Monday, May 05, 2008

POPPIN' UP

A curious decision, I thought: to cut virtually all references to Julie Andrews from my recent book (with Michael Lassell) Mary Poppins: Anything Can Happen If You Let It. After all, it was the film that made our Julie a movie star...

But there was no discussion about the matter - my paragraphs on Julie's casting in what was the crowning masterpiece of Walt Disney's career, together with her personal recollections of Disney and Poppins' creator, P L Travers - simply had to go.

Frankly, I thought this rather odd, especially since the Andrews quotes had come from an interview which she had given me when I was making a BBC radio series called Disney's Women and had already appeared - with Ms Andrews permission (or, at least, so I understood) - in 'How Are They Going to Make That into a Musical?', an essay I contributed to A Lively Oracle: A Centennial Celebration of P L Travers, published in 1999.

Then, why? Well, I can only surmise that it was because Ms Andrews was about to publish the first volume of her autobiography, autobiography, Home: A Memoir of My Early Years, and didn't want any 'spoilers' appearing ahead of time.

Anyway, since the book is now published, it's probably safe to reveal that expurgated text.

So, here it is...
It was Walt's secretary, Tommie Wilck, who suggested Julie Andrews, the young British singer who had achieved stage stardom in London and New York as Eliza Doolittle in My Fair Lady, and who was currently appearing on Broadway as Queen Guinevere in the musical, Camelot.

Towards the end of 1961, returning from a visit to Europe, Walt stopped off in New York to see a performance of the Arthurian romance. As Julie Andrews sang, danced and whistled her way through the show stopping number 'What Do the Simple Folk Do?', Walt was convinced that he had found his Mary Poppins.

Backstage, after the show, Walt talked enthusiastically about his plans for the film. “There was no preamble,” Julie recalls, “he said he’d loved the evening and he wanted to talk to me about a project he had in mind for the film of Mary Poppins. I said, ‘Well that sounds lovely’. I don’t remember having had doubts other than ‘Can I make a movie?’ This would be my very first picture and as much as I’d always wanted to go into film I thought, ‘Gosh, would I be able to do it justice? Would I be any good at it?’ and so on.”

However, Walt was persistent and Julie agreed that, once Camelot had ended its run, she would visit the Disney studio with her then husband, designer Tony Walton. Meanwhile, she read the books and began to have doubts not just about her own ability but also about the possibility of adapting the source material for the screen.

“The books were so perfectly written,” she recalled, “but they were so boxed-in with their primness and rigid discipline that I thought ‘Now, how are they going to make that into a musical?’ And, of course, it was miraculous the way that they did.”

Any lingering anxieties were dispelled when she and Tony Walton arrived in Burbank at what Hollywood referred to as ‘The Mouse Factory’: “The minute I walked into the studio and saw what Walt had prepared, I could tell that Poppins had something special about it.”

Looking at the storyboards and hearing the songs convinced Julie that she should accept the role: “The thing that was wonderfully appealing was that my background, long before I had been on Broadway, was vaudeville and music-hall. And the songs they played me on that first day, were wonderfully reminiscent. They had that knock-down, drag-out quality of the good old vaudeville songs and I loved them!”

About one song only, Julie had reservations: it was the ballad 'The Eyes of Love' which the Sherman brothers had come to think of as Mary Poppins' theme. She, however, thought the song too sentimental and not very 'Poppinsish'. In an attempt to find an alternative, the composers drew on an experience of Robert Sherman's younger son who had recently been given an inoculation at school that had been disguised with a spoonful of sugar. The resulting song became one of the most popular in the film.

Walt hoped to clinch the deal by offering Julie $125,000 and asking Tony Walton to be the film's design consultant, but there was one lingering issue: she was still under consideration for the role of Eliza Doolittle in the screen version of the show that had made her name My Fair Lady.

Julie wished more than anything to play on film the role she had created on stage, but Walt wanted her to be Mary Poppins and was so eager for her to commit to the film, that he promised to release her from her contract if Warner Brothers offered her the part in My Fair Lady. In the event, Jack Warner decided that casting Julie was too big a box-office gamble (having Rex Harrison play Professor Higgins was even thought risky) and opted, instead, for the glamorous, but non-singing, Audrey Hepburn. Warner's loss was Disney's gain.

P L Travers had described Mary Poppins as being thin, plain and “rather like a Dutch doll”, with “large feet and hands, and small, rather peering blue eyes.” Although Julie Andrews, at twenty-seven, was considerably prettier, she skilfully captured much of Poppins’ enigmatic personality, described by the author as “a mixture of arrogance and poetry and, underlying both, a certain invincible integrity.”

Julie, who was pregnant, returned to England to give birth and, thirty-six hours after the arrival of her daughter Emma, she received a phone call in hospital: “They said, ‘There’s a Mrs Travers on the line for you,’ and I thought, ‘Oh I’d better speak to her, doesn’t anybody know that I’ve just given birth and I’m feeling a bit weary.’ And she came on, she said, ‘Hello, this is P L Travers, is this Julie Andrews? Talk to me! I want to hear what you sound like.” I said, ‘Well what can I tell you, Miss Travers, I’m very thrilled, I believe I’m going to be doing a film based on your books.’ ‘Well,’ she said, ‘you’ve got the nose for it that’s for sure; you’re too pretty, but you’ve got the nose for it.’”

Later, Julie went to afternoon tea with Pamela and still remembers her assessment of the author: “I liked her, she was an eccentric and rather tough old girl but a good hearted one I felt.” Pamela was equally responsive to Julie and - whatever her subsequent reservations about the film - was unfailing in her praise of the actress, describing her as having “integrity and a true sense of comedy” and her performance as showing that she understood “the essential quality” of Mary Poppins.
There! That's what you didn't read in the Poppins book although, in her autobiography, Julie Andrews has told the tale in her own words - which are pretty much just about the same!

Home only takes the Andrews story as far as the Walt Disney engaging her to play Mary Poppins and that curious maternity wing telephone conversation with P L Travers...

I actually wrote quite a bit more written about the filming and the Oscar-winning success of Mary Poppins, but since Ms A is at work on a second volume of autobiography, I guess I'd better - for the present - keep that to myself!

In the mean time, you may care to read my review of Home.


4 comments:

Rena Fan said...

Thanks for posting that! Oh God, I'm sure a lot more has been left out of your book so I do hope we'll either see some more extracts here OR a second volume of "Mary Poppins: Anything Can Happen If You Let It".
By the way, I would like to know if lack of reference to the Gala Performance that Julie attended at the Prince Edward Theatre was also the result of the Mouse Kingdom's Julie-related instruction or their decision to focus on the Broadway production!

Brian Sibley said...

RENA- As I commented on my main blog:

Ah, the Julie Andrews Gala! I wasn't there - the invite must have gone astray, I guess - but I did watch a DVD of the event and wrote about it, but I assume it was felt too parochial for American readers...

Gina said...

Thank you so much for posting this! I thoroughly enjoyed reading every detail of your interview with Julie Andrews! I'm truly amazed by all of your talent as a writer and all of the things you've done!

Thanks,
Gina

Osdo said...

gracias por su site. estuve leyendo con mucho interes lo relacionado a julie andrews y disney. acabo de estar 3 dias en disneyland paris y todavia sigo escuchando "it's a small world"..saludos desde asuncion, paraguay (s. Amer.) osdo mayor.