When the invite arrived upon the East wind (aka. what I call my e-mail’s inbox) for tea with MARY POPPINS’ Karen Dotrice (Jane Banks), my inner child squealed with delight. Like many people my age, I feel a special bond with the film. As a kid, I watched the VHS on loop and danced around in my room to the soundtrack on picture disc vinyl. With the release of SAVING MR. BANKS on December 12 (limited, wide release on December 20), Disney has unlocked the vaults and put the blu-ray polish on the original inspiration, MARY POPPINS.
A few other bloggers and I caught up with the actress/mother of three to discuss everything from her fondest on-set memories, to why MARY POPPINS was considered contraband in her house, to the legacy of the film. Just like the titular character herself, our tea with Ms. Dotrice was “practically perfect in every way.” Here are just a few of the fascinating stories she shared with us as we dined on cookies, cakes and tea sandwiches at the London Hotel in West Hollywood. As you’ll be able to tell, it was easy to get swept up in Dotrice’s tales of Disney during its glory days.
She didn’t have to audition for the role of Jane Banks. Dotrice said, “I think I got it from THE THREE LIVES OF THOMASINA. I first started in a play in London that my dad was doing with my godfather Charles Laughton. In the audience was this casting director, Maude Spector, who Disney had hunting for a little girl to play the role of Mary in THOMASINA. I auditioned for that one but not MARY POPPINS.”
Julie Andrews helped the pint-sized (and petrified) actress find her singing voice. Dotrice admitted to being overcome with a bit of stage fright on the day she had to sing her solo number, “The Perfect Nanny.” She said, “My dad was at The Royal Shakespeare Company and he had the smart idea that I should go to [their] voice teacher. She was like 150 and so scary. She taught me to sing the song in an operetta style. So I get to the set for the first day of rehearsals – two thumbs up, I’m so ready for this. Julie was there and her eyes came out – the cherry on her hat went round. She took me through this – retaught all of the songs to sing like a human being. Then we went into the studio. In those days you’d have to record them in front of a live orchestra and they went on vinyl. I’m a little thing and all these people and big instruments, thank God Julie just stood there – hung onto my hand. I was so terrified. She was fantastic, guiding me through the
Her favorite MARY POPPINS song is “Go To Sleep” because, by that point in filming, she was exhausted. Dotrice said, “It’s tiring working. Not only that, you’d be given an education too. They’d light you and it was really hot and you’re in all these Victorian clothes. It was hard work and tiring and repetitive. So she sings this song, I was under the covers and I was out like a light. They had to keep coming over and shaking me saying, ‘Karen, we’re trying to do a reaction shot!’ It’s got lovely memories of being warm and cozy and Julie’s voice.”
Despite starring in three films together, she actually didn’t get along with Matthew Garber. Though it seems like a harmless case of kids being kids, the dynamic duo found themselves engaging in sibling rivalry on set. Dotrice jokingly said, “He was a real ounce of trouble-and-a-half. It’s terrible because, course he passed away. It’s terrible because I wish I had a bunch of nice things to say about him but we were kids! And I couldn’t stand him and he couldn’t stand me! That’s the truth of it. I was raised to be prim and proper and he was a naughty boy. If he got bored, which he did often, when we were doing the looping, he’d make people pay him as though he wasn’t already on a payroll. So he had this stack of money. I was thinking, ‘Hey Mom!’ [mimics nudging her mom].”
She swears Mary Poppins’ bag was magical. Dotrice off-handedly recalled, “I don’t know how they did it but she was pulling this stuff out of the bag and there was nothing underneath. I don’t know if they had David Copperfield effects. Plants and whatnot – it was really going on. So you got a feeling you were being transported into another world.”
Her reaction shot during “Spoonful of Sugar” was her genuine reaction to seeing the medicine appear on the spoon. Dotrice stated, “They asked what our favorite flavors were and I said ‘lime.’ There was probably a different button on there, but it had come
out a different color for me on the one take! It was amazing this stuff.”
She had never seen the completed film until the 50thAnniversary screening at the AFI Film Festival last month. Shocking, I know! Her excuse? “I didn’t get to the American premiere because I was back in school and I wasn’t allowed. But I went to the London premiere where Princess Margaret and the Queen were there. So I didn’t really watch the film at that time because I was looking at the Queen. After about half an hour, I was dragged out because I had school the next day. My kids couldn’t ever not know I’d been an actress, but I never wanted them to see any of my work because I’m mom and I can’t lose the balance of power. They’d never seen it either. It was kind of cool because two of my kids came to the AFI premiere and they’ve been so nice to me since!” Perhaps most surprising is that even the fandom surrounding the film never made her children seek out their mother’s work. Dotrice said, “If you’re not interested, they’re not interested. My husband is in show business and we’ve got cousins and uncles in the business. It’s about as fascinating as dentistry.”
She still sees Richard Sherman on a monthly basis – and you’ll covet an invite to their dinner party. Dotrice still keeps in touch with Sherman, half of the Sherman Brothers songwriting duo who penned the iconic soundtrack. She said, “His wife doesn’t cook and he likes my cooking. First thing up – he has to do it to annoy you – he plays “It’s A Small World.’ And then he plays the rest of it. If you go to his house, he has all on vinyl all the songs that weren’t used in the film that he wrote that he’ll play for you whether you want him to or not.” And Karen even sang on some of those unused tunes. “They were proper finished things.”
She doesn’t remember if she met P.L. Travers. And judging by how Travers is portrayed in SAVING MR. BANKS, she’s glad she dodged that bullet. “Sounds like she was such a bear that the kids were probably protected because she could have come over and given us what for.”
She adored SAVING MR. BANKS and thought Tom Hanks nailed the essence of Walt Disney. Dotrice said, “He looks just like Walt Disney in the film. It was really bizarre. I was trying to think, ‘what is it that reminds me of Walt so much?’ And it’s his eyes. He has the same eyes, that same sort of glint and kind of pixelated happiness that Walt had as well.”
SAVING MR. BANKS portrays Walt Disney exactly how she perceived him to be. Dotrice recalled with much fondness, “He was just so kind and nice to me – very encouraging to me. I had no clue about the back story [of the making of MARY POPPINS]. Specifically, for my point of view, I always wondered why Uncle Walt (as I was lucky enough to call him) was so nice to me – apart from the fact I’m really pleasant. I was eight and he flew my mom and sisters out to America and put us up in a house I wish we still had – this gorgeous house up in the canyons with an indoor heated swimming pool. It turns out it was because he had this miserable childhood. I finally twigged at watching SAVING MR. BANKS why he’s so nice to me – because he wants to make sure that if any eight-year-old kid is going to work, it’s going to be magic.”
She has a few charming anecdotal stories about Walt Disney in her arsenal. A reflective Dotrice told us three sweet stories about her time spent with Mr. Disney near the end of our tea. “He knew that I hated flying, so he gave us the use of his plane (whose call signal to the ground was ‘Mickey Mouse One’). He had the interior of the plane made out like a candy story – it took your mind off the journey.” She continued, “One time I was in Walt’s office just sitting on his desk and I said, ‘Uncle Walt. I’ve got an idea! Your desk is so far from the door. Let’s move the desk closer to the door.’ He laughed like a drain and said, ‘Karen, let me explain something to you. I keep my desk over here because by the time those cigar-chewing executives have crossed the room to ask me what they were going to ask, they’ve changed their minds.’” And finally, “I got sick one time and he came to the house to see me. He bought me this panda-thing, which I still have. He was so cute coming in, ordering up the best doctors. He was just a genuine family man.”
She is still surprised by the legacy of MARY POPPINS. She said, “It’s extraordinary that it keeps on going. And this blu-ray version looks amazing – it looks completely current. It stands up perfectly and something that I can be ongoingly proud of. It changed my life – it changed everyone’s life who worked on it. You were taken from obscurity, and the name Jane Banks is a household name. And everyone knows of me because of that part. At my age, my obit will be interesting.”
MARY POPPINS 50th Anniversary Edition is available on DVD and Blu-ray on December 10.
Courtney Howard is the Senior Editor/ LA Correspondent for VeryAware.com. She also is a contributing writer for ReelVixen.com. She resides in Southern California with her husband and perfect little dachshund.
* This is not a sponsored post. Courtney attended this event to facilitate this post. She was gifted a copy of the Blu-ray. The review is in her own words and is her opinion. Your results and opinions may differ. Giveaway item will be provided by sponsor. Sponsor has the right to refuse filling prize for duplicate winners from other blogs. This will in no way sway our opinion of the product or service.