Wednesday, Dec 30, 2015
Saving Mr. Banks
Saving Mr. Banks is a movie about the making of “Mary Poppins” in which Walt Disney himself appears as a character. The central character is author P.L. Travers, played by Emma Thompson.
Mr. Banks is the father of the children cared for by Mary Poppins. Mr. Banks had his roots in P.L. Travers' own father, Travers Goff. The movie goes back and forth between two story lines.
One story line (1906) tells how P.L. Travers as a six-year-old, original name Helen Goff, was encouraged and imbued with such imagination by her father, Travers Goff, who worked as manager of a local bank. The young Helen Goff worships her dad as he spins fantastic stories and paints images of a magical world all around. Travers Goff ended up self-destructing, victim of drinking brought on by manic-depressive illness. As her dad floundered, Helen saw her family rescued by her Aunt Ellie — the genesis of the nanny who comes in to save Mr. Banks.
In the other story line, in 1961, P.L. Travers fights to keep her characters from being 'Disneyfied' while Disney and his creative team make Mary Poppins into a movie. She has horrors of her Mary Poppins 'cavorting and twinkling, careening towards a happy ending like a Kamikaze'. For twenty years, Travers has refused Disney's request for movie rights to her creation. At the urging of her agent, Mrs. Travers, as she insists on being called, reluctantly takes an 'exploratory' trip to Disney Studios.
“ cavorting and twinkling, careening towards a happy ending like a Kamikaze ”
Travers did not want the story or any part of it made into a cartoon. Walt grants her script approval. She proceeds to torment the screenwriter Don DaGradi and the songwriting team of Richard and Robert Sherman with objections about everything. After two weeks of fraught collaboration at Disney Studios, Travers heads back to London, still unwilling to grant the movie rights. Walt Disney follows her.
Back in her London rooms
Back in her London rooms, after failing to come to terms with Walt Disney's treatment of the book, P.L. Travers answers a knock at the door and opens it to find Walt Disney on her doorstep. He has followed her across the Atlantic. Over tea (with whiskey) she listens to Disney plead his case. Bringing up her childhood, Disney says,
"Aren't you tired of remembering it that way, Mrs. Travers? Don't you want to finish the story? Let it all go and have a life that isn't dictated by the past? It's not the children she comes to save. It's their father. It's your father — Travers Goff.
"That's what this is all about, isn't it. Forgiveness, Mrs. Travers. It's what I learned from your books."
Travers says, "I don't have to forgive my father. He was a wonderful man."
"No. You need to forgive Helen Goff. Life is a harsh sentence to lay down for yourself. Give her to me, Mrs. Travers. Trust me with your precious Mary Poppins. I won't disappoint you. I swear every time a person walks into a movie house from Leicester Square to Kansas City, they will see George Banks being saved. They will love him as kids. They will weep for his cares. They will ring their hands when he loses his job. And when he flies that kite, oh, Mrs. Travers, they will rejoice. They will sing. In movie houses all over the world, in the eyes and hearts of my kids and other kids and mothers and fathers for generations to come, George Banks will be honored. George Banks will be redeemed. Banks and all he stands for will be saved. Maybe not in life, but in imagination. Because that is what we story-tellers do. We restore order with imagination. We instill hope, again and again.
"Trust me, Mrs. Travers. Let me prove it to you. I give you my word."
(script written by Kelly Marcel and Sue Smith)
Snubbed at Oscar Time
Saving Mr. Banks was snubbed at Oscar. Usually Oscar voters are connected in some way with the older mainline Hollywood studios, and they almost always shut out the Disney films.
Saving Mr. Banks was not generally popular, as it does not resort to violence, sex or special effects to tell its story. Instead this movie celebrates creativity. It gives us an interesting glimpse of the process of creating the movie Mary Poppins, in particular the songs and the script. We see the creative process and thoughts of the songwriters, scriptwriters, author, and Walt Disney personally.
Disney, played by Tom Hanks, is shown smoking frequently. The stress he experienced during this episode may have increased his smoking. When we see him on-screen he is often preceded by an off-screen cough — a premonition of the lung cancer that would kill him soon after in 1966. Aged 65, for Christ's sake.
Richard & Robert Sherman were inspired. They wrote songs for Mary Poppins twice as good as anything they wrote before or since. Spurred on by trying to overcome the objections of P.L. Travers, who opposed making it into a 'giddy musical'. "This was our dream," said Richard Sherman. "This is the one we really poured ourselves into."
While P.L. Travers is visiting Disney studios, she is driven each morning and evening to and from her Beverly Hills Hotel room in a stretch Lincoln by driver Ralph (Paul Giamatti). The by-play and eventual friendship that develops between these two is a sweet touch and makes almost a third sub-plot of the movie.
Robert Sherman (words) and Richard Sherman (music) wrote the songs for Mary Poppins. They are portrayed here by B.J. Novak and Jason Schwartzman.
Jason Schwartzman is a musician as well as an actor. He gives a convincing performance.
The real Richard Sherman is still alive. He was on hand during the making of Saving Mr. Banks to share his memories and advise these two actors. It made the results richer, the portrayals more nuanced.
In two scenes we see Robert and Richard Sherman batting around ideas as they develop the song 'Spoonful of Sugar'. First, the idea and words for the song. Later, Robert suggests to Richard a tweak to the music — going up on the word 'down.'
In one scene, Richard Sherman is sitting at the piano in the rehearsal room, late at night, playing 'Feed the Birds' and singing it softly. His brother Robert is asleep on the sofa. Walt Disney, who was outside, hears the music through an open window and walks quietly in. Richard finishes the song, singing it to Walt, as Walt stands nearby.
Walt's reaction? He merely says, "That'l work."
Walt then shares his thoughts with Richard, about the troubles they are having trying to get Mrs. Travers to sign over the rights to Mary Poppins. He understands her point of view, as he went through the same thing himself trying to protect his Mickey Mouse decades earlier.
"The mouse . . . was family. It would have killed me to give him up."
Earlier in Walt's office, Mrs. Travers had used the same words to Disney. "Mary Poppins and the Banks, they are family to me."
Addendum: In 2016 came out the movie Genius. This also celebrated creativity, and the friendship between an editor, Maxwell Perkins, and author, Thomas Wolfe. Perkins helped Wolfe shape Of Time and the River into a great novel. I would say, the great American novel.