Becoming Mary Poppins: P.L. Travers, Walt Disney, and the making of a myth

The story’s happy ending depends on a signal fact: the Banks children will no longer be brought up by servants. Henceforth, their own mother — corralled homeward through the beneficent intercessions of Mary Poppins — will do the job herself.

“Mary Poppins” advocates the kind of family life that Walt Disney had spent his career both chronicling and helping to foster on a national level: father at work, mother at home, children flourishing. —Caitlin FlanaganBecoming Mary Poppins: P.L. Travers, Walt Disney, and the making of a myth (The New Yorker)

Of course, the family name is “Banks” not “Suffragettes,” but I do think there’s some layered meaning in the fact that Mrs. Banks uses her “Votes for Women” sash on the kite that Mr. Banks built, and that as a family unit they get the kite in the air. She doesn’t throw away her aspirations, she transforms them.

When Mr. Banks upsets the masculine workaday world — first unintentionally by setting up a situation in which his son causes a run on the bank (the daughter doesn’t play any active role in that, as I recall), and then intentionally by invoking the children’s word (“supercalifragilistic”) and telling their joke (about the man with the wooden leg named Smith) — he makes a lasting impression, as we first see the elder Mr. Dawes laughing at the joke and the younger (but still grey-haired) Dawes blurting out “Daddy!” Later, all the board members are in the park, flying kites as Mr. Dawes Jr. relates his father’s happy death and offers Mr. Banks a promotion. This is, of course, a fantasy, but we can assume that Mr. Banks is entering a transformed working environment, where men are permitted to admit and celebrate their emotional attachments to their families.

Until almost the final moment of the film, Mr. Banks believes his banking career is over. He’s been humiliated, de-carnationed, his bowler smashed and his umbrella ruined before the board members of the Dawes, Tomes, Mousely, Grubbs Fidelity Fiduciary Bank. And instead of contemplating suicide, he’s reveling in the newfound joys of fatherhood.

Having said that, I can’t argue with this assessment of the plot:

Mr. Banks’s journey would provide the narrative arc of the film. The mother would be a matron who had lost sight of her most important calling: raising her children. She, too, would be transformed into a good mother (of the kind recognizable to an American audience in the early nineteen-sixties) through the offices of Mary Poppins, who would leave, never to return, once her work with the parents had been completed.

At any rate, the best part of this article is the chronicle of Walt Disney’s personal efforts to get the author of the Mary Poppins books to agree to Disney’s vision. (Note also that one of Travers’s objections to the movie was “How could dear, demented Mrs. Banks, fussy, feminine and loving, become a suffragette?” That complaint seems to work against Flanagan’s main point, that Disney’s artistic goal was to celebrate the traditional family that represented only pain for the creator of Mary Poppins, and while Flanagan buries that detail, she’s a responsible journalist for including it.)