Tuesday, January 28, 2014

Saving Mr. Banks (2013)

The first 30 minutes of this movie seemed like it would be little more than a chronicle of P. L. Travers' cranky, persnickety habits. Fortunately, it expanded beyond her eccentricities, but perhaps tried to give us a too simplistic and belabored rationale for them.

We meet Pamela Lyndon Travers (nee Helen Lyndon Goff) 25 years after her first, enormously popular Mary Poppins novel was published. She has nearly exhausted the financial security the book sales brought her, won't write new stories, and, her lawyer informs her, is about to lose her home if she can't generate income soon.

Her attorney has to fight just to help her help herself and convince the sudden Travers to just consider Walt Disney's repeated offer to buy the movie rights to her book. She finally agrees to fly to the dreaded Los Angeles, just to allow Disney present his movie script to her. She makes no promises about contracting over her rights. In fact, she only agrees to go by falsely convincing herself that she won't give up the movie rights and isn't constrained by looming foreclosure to do so.

During the plane ride, Travers' possessiveness over her creation and proud helplessness cause her to flashback to her childhood, when her alcoholic father lost his job and they were forced to move to an isolated, ramshackle home in Allora, Queensland. Young Helen, the eldest of three daughters, is about 10 in the flashbacks (and probably only 6 in real life). With the help of her fantasy-weaving father, she considers their move more of an adventure than a disgrace, but one can see that the worry, humiliation and realization that her husband's instability is only increasing is weighing her mother (played by the incomparable Ruth Wilson, kisses to Alice!) down.

Goff tells his daughter that she is a princess, they find at their new home has only been blighted by a witch's curse. It's really a fine horse, with feet as fast as wings. Does she trust him? "Yes." Always, only, unconditionally. He swings her up onto the horse, tucks her legs around his waist and they gallop off, away from the dirt and poverty and into Goff's fairytale world, where he doesn't need to maintain either sobriety or employment to light Helen with joy.

Back in the present, Travers is greeted at LAX by a chauffeur who refuses to call her "Mrs. Travers" as ordered. Everything is ostentatious and excessive, but especially her hotel suite, cluttered with Disney stuffed animals, food and celebratory debris. The wasteful indulgences affront her. She finds the pears in her gift fruit basket particularly offensive and throws them out the window, much to the dismay of the people lounging at the pool below.
Travers may have created a woman who flies up bannisters and entertains magical friends, but though possessed of magical powers, Mary Poppins is as practical at heart as Travers herself and Disney's welcoming flattery isn't the way to win her compliance. In fact, it makes her more resistant.

At Walt's corporate offices, Travers is told that he insists on being called "Walt" and is as obstinate about his forced casualness as she, "Mrs. Travers, is about formality. And that's what this is, a battle of wills between two equally eccentric people, both insistent on having their own way. The difference is that Disney wants his way with Travers' creation. To me, that makes him the most unreasonable one. For the first 40 minutes, I thought the movie did not acknowledge this. While Disney was too loud, too overbearing, too confident, the quintessential "Ugly American," he was portrayed as rational. Everyone's reaction to Travers however, painted her as decidedly abnormal. Her aversion to Disney animation portrayed as being just as illogical as her intolerance for pears.

The one-sided depiction was starting to make me bristle. Wasn't Travers allowed to be just as insulted when Disney suggested her characters sing, as he was when she called his cartoons silly? Why was she the only one being judged? Perhaps because she was surrounded by Disney employees who automatically assumed their way, their boss', was the only right one. Disney, though, proved more introspective than he'd seemed on the surface.

One evening after his frustrated writers are exhausted from wrangling with Travers, Disney drops in to visit, after Travers' has left for the day. The writers hopefully assure him that she'll change her mind about all the changes she's demanded and Disney says she won't. He repeats this conviction with a grave expression, explaining that he has been on the other side of Travers' fight. He remembers trying to appease backers for the Disney company and everything they wanted him to give up, even the mouse. He fought them. It would have killed him to give up that mouse, he says. It would have killed him. He knows that this is not a contract negotiation for P. L. Travers, it's a heart transplant. He's threatening to take something that means everything to her, stands for everything she is, away.

Of course, once we learn that Disney realizes this it makes his treatment of her seem deliberately insensitive. He's never cruel and not often impolite, but he's unbudging. He doesn't want to compromise. He only wants to win. She loathes animation, rather than even considering its removal from the movie that is his vision, not hers, he lies to her about his plans. He wants to make no concessions to get what's hers.

This is why it's rather satisfying to have Travers ride herd over the Disney staff. They think they're just indulging her and eventually want to place a limit to her changes to their script. Then, they learned that Travers has no contract with Disney. She hasn't signed the contract yet. Until she does, she's the boss, not Walt. They aren't being kind to a difficult woman, they're working for her. I like it when this dawns on them. She may never have triumphed over Walt, but at least she demands obeisance from his employees -- even sending one out of the room for rudeness like a naughty school boy, with no power to object.

As her trip continues, so do her flashbacks. She's 10 years old again. Her father is still drinking, putting his job as bank manager in jeopardy. It's his occupation that lends its name to the Banks family for whom Mary Poppins becomes governess. Mr. Banks, the father is modeled after her own. That's why he must have no mustache, Goff was always clean shaven, the better to kiss his favorite daughter. But because Disney sees the film patriarch as his own father, Elias, Disney insists that the character does have a mustache. Disney wins.

Yet, once he understands how emotionally connected Travers is to Mr. Banks, he softens the characters gruff edges and allows him to be a kinder father. Putting in the "Let's Go Fly a Kite" scene just for Travers. She not only embraces the gentler portrayal of Mr. Banks but is so taken by the song, performed by father and children that she doesn't even rue the fact that the movie is a musical any longer. In fact, the staff breathlessly call Disney to the writers' room so he can witness it himself: Mrs. Travers' is actually DANCING.

Travers' also warms up to her chauffer. She hated his small talk and pleasantries. His "fine weather we're having" greeting, but after helping her build a trench in the mud (the same type she used to build as a child while playing) the driver explains his obsession with the weather. His daughter is wheelchair bound. Her limbs are stiff. On rainy days he has to leave her in doors all day. When the sun shines, she can bask in its warmth and light. Travers says nothing, but she doesn't object to his salutations any more.

By this time, relations seem positively conciliatory between Author and Movie Studio.

Back in the past, Travers' world is falling apart. Her father not only falls down drunk during the bank's presentation at a county fair, but he coughs up blood and is taken to bed with fever. Her overwhelmed mother tries to drown herself while in a somnolent state and is rescued by young Helen. A prim aunt arrives to save the family by, first bringing order to their home and making sure everything is "spit spot." Thus, Mary Poppins is born.

The delirious Goff has turned upon his daughter, mocking the poem she has written him, breaking her heart. But she doesn't reject him. Instead, she writes a better poem. In a last moment of lucidity, Goff is loving and Helen asks him if there's anything he'd like. Pears, he answers. She runs off to pick them and when she returns, she finds that he has died. That's why she hates pears today. A little of this goes a long way. It's true that we are what we were. But the line between everything that shaped us as children and the mold we carry into adulthood is not that clear, clean or literal. It's fine for the film to show us Travers' (Helen's) early disappointments and influences, but there's no need to link everything she and Mary Poppins are to the life and death of Travers Goff, especially since he died when the real Helen was only 8 and the movie doesn't tell us what happened during the rest of her formative years. To say that everything she feels today is an amplification of what she felt then is to take a paint-by-numbers approach to storytelling.

Back at Disneyland, literally, we see Travers get a firsthand tour of the famous park. The costumes, scenery and sets that recreate Los Angeles in the early sixties are rich, vividly transporting us to that other time. Walt is greeted by a mass of Disney visitors who want his autograph. He gives them something better, copies of his signature that he has Xeroxed and dispenses like fliers. Everything in his world is a fa├žade, but it's the only reality Walt knows -- in his mind, it's the superior reality. Travers' just observes, until he orders her to get on the merry go round. I wish she had barked right back at him, just as she did to his writers. As much as I love the Mary Poppins movie, the magic Julie Andrews and Dick Van Dyke brought to it, I'm sad to the extent that Travers' was reversed.

Disney tells Travers that reading her book saves children, just as Mary Poppins saved Jane and Michael Banks. Travers scoffs. Does he really think Mary (well, Travers insists that it's always "Mary Poppins" never just "Mary") was there to save the children? After some reflection, Disney sees that Mary Poppins saved Mr. Banks instead, just as Travers' wishes her father had been saved. In the end, Mary Poppins is going to be something different to each of us, beyond what either Travers or Disney's definitions. Still, Disney has no right to insist that his vision usurp Travers'. She comes to this conclusion upon learning that the dancing penguins in Disney's movie script will be animated, against Travers' express cartoon prohibition. Travers hands the unsigned contract back to Disney and flies home to England. One would cheer her exit, if we didn't know how the story ends.

At home, Travers is relieved to be reunited with fine English tea again. She shares a cup with ... a stuffed Micky Mouse. The same toy that she tossed aside when she first arrived in Los Angeles has now become quite a companion.

After she leaves, Disney probes deeper into Travers' background and learns she didn't grow up a pampered English Rose. She was a poor Australian girl. All this time he'd been dealing with Travers, he should have been talking to her inner Helen.

He flies to England, tells her a tale about his own icy childhood, delivering newspapers for a stern father in frigid snow and threadbare shoes.
Avuncular and caring, he convinces Travers that she understand her needs. She signs the contract.

I feel the movie should have ended there, but it proceeds to the movie premier. Disney doesn't send Travers an invitation. She'll only gripe openly about every scene and his film doesn't need the bad publicity. With prodding from her attorney, Travers' decides she's not the type to take the slight lying down. She flies to Los Angeles, this time expensively attired, having reaped the rewards of her book deal. She demands an invitation to the premiere. She feels alone amid the Hollywood glitterati. Her words and ideas have made this movie possible, but she is an outsider, no cameras vie for her attention on the red carpet. No one wants her interview. They associate Mary Poppins with Julie Andrews, Walt Disney, even Disney's writers, but not P. L. Travers.

Travers watches the movie enthralled and cries loudly (and I think rather absurdly) for Mr. Banks. Once again we're told that his trial, tribulations and triumphs are her father's. Her own.

The movie ends with priceless credits showing pictures of the real Travers, Disney and writers, in place of Emma Thompson, Tom Hanks and the other cast members. Then we hear audio of P. L. Travers' actual voice as she precisely instructs Disney's restless writers. She tells them how the Banks' house exterior should look, it's modeled after her own. She explains how the flowers should be arranged, clarifies the Banks' class status, explains that Mr. Banks is not an unkind man, he's just been burdened by the cares of the world. Those matter-of-fact words from Travers' herself are more touching than the heavy-handed exposition that the movie offered.

Even if some things were explained in broad, repetitive strokes, the film's expert acting and attention to visual detail made it a pleasure to watch.

Aside from Travers' relationship to her father, I wanted to know a little more about those early years. At times it seemed that Goff sought to alienate the child from her mother, painting the woman who weakly tried to hold things together, as the bad guy who wanted to ground their flights of fancy. He'd rather have Helen by his side imagining herself a princess, than helping her mother set the table so that they could eat the meager provisions his errant ways left them. I'm not sure, but at times it seemed as if Travers' resented her mother's physical closeness to Goff, seeming to mind when they kissed or embraced. Helen once muttered, "she's a foul fowl," but I'm unclear as to whether she was referring to her, actually, docile mother or a witch from one of her father's stories. Did she consider her mother a rival? I can't say, but as long as we were visiting Travers' past, I'd like to have seen how she interacted with her sisters, mother and aunt who became the Mary Poppins' prototype. She probably spent more time with any and all of them than with her alcoholic dad. Of course, she idolized him. any child would gravitate towards what is handsome, reckless and impractical, over the sober and conventional. Maybe a small part of Travers was even charmed by Walt Disney, for the very same reason.







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