The Making of 'Mary Poppins
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“You cannot capture a man’s entire life in two hours. All you can hope is to leave the impression of one”.
Even before The Sound of Music started breaking box-office records, director Robert Wise and Producer Saul Chaplin were making plans to re-team with its leading lady Julie Andrews. Another musical biopic, this one about Gertrude Lawrence, seemed the ideal vehicle. Like Andrews, Lawrence started performing in British Music Halls before becoming a star on the West End and Broadway. The two even shared success portraying Eliza Doolittle on stage. Add to this Lawrence's long-term friendship with Noël Coward, her role in Rogers and Hammerstein’s ‘The King and I’, and her introduction of such songs as Gershwin’s ‘Someone to Watch Over Me’, and the prospects for another musical triumph looked promising.
After an overture of some of Lawrence’s greatest hits, a newsreel depicting her early life is interrupted by the actress disputing its veracity. Assured that the newsreel will not be shown unless it meets with her approval, the screening resumes interspersed with Lawrence’s recollection of what really happened. There’s an unromantic look back at her Music Hall days, her shameless upstaging while a chorus girl and her reticence to settle down with one of her many suitors. Yet is her spendthrift ways that lands her in the most trouble, a lesson the filmmakers of this biopic failed to heed.
This big-budget musical notoriously flopped at the box-office, and though one can easily see where the money was spent, it is rarely put to good use. A fashion show displaying some of the film’s 3040 costumes adds nothing to the plot and a sojourn to the French Riviera seems an extravagance. Legendary choreographer Michael Kidd, whose talents are best showcased in the comical 'Oh, It's a Lovely War' and 'Burlington Bertie’, has few other memorable tunes to work with. While the larger-scale ‘Limehouse Blues’ is classic Kidd, ‘The Saga of Jenny’ unfavourably brings to mind his earlier parody of such pretentiousness in The Band Wagon. Compounding the film’s bloated feel is screenwriter William Fairchild’s decision to incorporate a fake newsreel, thereby inflating an already lengthy running time by approximately 10 per cent.
More disappointing is the forced performance of Julie Andrews, whose transformation from Clapham chorus girl to society darling almost causes a reassessment of her non-casting in My Fair Lady. The poor box-office of Star! and Andrew’s next film Darling Lili not only paused her film career but also, along with the commercial failures of the intervening Paint Your Wagon, Goodbye, Mr. Chips and Hello, Dolly!, put an end to Hollywood’s road-show musicals. CRIPES!
as Gertrude Lawrence
as Noël Coward
as Jack Buchanan
Jock Livingston as Alexander Woollcott Unidentified extra as Charles Laughton
Gertrude Lawrence’s first husband’s name was Francis Gordon-Howley, not Jack Roper. He was also 20 years older than her.
The character of Sir Tony Spencer is based on Captain Philip Astley, who was a member of the British Army’s Household Cavalry.
The character of Wall Street financier Ben Mitchell is based on Bert Taylor.
Only reference to Gertrude Lawrence’s minimal film career is a brief 'blink-and-you-miss-it' scene of her arriving on the set of Rembrandt. . However, the biopic does feature extended scenes from Noel Coward’s plays ‘Private Lives’ and ‘Tonight at 8.30.’