Dear friends and readers,
When Izzy and I arrived at our local better cinema and saw to get into one of the movies we had to join onto a long line thick with people, I was startled to find this was for Saving Mr Banks! which in the trailers had been represented as about a crabby old maid schoolteacher type giving the warm and wonderful Walt Disney a hard time, rejecting his of course charming Disneyland. We had assumed it was for The Hobbit.
I figured and still think that the 4 full Mary Poppins books are not widely read, but liked by a sub-group of reading girls, Anglophilic, with an unusual penchant for implicit meanings and respect for the old-fashioned values of decorum, titillated by strictness. I liked the 1964 Mary Poppins musical, but know it is wildly disparate from Travers’s books. (See my blog on Pamela Lyndon Travers, woman writer of children’s books.)
As we stood there and saw the line grow past us and out the door into the cold, I reminded myself the new film, Saving Mr Banks, did have big-name stars with strong talent (Emma Thompson as PL, Tom Hanks as Walt); was a Disney film and thus guaranteed-to-be-wholesome film, and of course would be connected to the 1964 Mary Poppins film, which perhaps had made a very distorted view of the original character into a household icon.
I’m writing this blog because I’ve since discovered that in more popularly oriented movie-houses parents had brought children (not what the crowd at this art house does) and overtly removed these kiddies from the unexpectedly unsuitable material. That means the hum and buzz is giving a wrong impression of what this film is about and is largely responsible for the big audiences; the few thoughtful reviews concentrate on how the film misrepresents the final outcome of the strong conflicts between Travers and Disney over the nature, mood, characteristics and specifics of the 1964 Mary Poppins film: in the film she relents mostly and is deeply moved by the film insofar as it reflects the autobiograpical sources of her books; in reality; she hated the film.. But see Caitlin Flannagan’s Becoming Mary Poppins.
What’s been left out from accounts is more than 50% of Saving Mr Banks‘s matter: P.L. Travers’s childhood in Australia; few stills of Ruth Wilson as Mrs Hof, Colin Farrell as Mr Hof (the original we are told of Mr Banks in the books), and hardly any retelling of how Mr Hof is first responsible for moving his family from the comparative respectability and comfort of an upper middle class home in a citified area of Australia (New South Wales? Queensland?) into the hinterlands (called Allora in the film, perhaps central or western Australia) where he proceeded to become a thorough alcoholic and failure as a bank manager (someone who could not cope with the stress, repression, hard commercialism of any money-making occupation). We see him humiliate himself and family in a scene on a public stage, fall to the ground and slowly die of TB and delirium tremens. At one point Mrs Hof tries to kill herself by drowning. The child, Helen, called Ginty (Annie Rose Buckley) by her father, who since renamed herself Pamela and then PL (Lyndon a middle name) is totally involved, worshipping and feeling for her father,
trying to save her mother. A sister turns up to help them, dressed in the film like Mary Poppins in the book with a little of her outward sternness.
This does explain to me for the first time the strange turn the 1964 Mary Poppins takes: Mr Banks risks losing his job by refusing to give all his time to his work when he is made to realize he is neglecting his family; he refuses to yield to pressure and insists on going to fly a kite at the film’s end, when of course he is forgiven and hired back by the bank’s aged boss: Dick Van Dyke played this role as well as Bert, the match man, made in the film a lover-suitor for Mary Poppins, while in the books this is only hinted at, slightly and sometimes denied. There is no such story in any of the four MP books written by 1964 (MP, MP Comes Back, MP in the Park, MP opens the door). It is a much bowdlerized version of Travers’s father’s behavior. In life he did not die of TB either, but influenza; the real Mrs Hof had connections with powerful whites in Australia (and her sister had money).
Saving Mr Banks then may be said to inject back into the books the self-reflexive deeper material compelling the writer’s creation of Mary Poppins as a kind of strange savior of the family: the strangeness is in the way she does this: in adventure after adventure the children find themselves suddenly in another realm of reality, often connected to the zodiac or stars in the sky, the sun, sometimes natural worlds in a green park. Sometimes the figures met there are bullies, mean, or downtrodden and wanting and in need of affection. Mary is called upon to fix a situation, she does and she is worshipped there as a good kind all powerful woman (not the stern cold governess-figure she seems to be to outsiders), and each time the children return to Cherry Tree Lane somehow rejuvenated.
None of the above gets into the 1964 Mary Poppins except the passage to another idyllic place (pastoral and filled with penguins and animated figures) through Bert’s chalk sidewalk pictures (something that does happen in one of the four books’ adventures). Some does get into this 2013 Saving Mr Banks: the outward stern, cold, fussy, dominatrix feel of Ms Travers or Pamela as played superbly well by Emma Thompson is modeled partly on the book’s Mary Poppins. Thompson also conveys non-caricatured hurt, quiet moments of self-doubt, disquiet, with gestures that at moments reminded me of her most magnificent performance in Wit.
The advertisements for the film emphasize the relationship of Travers and Disney (much idealized, and played more subtly than at first appears by Tom Hanks):
Some of the Saving Mr Banks‘s worst moments come out in this strand: Walt’s long preachy speech to Pamela (he insists on a first-name basis right away) about how everyone can have or do what they want if only they try or work hard enough (a popular rightist American myth — Disney was an arch-reactionary it is true). (See Slate article on this meeting where she agreed to go along with the film.) Thompson’s imitation of a wry whose guardedness isolates her and accounts for how unhappy she makes herself (message: socializing is the most important thing to do well in life).
The strand in Saving Mr Banks which tells the story of Travers’s strong reluctance to give over the rights to Disney, her fights with the creative song-writers, Richard and Robert Sherman (David Schwartzman and D. J. Novak) and script writer, Don DaGradi (Bradley Whitford) are part of the finer threads in the film: we see them inventing and singing some of the better and still well-known numbers from the 1964 film — which as a song-and-dance musical is marvelous (especially where Van Dyke dances with a chorus of men and with Julie Andrews up a stairway into the sky).
I felt nostalgia for the film as these were sketched out by the creators, and Thompson-as-Travers’s disapproval added a piquant sauce to the mix. I remember how Izzy loved the film as a child. She has read at least a couple of the books.
The best companionable feeling in the Saving Mr Banks derives from Thompson as P.L. Travers’ relationship with Paul Giamatti as Ralph, her driver. He is the on-going person we see her with; at the first she bullies him and mocks his efforts at ingratiation and talk about the sunny weather, but eventually she comes to depend on him, especially when she has no invitation to the premier and he drives her there and provides her with support.
The most natural moment of friendship occurs when she is leaving L.A. after having rejected the script when she discovers it will have animated figures (she had been promised it would not) doing inanely silly gestures with clothes. She is seen sitting in the grass deeply distressed to think of what is happening to her story, and the driver comes over and they talk. Here she learns of his disabled daughter at home; I have read that disabled figures are figuring more in mainstream films, and Thompson as Travers is several times rebuked for her demands for formality by stories of the hardships others experienced in life as if precise manners must be an indication of obtuse snobbishness.
As she and her driver bid adieu, she addresses him as Ralph (his first name) and he addresses her as Pamela. Throughout the film her formal or more old-fashioned approach to life is seen in her discomfort in being required to start relationships on a first name basis immediately. I understand that as that is the way it was when I was a child. It’s not snobbishness; it’s a way of making some relationships more special and acknowledging intimacy that’s real. She is followed by Disney to England and he preaches his preachy-speech of his hardships in life, his father, and voila she is convinced — having liked “Let’s go fly a kite” and the depiction of Mr Banks in the film (by David Tomlinson).
Often the best parts of films don’t make it anywhere near the trailer, but this time they are also failing to get into the reviews — perhaps deliberately? Makers and critics of films like to see what is not discussably in the open brought out visually and through story but themselves in the case of expected popular audiences not risk going into tabooed matter.
Saving Mr Banks‘s script is by two women: Kelly Marcel, Sue Smith. I wondered if they had loved the Mary Poppins books, and wrote this movie in tribute to P.L. with a view of doing some justice to her and revealing some of the deeper explicable sources of the books.
I am interested in Australian literature, which I now see the Mary Poppins books belong to, and am tempted to buy one of the biographies of P.L. Travers. Patricia Deemers’s Twayne book may be the sensible one, but Valerie Lawson’s look like the writing of someone deeply engaged by the author and her books. Out of the Sky She Came: The Life of P.L. Travers, Creator of Mary Poppins. The sky provides the highest moments in the books and the 1964 film; this more sceptical disillusioned film (when it’s at its best) makes the sky the place planes fly across, but from time to time a sky is filmed, blue, with lovely clouds, as symbols of the books’ visions.