Thursday, December 26, 2013

Saving Mr. Banks: Mary Poppins meets Scrooge

Reflection on the film Saving Mr. Banks, and the music and lyrics of Richard and Robert B. Sherman for Mary Poppins. I read several articles about basis in fact for the movie, including an article about Richard Sherman's friendship with the young actors who portray Richard and Robert in the recent movie.

Naturally, the creators of Saving Mr. Banks weave their movie from threads of Mary Poppins, and from real-life incidents,  but their tapestry owes as much to Dickens' A Christmas Carol.  

Our Scrooge in this story is P. L. Travers, creator of Mary Poppins. It's 1961, twenty years since Walt Disney first proposed to adapt her books to the screen.  Needing money to pay her mortgage, she flies to L.A. to consider the script.  During daylight hours over the next two weeks, she battles the screen writer and two song writers over every detail of Mary Poppins' world -- how opulent should the Banks house be?  should "constable" be rhymed with "responstible?"  may Mr. Banks have a mustache?   At days' ends, however, she is alone with her memories.  The creators of this movie use visions of the past as Dickens does, to show us how open-hearted our protagonist was, once, and why she has built up such strong defenses. 

In this story, those defenses protect a cherished image of her father, Travers Goff.  Played by Colin Farrell, he's a bit of both father-figures in Mary Poppins:  whimsical like "Bert" the chimney-sweep, subservient to bank executives like "Mr. Banks" -- though Firth shows flashes of resentment.  Both the little Pamela who adores her father, and the adult P.L. Travers who took his name, try desperately to believe that the father cares more for his daughter than for his whiskey.  In the end, not even the Mary Poppins-like aunt from the east can redeem him.  During a revealing outburst early in the movie, Travers says that she won't let Disney use Mary Poppins to sell children on the lie that life will be just fine, that someone will come in to straighten the nursery and save their lives.

When the Disney team taps into her past, re-pitching the movie to her as a story about the redemption of a father who "cannot see beyond the end of his nose," P.L.Travers relents.  (The inevitable scene where she watches the movie contains this line from Mary Poppins, and it hits twice as hard for summing up two stories.)

How much of the emotional impact of this movie depends on the audience's emotional investment in the film from fifty years ago, I can't say -- because I'm invested up to my eyeballs.  My generation grew up in a world that revolved around disengaged dads, gone 9 to 5, then off to dinners with clients or the airport for business trips.  That's my memory, too, though my own dad was certainly demonstrative and eager to play when home.   But even at age five, I was haunted by the duet of  two father figures.  "Mr. Banks" sings, "A man has dreams of walking with giants, / to carve his niche in the edifice of time."  It's a rubato variation on Mr. Banks' pompous theme song, "I run my life precisely on schedule," made ruminative and rueful.   But now, because Mary Poppins has disrupted his "well-ordered" life, his career, his standing, his hopes are "dashed."   "Bert" is sympathetic:

You've got to grind, grind, grind
At that grindstone
Though child'ood slips like sand through a sieve
And all too soon they've up and grown
And then they've flown
And it's too late for you to give

Just that spoonful of sugar...

The films Mary Poppins and Saving Mr. Banks dovetail at this same crucial moment, following which Mr. Banks decides to repair the damage he has done to his son's kite -- and to his relationships --  and the family is reconstituted at the end for the song "Let's Go Fly a Kite."  It's a highpoint of Saving Mr. Banks when the creators of the musical hand Mrs. Travers a kite and sing her the song.

As Travers, Emma Thompson chews people out from one end of this movie to another; yet she appears vulnerable at every moment -- more so as the movie proceeds.  As Walt Disney, Tom Hanks instantly brought back my own impression of the "Uncle Walt" who loomed over my early childhood, but also Disney's contemporary LBJ, angling for his agenda no matter how jovial he appeared to be.  Paul Giamatti plays Ralph, assigned by Disney to drive Travers around.  He's an affable Bob Cratchit to Thompson's Scrooge.  He even has a "Tiny Tim" at home, a disabled girl named "Jane" who adores Travers's books.  We see him mostly behind the wheel of a car, glancing at Travers in the rear-view mirror, and we can measure the thaw in their relationship by his eyes.

The backbone of this movie is the string of daily sessions in the rehearsal room with screenwriter Don DaGradi (Bradley Whitford) and the songwriting Sherman brothers (Jason Schwartzman and B.J. Novak).  Because P.L.Travers insisted on recording these meetings, Richard Sherman has proof how Travers "sliced them up" and attacked their work from the start.  We see each of the three creators as they try to swallow their shock, exasperation, and loathing.  The most satisfying points in the movie are the ones that trace advances in the teams' courtship of this hard-to-get woman. Naturally, it all happens in song -- the very songs that do the same trick for Mr. Banks in Mary Poppins, of course. 

Three miscellaneous notes about Mary Poppins and P.L. Travers:
  • A survey of articles about the movie reveals that it took more than a spoonful of poetic license to help this story go down.  The premise of the script is that the rights to the movie were riding on Travers' two weeks in L.A.  But in real life, Travers signed away the rights to the movie before her visit to the studio.  Whatever Disney did to convince Travers, it is mere speculation of the screenwriter that he might have reached understanding with Travers by drawing parallels between his childhood and hers.  That Disney did not invite Travers to the Hollywood premier and that he was alarmed when she showed up anyway, is historical fact, however.
  • P. L. Travers never did like the movie, and, late in her life, when Stephen Sondheim was in London, she invited him to write a new musical version for the stage.  He declined, but astonished her by revealing that he had drafted a musical version of  Mary Poppins at age 19.  She reluctantly permitted the recent staged version to go forward with material from the movie -- but with stipulation that none of the movie's creative team could be involved.
  • E.T. was Mary Poppins for a later generation.  A family in distress (disengaged parents in 1961, divorce in 1981) receives a magical outsider.  After many fanciful adventures, the crux of each movie comes when the children are on the run from a "father" who appears to be fearsome (angry Mr. Banks in Mary Poppins, the agent with keys in E.T.)  and the last shot of each movie is of a re-constituted family, waving upwards as the magical stranger re-ascends to the sky.  At the iconic moment of E.T., when the alien speaks the line, "E.T. home phone," the little sister has dressed him up like Mary Poppins.  I've always wondered if Spielberg modeled his movie consciously to create a Mary Poppins for the divorce generation.   

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