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Thursday, August 29, 2013

"Kite Series Part 2" Mary Poppins and the Sherman Brothers

-This is the second in a three part series centered around the theme of kites. The first piece (August 21) discussed the work and legacy of Tyrus Wong. The third and forthcoming piece will discuss the use of kites in Charles Schulz’s Peanuts comics.

Mary Poppins and the Sherman Brothers

Image Source: http://blog.sl.nsw.gov.au/    
“‘Now I must be off…Which way is the wind blowing?’ And as he said that, Mr. Banks popped his head out the window and looked down the Lane to Admiral Boom’s house… ‘Ha!’ said Mr. Banks, drawing in his head very quickly. ‘Admiral’s telescope says East Wind. I thought as much.’”

Such is written in the opening pages of P. L. Travers’ “Mary Poppins.” Similar references are found in the opening lines of Walt Disney’s feature film of the same name, “Winds in the East / Mist coming in / Like something is brewing / About to begin…” These lines, spoken by the character Bert (Dick Van Dyke), were written by the Sherman Brothers, who would enter film and music history as one of the greatest songwriting partnerships of all time.
P. L. Travers
Richard and Robert Sherman
In the original Travers’ novel, soon after Mr. Banks inspects the wind, the two eldest children are at the window, awaiting their father’s return:

“‘There he is!’ said Michael, pointing suddenly to a shape that banged heavily against the gate. Jane peered through the gathering darkness.
‘That’s not Daddy,’ she said. ‘It’s somebody else.’
Then the shape, tossed and bent under the wind, lifted the latch of the gate, and they could see that it belonged to a woman, who was holding her hat on with one hand and carrying a bag in the other. As they watched, Jane and Michael saw a curious thing happen. As soon as the shape was inside the gate the wind seemed to catch her up into the air and fling her at the house.  It was as though it had flung her first at the gate, waited for her to open it, and then had lifted and thrown her, bag and all, at the front door. The watching children heard a terrific bang, and as she landed the whole house shook.”

         With these simple but poetic lines, Mary Poppins first entered the imaginations of readers in 1934. These readers included Walt Disney’s daughters, Diane and Sharon. Walt would soon promise his children to one day adapt the story to film.

         The story of “Mary Poppins” is driven by the wind, almost literally. The first chapter, “East Wind,” and final chapter, “West Wind,” serve as bookends. These mark Mary Poppins’ arrival and departure. “’I’ll stay till the wind changes,’” she tells the Banks children in the opening chapter.
This environmental presence arches over the story, episodic as it is. In “West Wind,” as the wind shifts, the children sense a change almost subconsciously. Mr. Banks takes note as he did at the story’s beginning, and Jane and Michael grow weary:

“‘Did you hear what he said?’ Michael grabbed Jane’s arm.
She nodded. ‘The wind’s in the west,’ she said slowly.
Neither of them said any more, but there was a thought in each of their minds that they wished was not there.”

Mary Poppins then makes an immediate departure. The children watch her lift her umbrella and be carried away, “…it lifted her over the front gate and swept her upwards towards the branches of the cherry-trees in the Lane.”

         Kites were a treasured image in the Sherman family. Robert and Richard’s father, Al Sherman (also an accomplished songwriter), was a lover of kite building and flying.  Compared to someone like Tyrus Wong, Al was more of a hobbyist. But his hobby played an important role in the Sherman family life.
         Robert Sherman recalls: “Dad was a tremendous kite maker. He used to take us out on weekends, and buy string and buy paper and mucilage, and he’d make these marvelous kites that would fly forever. Kids would gather around and he’d give them kites.”
Al and sons

          Al’s hobby would continue into another generation as both Robert and Richard had children of their own. Robert’s son, Jeff Sherman, remembers: “On Sundays, Grandpa Al would come to the house and he’d give me a piano lesson. When the wind would start blowing, he’d just sort of point to the door, and I and my whole family would run across the street to this little round park and we’d make and fly kites. And I remember in the early days, Gregg’s family and my family would do this together. Those were great times.” Gregg Sherman is Richard’s son. The cousins, Jeff and Gregg, would go on to produce and direct the acclaimed documentary The Boys (2009), which told the story of their fathers.
         “One propitious day,” Richard recalled, “Walt took this little red book off his shelf and handed it to us.” The book was “Mary Poppins.” The Shermans read it, underlined six chapters they thought had potential (including “East Wind” and “West Wind”), and returned to Walt’s office. They were astounded to discover that Walt had underlined the exact same chapters in his own copy. Robert and Richard, along with Don DaGradi and Bill Walsh would become the key unit developing “Mary Poppins” for the screen.
         In the film’s first act, the children are introduced in a troublesome state. After attempting to fly a kite of their own in the park, it proves to get away from their control and drags them into unfamiliar territory. The Constable finds them and escorts them home. The children, feeling ashamed, offer their father the chance to help them fly the kite. He scolds them, ignoring their request. As the film draws to a climax, Mr. Banks has hit bottom, only to find redemption. As all hope seems lost, he returns home with the mended kite, Mrs. Banks adds a tail from one of her Suffragette ribbons, and the family rushes outside where the whole neighborhood has joined in a fest of kite flying.

         The Sherman Bothers wrote a particular song to end the film, “Let’s Go Fly a Kite.” It is an uplifting and optimistic ending note. It continues to develop the theme set forth with a previously featured song, “Feed the Birds.” It is the little things that count in life; the small acts of kindness or joy. The Shermans were able to imbue their own father’s love for kites and family into Mr. Banks.

         The legends of Mary Poppins were not limited to only one volume of literature. P. L. Travers would publish multiple sequels to her successful story. The first sequel, “Mary Poppins Comes Back,” begins with a kite.
         In the opening chapter “The Kite,” we find the Banks family returned to its chaotic state. The original novel did not end with Mr. Banks’ full epiphany and redemption as the Disney film does. Marry Poppins simply departs with a promise to return. This particular day the children are causing quite the mess for Mrs. Banks. Measured with several other issues about the house, she sends the children to the park to fly a kite.
         With the help of the Park Keeper, the kite is airborne. Soon, however, it disappears, “Up and up went the tossing tail, darting through the air until it seemed but a faint dark speck on the sky. The clouds moved slowly towards it. Nearer, nearer! ‘Gone!’ said Michael as the speck disappeared behind the thin grey screen.”
         As the end of their string reappeared, “in its place danced a figure that seemed at once strange and familiar…” It proved to be Mary Poppins, returned as promised. She lands with composure to the ecstasy of the children and the bewilderment of the Keeper. She makes no note of the manner of her arrival, reconvening her role immediately. She has indeed, as we are promised on the title page, come back.  
"Mary Poppins Comes Back" Illustration
         Travers writing goes far beyond simple children’s literature. Not unlike the “Harry Potter” series or other such pieces of the genre, it imbues a magically delicious quality. All things aside about Travers’ own demeanor, her writing has all the “English charm” one could imagine.
         Though the initial novel primarily inspires the Disney feature, there are aspects of later sequels that find their way into the film. From “Mary Poppins Comes Back” in particular, we see the presence of kites and merry go rounds as direct images transplanted into the film. The kite that the children fly is even described as “green-and-yellow,” the same color as the kite Mr. Banks holds for the children at the film’s end. The episodic nature of the series proves apt to these transplants.
         The full relationship between the novels and the film is a study that books can, and have, been written on. Touchingly enough, the same lines that Bert speaks at the film’s beginning as he feels the winds change, are the first to be echoed in the recently released trailer for Saving Mr. Banks. If all bodes well, this film should do much to tighten the connections between Walt’s Mary Poppins and its source material.
B. J. Novak and Jason Schwartzman as the Sherman Brothers

-Ghez, Didier. Walts People: Talking Disney with the Artists Who Knew Him. Vol. 4. [S.l.]: Xlibris, 2007. Print.
-Mary Poppins. Dir. Robert Stevenson. Perf. Julie Andrews, Dick Van Dyke, David Tomlinson, Glynis Johns. Walt Disney Studio, 1964. DVD.
-The Boys--the Sherman Brothers' Story. Dir. Jeffrey C. Sherman and Gregory V. Sherman. Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures, 2009. DVD
-Travers, P. L. Mary Poppins. New York: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 1997. Print.
-Travers, P. L. Mary Poppins Comes Back. New York: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 1997. Print.

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