Disney: the incredible judicial battle around Mary Poppins

Great Walt Disney classic, “Mary Poppins”, released in 1984, enabled the firm to win the Oscar for Best Film for the first time. Behind the scenes, the production turned out to be very difficult, with even an acrimonious legal battle.

Disney: the incredible judicial battle around mary poppins

Who does not know the nurse Mary Poppins, “practically perfect in every way” ? Worn by Julie Andrews and released in 1964, Robert Stevenson’s film, at the time the most expensive Disney ever produced, is an absolute classic of American cinema.

Placed 6th in the ranking of the 25 greatest musical films of American cinema drawn up by theAmerican Film Institute in 2006, Mary poppins was crowned with five Oscars, and was even nominated for the Oscar for Best Picture. A great first for the studio with big ears.

On the backstage side, the creation of the film was stormy, between the difficulties linked to the creation of the special effects, the tensions between Walt Disney and the author PL Travers, the creator of the character, who had no desire to see his work distorted. “by a cartoon maker”. This stormy relationship was also told (but significantly attenuated, Disney obliges …) in the good film In the shadow of Mary – the promise of Walt Disney, in 2014.

In fact, the author’s connection to her story was such that PL Travers, who took offense to the film, refused to let anyone touch the Mary Poppins story until 1994. She even demanded in his will that neither the Sherman brothers, composers of the film’s musical booklet, nor any other person who worked on the film, can be involved in a possible future staging on the boards of his work …


Beyond the litigation around the author of the story of Mary Poppins, another acrimonious battle was fought, perhaps less known, but whose financial stakes were counted in the millions of dollars. And not for just anything: the battle revolved around the famous “supercalifragilisticexpialidocious!” dropped by Julie Andrews with disconcerting ease during one of the film’s most memorable songs.

In one interview with a Boston Globe reporter in 2012, composer and lyricist Richard M. Sherman, then 83, had spoken about it. “It all came from when we were young, in a little corner called Camp Equinunk, Pennsylvania in 1937. Everyone was making up crazy double meanings, including my brother Bob and myself.

With their double meanings, they were part of a beautiful American tradition of concocting words from absurd syllables. We were trying to make a word longer than “antidisestablishmentarianism”, which was then the longest word in a dictionary. [NDR : un mot évoquant la position politique favorable au maintien du statut officiel de l’Église anglicane comme religion d’État en Angleterre]“.

Richard M. Sherman then specifies that he forgot this word with his brother for nearly 25 years, until the two worked on the film’s musical repertoire. Mary poppins. For the sequence where the Banks children jump with Mary Poppins in a chalk drawing by Bert / Mr. Dawes (Dick Van Dyke), the Sherman brothers then came up with the idea of ​​having Mary Poppins say a word. “completely crazy”. Thinking back to their childhood memories, they recalled their extended Camp Equinunk puns of 1937.

The start of trouble

When the film came out in 1964 and made a triumph, trouble began … It turns out that in 1951, a song called “Supercalafajalistickespeealadojus”, very close to the famous word spoken in the film, was out.

Its composers, Barney Young and Gloria Parker, sued Disney, claiming $ 12 million in damages for copyright infringement. In their complaint, they specified that they had even worked in 1949 on their song, and that Barney Young had had the idea of ​​this word in 1921, during his youth.

To make matters worse, Barney Young claimed to have sent his song to Disney in 1951, and that the studio would have promised to use it. In vain … Gloria Parker suspected the Sherman brothers of having heard their song during a concert she was giving with her orchestra, in a hotel in New York.

Disney: the incredible judicial battle around mary poppins
Walt disney pictures

For his part, Richard Sherman claimed that he and his brother had obviously never heard of the previous song. “God is my witness, I never heard of that song. Never, ever. All I knew was that I had heard a similar word years before when I was a child.”.

He made this point in a deposition made for the trial in 1965. The Disney lawyer battalion got under way by lining up experts, to prove not only that the two songs were musically different, but also that the word “super” was in common use before the 1949 song.

Wilfred Feinberg, the judge in charge of the case at the New York District Court, no doubt a bit annoyed, wrote in his judgment that all these language variants concerning the subject of the dispute would henceforth be referred to under the generic name “The Word “; noting in passing that the word was already in use by the 1930s. Add to that the real musical differences between the two songs, and the case seemed over. Although not quite; in any case formally.

Shortly after the judgment, a librarian at Disney got hold of THE absolute proof of the precedence of the word “super” in the face of the plaintiffs’ claim. He thus found in a student newspaper of the University of Syracuse, dated March 10, 1931 (yes, it is precise!), A word written as follows: “supercaliflawjalisticexpialadoshus”.

A word moreover so improbable that the journalist of the Boston Globe verified its authenticity by going himself to get his hands on a copy of this newspaper in the archives. Since then, its variant made in Disney, “supercalifragilisticexpialidocious ” so, has entered the prestigious, authoritative Oxford Dictionary of the English Language. A judicial and linguistic victory, for posterity.

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