Becoming Mary Poppins
September 2, 2006 6:22 PM   Subscribe

Becoming Mary Poppins - A look at the original author P. L. Travers, Walt Disney, and the differences therein. Via the New Yorker.
posted by loquacious (27 comments total) 7 users marked this as a favorite
She had script approval, and threw that power away.
posted by smackfu at 7:15 PM on September 2, 2006

In Joanthan Cott's Pipers at the Gates of Dawn, he reports that Travers was upset about the way Mary Poppins showed her petticoats in the movie — Travers felt that the very proper character wouldn't have ever done that.
posted by orange swan at 7:18 PM on September 2, 2006

Flanagan's essay is interesting and good, but I was more fascinated by The Columbia Journalism Review's interpretive essay about Valerie Lawson's contributions to the article as it appeared.
posted by cgc373 at 7:35 PM on September 2, 2006

I avoided Mary Poppins for more than a decade out of dread of an insipid, half-rotted sentimentality that had seemed to me the best Disney had generally been able to achieve in his children's films, and only saw it recently on video at the insistence of my mate.

I was completely unprepared for and considerably shocked at the dark eeriness spooling out before me on the tiny screen, an eeriness due partly to bare fewness of living members of the cast echoing around in a set which succeeded in giving the impression of the physical vastness of a city, but failed altogether to convey any sense of a vital population, so that it had almost a post-apocalyptic undertone, but due mostly to the characterizations developed by Julie Andrews and Dick Van Dyke.

Andrew's Mary Poppins was to me, seen from underneath in a child's eye view, an embodiment of the terrible and fascinating tripartite mother goddess-- crone, mother, and maiden by turns, bearer of Eve and Lilith, and of course a witch. Dick Van Dyke, whip-thin with that gigantic square perfect head, dancing around her in a frenzy which looked to have more to do with desperate lust and utter abandon than choreography, was her would be lover and victim, the embodiment of the phallus, the Corn King.
posted by jamjam at 8:23 PM on September 2, 2006 [7 favorites]

jamjam, you may be overthinking Mary Poppins just a bit. Not everything requires the excessive nonsense of an English graduate selling his soul for an assistant professor job at a second rate university.
posted by stavrogin at 8:30 PM on September 2, 2006 [4 favorites]

Adults bitching about mary poppins is equally stupid to adults bitching about star wars. It is a children's movie. When I was a child and saw the thing I adored it.
posted by bukvich at 8:59 PM on September 2, 2006

It's all about the Corn King.
posted by muckster at 9:00 PM on September 2, 2006 [1 favorite]

The only thing that makes that movie watchable for me is the sure and reassuring knowledge that every male cast member will soon be dead in a muddy ditch lacerated with german shrapnel.
posted by Riemann at 9:03 PM on September 2, 2006

bukvich : "Adults bitching about mary poppins is equally stupid to adults bitching about star wars. It is a children's movie."

Even if the adult bitching about it is the writer?
posted by Bugbread at 9:16 PM on September 2, 2006

Fascinating post! Thanks, loquacious!
posted by Lynsey at 9:20 PM on September 2, 2006

loquacious brings the appetizer, then comes jamjam's hearty gas-inducing entrée, followed by stavrogin's palate-cleansing aperitif. Wotta meal!
posted by rob511 at 9:34 PM on September 2, 2006

Adults bitching about mary poppins is equally stupid to adults bitching about star wars. It is a children's movie. When I was a child and saw the thing I adored it.

Did you even read the article?
posted by delmoi at 9:47 PM on September 2, 2006

jamjam may have overthought the phallic representation (now I'll never be able to get "Corn King" out of my head), but even as a child watching that flick umpteen times I thought the darkness, eerieness and emptiness were intentional.

Basically it was saying that Britain, well in the midst of the newer industrial revolution, was no place to raise a kid. A turn-of-the-century, pre-sandblasted London would look a little dark and eerie, especially to children, and the emptiness was just a Disney way of making it all look like a giant playground that the children thought they could take off and play in every time they wanted.

As for Banks, he symbolized Britain itself. He was as unaware of the turmoil in his proud patriarchy as the Empire was unaware of its impending downfall due to a couple World Wars, its own greed and sociopolitical shakeups at home ("Sister Sufragette" anyone?). All of this made it seem like the perfect time and place to set the story.

But, no, I never thought of Rob Petrie as a dancing dick.
posted by dgbellak at 11:02 PM on September 2, 2006

At ten I found the movie insipid. I had read the three books that were out at the time this movie had nothing to do with them. The imposter should choke on her god damn spoonful of sugar. Mary Poppins was a hard ass.
posted by pointilist at 11:35 PM on September 2, 2006

I would like to hear the tapes of Travers arguing with the Disney script boys.
The story meeting was punishing. It lasted more than a week, and consisted of the Sherman brothers trying to sell the Disney version, while Travers, whose youthful self-confidence had gathered over the years into an oppressive self-righteousness, interrupted, corrected, bullied, and shamed them. Like countless novelists in Hollywood, Travers sought to salvage every last detail from her original. The sessions were tape-recorded, and on the tapes you can hear Travers’s booming, imperious voice in terrifying counterpoint to the Sherman brothers’ chipper young voices. “But how is that arranged?” she asks of a sequence in which the principal characters jump into the world of a sidewalk chalk drawing. “Walt Disney magic!” one of the young men replies with touching excitement.
By the way, there is this CJR article about the linked New Yorker article.
posted by pracowity at 11:58 PM on September 2, 2006

Those emails from the CJR are frightening - the New Yorker simply bullied the author into backing down. Their reporter did use extensive material from her biography without acknowledgement, and deserves to be called out on it.
posted by jb at 5:19 AM on September 3, 2006

It was obvious when the article first appeared in the New Yorker that Flanagan had mostly just cribbed from Lawson's book.

The CJR article just confirms my suspicions.
posted by briank at 6:32 AM on September 3, 2006

You don't own information, and whether or not the New Yorker "cribbed" the piece is irrelevant. It seems like the second author did at least a little independent research herself anyway.

And besides the biography was mentioned. What else were they supposed to do?
posted by delmoi at 7:01 AM on September 3, 2006

Wow, that CJR article is an awesome complement to the story in the original post which I read when it came out. I'd love, now, to hear the response of Caitlin Flanagan, writer of the New Yorker article to see what her take is on the disgruntlement of Valerie Lawson. Flanagan is already sort of a touchy issue with many modern-day feminists, though I do love this book review of hers, which I think has already been linked here before.
posted by jessamyn at 7:05 AM on September 3, 2006

on preview: demoi, they didn't even mention the book by name. According to Lawson, Flanagan used source material that was based on Lawson's interviews with people who were no longer alive, so could not have possibly done original research to support the claims in her article. And yet, Lawson was never contacted for fact checking. The general rule of thumb is to cite or at least mention sources in full not just say "oh there's a good book on Travers out there"
posted by jessamyn at 7:08 AM on September 3, 2006

Wow, this story just keeps getting better and better, like an onion that gets more tasty the more layers you peel. Hard to avoid the conclusion that the New Yorker folks behaved like total shits. It's just plain astonishing - or deeply revealing, take your pick - that none of their [cough] legendary fact-checkers bothered to contact the author of the only major biography about Travers for this piece. It's also sadly typical that editors fought the author of the book tooth and nail to avoid admitting in public that their newest star reporter is, from the evidence presented here, a plagiarizing jerk. They'll get theirs when Flanagan starts making up dialogue and characters for her pieces. Hell, I'll bet she already has. That first link of jessamyn's is pretty savage about how Flanagan operates to stir the controversy her editors so obviously crave:

Earlier this year, however, Flanagan scored a position as staff writer at The New Yorker. The announcement of her appointment was made shortly after Flanagan published her final piece in The Atlantic, a sprawling, 10,000-plusword cover story titled “How Serfdom Saved the Women’s Movement: Dispatches from the nanny wars.”

In that essay, two years in the works, Flanagan argued that “liberated,” upper-middle-class women have built their careers on the backs of the poor immigrant women who provide so much in-home child care in this country...

Wouldn’t it have been natural to talk to actual nannies for a lengthy article ostensibly devoted to their well-being? Instead, her conclusions are drawn from personal experience, speculation and reactionary reading of a smattering of books dealing with work and motherhood — only one of which, Domestica by Pierrette Hondagneu-Sotelo, actually deals directly with the treatment and work of nannies...

There was no way to see an article containing the statement “when a mother works, something is lost” as anything but an attack on working mothers. Scores of moms took notice...The Atlantic received “an extraordinary number of letters” in response to the piece. To be sure, Flanagan’s piece contained a chilling, vindictive and scornful message: Women of a certain class who choose to work are selfish, overextended whiners who care more about their fragile egos than their children, whose formative years are witnessed not by their mothers, but by their paid-for surrogates.

What a hoot. After slamming working mothers, Flanagan's reinvented herself as the defender of suffragettes? Pointing out to us that Disney slammed working mothers in Mary Poppins? Good lord, that's what I call chutzpah. You know, writers like Flanagan need editors looking to print "controversial" articles that get the letters pouring in, but it's those editors the Flanagans end up biting in the ass. Let's hope it happens to the New Yorker quickly, so they'll move on to their next star.
posted by mediareport at 7:51 AM on September 3, 2006

Lawson was never contacted for fact checking

As far as I can tell, there would be no reason for the factcheckers to contact her. They would have had her book in front of them, and Flanagan's notes from other sources (presuming they exist).

Factcheckers try to prove that writers are correct, and that their sources are good ones. If they tried to prove that writers were wrong, nothing would ever get to print.
posted by The corpse in the library at 9:09 AM on September 3, 2006

their newest star reporter is, from the evidence presented here, a plagiarizing jerk

How do you figure? Can you quote any verbatim passages from the book that she used in the article without credit? Are you claiming that paraphrasing is plagiarism? She cited the book by reference, and mentioned the author's name. She's free to paraphrase at that point.

Pamela McCarthy's 20 Dec 2005 e-mail to Valerie Lawson goes into a lot of detail about the research that Caitlin Flanagan did for the article. McCarthy has physical copies of books, documents, and documentaries that Flanagan used, and says that "she conducted more than a dozen interviews."
You ask why you were not called by a fact checker from The New Yorker: This wasn't necessary because, as it turned out, you are not quoted in the piece; the only information about you in the piece is that you are the author of 'the only comprehensive biography of Pamela Travers'; and we were able to turn to other sources to check the information about Travers in the piece.
The general rule of thumb is to cite or at least mention sources in full not just say "oh there's a good book on Travers out there"

Flanagan said "Valerie Lawson, the author of the only comprehensive biography on Pamela Travers." She's not saying there's a good book out there, she's saying Valerie Lawson's book is the book. Assuming that doesn't count as mentioning the source in full, would mentioning the title fix it?

Part of the problem is that the book has two titles. It was published as Out of the Sky She Came in Australia, and as Mary Poppins She Wrote in the UK. Maybe not mentioning the title was an editorial decision. For all we know, Flanagan could have written, "Valerie Lawson, the author of Mary Poppins She Wrote (first published in Australia as Out of the Sky She Came), the only comprehensive biography on Pamela Travers," and the editors figured, screw it, Lawson's book is the first thing that comes up if you Google "Valerie Lawson Mary Poppins", and took out the reference to the title.
posted by kirkaracha at 10:57 AM on September 3, 2006

The CJR post is fascinating. I had no idea that magazines took such tight control over critical letters to the editor. Perhaps the New Yorker is particularly controlling, as they only started letters to the editor in recent years. That being said, I think it's a little weird for Valerie Lawson to complain that the interesting research she compiled in her book is now included in an article for wide and popular consumption. I would think that she would be happy, save for some perhaps lack of credit plus the omission of the title of her book. Which all could be rectified by a brief letter to the editor, saying, hey, I should have been given more credit and here's the title of my book. Other than that, I don't see any grave misdeed by the journalist.
posted by ClaudiaCenter at 11:21 AM on September 3, 2006

I wonder how many copies of Lawson's book that article sold?
posted by pracowity at 1:59 PM on September 3, 2006

Lawson sums up her concerns in this paragraph:
In reply to your email of December 20, I remain puzzled by the way in which The New Yorker deals with complaints such as mine, and troubled by Ms. Flanagan’s article. First, there is the matter of The New Yorker’s letter “template,” which seems to me a novel way of dealing with a complaint. It is certainly an innovation in journalism as far as I know: The New Yorker provided me with a letter in response to a complaint, but the letter written on my behalf does not complain. In fact, it expresses my gratitude.
The magazine wrote her letter to the editor for her. I can't imagine feeling charitable after seeing the template, but Lawson continues to be professional throughout the exchange.
posted by cgc373 at 4:29 PM on September 3, 2006

This is fascinating. I read the New Yorker piece when it came out, but I didn't know about the Columbia Journalism Review follow-up. Many thanks to cgc373 for posting it.

I admire Flanagan's work, and I don't see that she was guilty of plagiarism in this article, but she certainly could, and should, have been more generous in crediting Lawson's work. (I'm afraid she is developing into another Janet Malcolm: writes like an angel, but is careless in small details, and leaves a trail of hurt feelings behind her.) As for the New Yorker, I'd always wondered why the letters printed in the magazine were so anodyne, and now I know.

After slamming working mothers, Flanagan's reinvented herself as the defender of suffragettes

Wow, what a bizarre misreading of Flanagan's argument.
posted by verstegan at 3:08 AM on September 7, 2006 [1 favorite]

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