” But of course, it never hurt the movie’s success.
19. Lots of songs were deleted from the movie
The Mary Poppins songwriters, Richard and Robert Sherman, actually wrote more than 30 songs for the movie. A large number of them, of course, never saw the light of day. But a few were salvaged and recycled for use in other Disney movies. One called “Land of Sand” became “Trust in Me” from The Jungle Book, and another called “The Beautiful Briny” ended up in Bedknobs and Broomsticks.
18. Julie Andrews wasn’t the first choice for the lead role
It’s very hard to think of Mary Poppins without picturing Julie Andrews in the lead role. But that very nearly didn’t happen. At first, Walt Disney wanted to cast Broadway performer Mary Martin in the role, but she turned it down. He then considered Bette Davis and Angela Lansbury, but when he saw Andrews doing Camelot on Broadway, he decided she was the one.
17. Some tricks were kept secret from the child actors
The moviemakers deliberately kept Karen Dotrice and Matthew Garber, who played Jane and Michael Banks, in the dark about some special effects. That was so that their reactions to any “magic” would be genuine – and it worked. When the medicine given to Jane suddenly changes color, her squeal of awe is completely real.
16. The snowglobe in the film was almost lost
An intricate snowglobe features in the movie during the “Feed the Birds” scene, but unfortunately it was lost at some point. Luckily, Disney’s first archivist Dave Smith was able to track it down. He ended up finding it in a janitor’s closet, and the janitor told him that he originally found it in the trash but thought he couldn’t possibly dispose of something so beautiful.
15. Julie Andrews’s life was put in danger when a stunt went wrong
In 2017 Andrews appeared on The Late Show with Stephen Colbert and told a fascinating story. During one of her Mary Poppins flying scenes she thought she felt the wires, which were not up to standard, giving way. She told the crew to slowly lower her, but instead she “plummeted to the stage.” And she was livid. “There was an awful silence for a minute and I did let fly with a few Anglo-Saxon four letter words, I have to admit,” she said.
14. The kids got sick of eating toffee apples
Unlimited toffee apples might well be many children’s idea of heaven, but not so for Dotrice and Garber. “There were so many retakes of the Supercalifragilistic scene that we got sick of the toffee apples we were supposed to be eating,” Dotrice told The Guardian in 2013. “So the prop guys would let us order whatever flavor we wanted for the next day’s shoot. We got through raspberry, chocolate, even cinnamon, and then after two weeks just gave up.”
13. P.L. Travers called up Julie Andrews at an inopportune time
It took ages for P.L. Travers to sell the rights to Mary Poppins, and once she had, she was desperate that everything went as she wanted it. One of the few casting choices she didn’t object to was Andrews, and she called her up… while she was in the hospital. Andrews had just given birth the day before. But she took the call, and Travers informed her that while she was too pretty for the role, she was otherwise acceptable.
12. Dick Van Dyke insisted on playing Mr. Dawes as well
Although Dick Van Dyke was playing Bert, as soon as he read the script he decided that who he really wanted to be was Mr. Dawes, Sr. He was so keen to get the role he even offered to do it without payment. Eventually, Disney allowed him to play both parts, but only if he auditioned first and made a hefty donation to Disney’s film school CalArts.
11. David Tomlinson did the voices of some of the animated characters
Dick Van Dyke wasn’t the only person who played more than one role in the movie. David Tomlinson, the actor who portrayed Mr. Banks, also voiced some of the animated characters. He was the voice of a penguin, a jockey – and, most notably of all, the voice of Mary’s talking parrot-shaped umbrella handle.
10. Some of the nannies at the beginning are actually men
Near the beginning of the movie, Mary Poppins is seen dispersing a long queue of old nannies lining up outside the Banks house for the job interview. But a lot of those nannies weren’t actually women! Some of them were stuntmen dressed up in prim Victorian attire. But until it became possible to pause home movies, it was hard to tell…
9. Plaster casts had to be made of Dotrice’s and Garber’s bottoms
So that the two young children could levitate alongside Mary Poppins, a creative solution was found. Dotrice told The Independent about it in 1999. “[They had] plaster-casts made of our bums, to which the wires were attached. I thought it was fantastic, going to have your bum imprinted. It’s not quite Mann’s Chinese Theater, but it’s close,” she reminisced.
8. “A Spoonful of Sugar” was inspired by polio treatment
While Robert Sherman was working on Mary Poppins, his children all had medication given to them for polio. Sherman asked one of the children if it had hurt, thinking he’d been given a vaccine, but the child responded that the medicine was actually put on cubes of sugar so that children could swallow it. That inspired “A Spoonful of Sugar.” And even better, polio was all but eradicated by the time Mary Poppins celebrated its 50th birthday.
7. Matthew Garber was paid “extra” for filming the tea party scene
A lot of stunts were involved for Mary Poppins, and the children had to join in. Unfortunately, Matthew Garber was afraid of heights. This provided a problem, since the tea party scene was supposed to take place on the ceiling. Someone came up with the idea of paying Garber extra every time he needed to be high up. The extra? A whole ten cents!
6. Getting the robin to sing was a complicated affair
In one scene, Mary Poppins does the traditional Disney thing and sings to a cute bird. But the bird wasn’t real – it was controlled by a ring on Andrews’s finger, plus a whole lot of hidden cables that lead back to engineers. And to get the bird to “sing” back to her, Andrews simply provided the whistling herself.
5. The movie won more Oscars than any other Disney movie
Mary Poppins is still to this day the Disney film that won the most Oscars. It received 13 nominations overall, and ended up with five awards. The Sherman brothers got two for their songwriting, Andrews received the Best Actress Oscar, and the editing and special effects teams also went home happy.
4. Dick Van Dyke was hired after Disney heard him complain
In 2009 CNN asked Van Dyke how he ended up being cast in Mary Poppins. The answer was slightly unexpected. Walt Disney had, according to Van Dyke, seen an interview with him in which he was “decrying” the state of family entertainment. “That’s why he called me in, because I said something he agreed with. And I got the part.”
3. Julie Andrews delivered a burn when she accepted an award for the film
Andrews paused on doing Mary Poppins at first, because she wanted to be cast in the film version of My Fair Lady. But she was rejected in favor of Audrey Hepburn, because according to film producer Jack Warner she wasn’t photogenic enough. So Andrews took the role of Mary Poppins instead, and on winning a Golden Globe for her performance she thanked the man who “made all this possible in the first place – Mr. Jack Warner.” Ooooh.
2. Disney insisted that Jane Darwell play the Bird Woman
One of the most iconic scenes in Mary Poppins features the Bird Woman, a lady who feeds the birds around St Paul’s Catherdral. And Disney was absolutely adamant that the role be played by Oscar-winning actress Jane Darwell, even though she was in very poor health. He drove out personally to see her and convince her. Her voice was so weak that her one line had to be dubbed over, and it was her last screen appearance.
1. P.L. Travers hated the movie
The ending of the movie Saving Mr. Banks features P.L. Travers warming up to seeing her book adapted by Disney – and that movie is also a Disney one, so that’s only to be expected. But in reality Travers loathed Mary Poppins, and hated the changes Disney had made to her characters. She was so angry that she even included a note in her will banning any more American adaptations of her work. And yet the movie is still beloved!