Save the father, save the world


“Winds in the east, mist coming in, like something is brewin’, about to begin… Can’t put me finger on what lies in store, but I fear what’s to happen, all happened before.”

First uttered on screen by Dick Van Dyke in 1964, those words are whispered again by the unlikely voice of Colin Farrell as Saving Mr. Banks begins, over vistas of turn-of-the-last-century Australia and the dream-lost face of the young Helen Goff, who will grow up to become author P.L. Travers and the creator of Mary Poppins.  In short order we leap forward from the idyll to early 1960’s England, where the adult Travers (Emma Thompson) remains, after 20 years of attempts by Walt Disney (Tom Hanks) to purchase the film rights from her, stubborn in her determination to avoid having her beloved creation bowdlerized by uncouth Americans who don’t seem to understand what the story is about, or, more importantly, what it means to her.  Drawn in for the moment by the allure of some much-needed funds, Travers agrees to fly to Los Angeles to work with the creative team on the screenplay for Mary Poppins – “work with” meaning shoot down almost every single idea – while resisting Disney’s personal charm offensive.   The unstoppable force meets the immovable object, and as the movie proceeds along two time-separated narratives, we see the girl trying to save her treasured father from his deterioration, and the woman fighting to preserve his memory from people she thinks are only interested in exploiting it for the sake of a mediocre cartoon.

Much like the movie whose conception it depicts, there are no villains in Saving Mr. Banks; only goodhearted people attempting to do the right thing, whether it is Farrell as Travers’ father reacting to every setback with a twinkle in his eye and spring in his step, or the increasingly exasperated but always smiling screenwriter Don DaGradi (Bradley Whitford) and composers Robert and Richard Sherman (B.J. Novak and Jason Schwartzman) struggling to meet the impossible conditions put forth by the uncooperative Travers during interminable meetings.  Particularly touching is the relationship that develops between Travers and her sunny limo driver Ralph (Paul Giamatti); while first treating him as an ill-informed Yankee, she comes to see him as a true friend, and is inspired to pass along to Ralph’s physically challenged daughter the proof that disabilities are not the same thing as limitations.  But misunderstandings abound, naturally, and this is probably the first screenplay in the history of Hollywood where the crisis point at the end of the second act involves whether or not penguins are to be animated.  (As an aside, it’s also the first screenplay to my knowledge where a character utters my last name:  checking into her room at the Beverly Hills Hotel only to find it’s been filled with Disney stuffed animals as welcome gifts, Travers shoves aside a Winnie the Pooh and grumbles “Ugh, A.A. Milne.”  I – what’s the expression – fangirl squeed?)

I’m a sucker for movies about Hollywood, particularly old Hollywood, and the attention to detail in recreating the feel of the Disney production offices (and Disneyland itself) of the early 60’s is impeccable.  The performances, especially Thompson’s, are elegant, the cinematography is lush, and the score is full of life and hope.  Magic exudes from each frame.  But despite the central conflict between Travers’ obstinacy and Disney’s persistence that is the focus of the trailers, the movie is about fathers, and the complex relationships we continue to have with them long after they are gone.  That is where Saving Mr. Banks packs its most powerful emotional punch.  Like Hamlet, the ghost of the father looms in every scene – Travers Goff, the man who helped the young “Ginty” unlock her imagination and set her on the path to becoming a storyteller, honored posthumously in her choice of surname for her writing career.  Befuddled by the author’s seemingly irrelevant demands on the script, articulated by frustrated Bob Sherman who pointedly queries, “What does it matter?”, Walt Disney initially misses the mark, thinking that Mary Poppins comes to save the children.  We have the benefit of hindsight, having watched, dozens of times, David Tomlinson as George Banks evolve from curmudgeonly drone to a man full of life and wonder and joy.  The children don’t even say goodbye to Mary Poppins when she leaves, but they don’t have to, as her spirit has found a new home in their own dear father.  Late in Saving Mr. Banks, Disney relates to Travers a tale of his own upbringing in wintry Missouri and of his difficult relationship with his hard-driving father Elias, and the two creative forces finally find their connection – a shared desire to redeem the old man.

Being someone’s child is taking on the responsibility of their legacy, willing or not.  In the movie, Ginty cannot understand why her beloved father is falling apart before her eyes, and she struggles to help him preserve his happiness and his dignity, even where her efforts are unintentionally harmful.  In creating the character of George Banks, P.L. Travers wanted (the movie posits, at least) to give her father the happy ending he could never find for himself.  When she sees him depicted on screen, and when she experiences the joy of the audience in watching him triumph, she weeps.  My father died when I was 11, and I’d be lying if I didn’t admit that a significant portion of why I do what I do is trying to ensure that his name is regarded in perpetuity as highly as I think it should be – the same name (though different family) P.L. Travers mouths onscreen.  He was the person I experienced stories with.  Reading to me, and with me, taking me to the movies, kindling a lifelong love of narrative and of imagination and promise lying within pages and celluloid.  He used to let me borrow his handheld dictaphone so I could record my own imaginary episodes of The A-Team (don’t ask).  He’d let me fill LP-sized floppy disks from his office computer full of chapters of an unfinished attempted novel about a boy and his racehorse.   And though he died long before I ever began to take writing seriously, every time I sit down at the keyboard I’m hoping that it will turn out to be something he would have liked, that he would have boasted to his friends and colleagues about.  (Knowing him, he’d boast about it even if it was an illiterate pile of tripe.)  And perhaps, beneath the veil of different characters in settings far removed from that available to a small-town attorney, I’m trying to give him his happy ending too.  In the theater, I felt in my soul that primal need of Travers to do right by her dad.  To save him.  And a tear escaped my eye as it did hers.

For too short a time, they’re our whole world.  Eventually, our chances to talk with them are gone, to ask them questions that never would have occurred to us while they were alive, questions we thought we’d have time for someday.  When we were sharing a beer after staining the back deck together on a hot Sunday afternoon.  When we were tossing the football back and forth between three generations upon park grass touched with the first autumn frost.  Those scenarios aren’t possible now, so we try to replicate them in fiction.  We forge characters who ask the questions we can’t, and let them seek their answers, secure as we type that they will reach their destination and achieve the closure that eludes us.  When the stake is so personal, we comprehend why P.L. Travers did not want to give Mary Poppins up.  Mary wasn’t a character, she was a mission.  So was Mickey Mouse for Walt Disney.  It’s not easy to abdicate such a soulful responsibility, to hand over a legacy.  I wouldn’t be the first to volunteer for that, would you?  However, there may come a time when I’m willing to let go, to share the father I knew with a world that deserves to know him the way I did.  I can only hope that it’s in a manner as befitting as Mary Poppins, or Saving Mr. Banks.

“Winds in the east, mist coming in, like something is brewin’, about to begin… Can’t put me finger on what lies in store, but I fear what’s to happen, all happened before.”

Loud and long and clear

David Tomlinson as George Banks.

The death this week of composer Robert B. Sherman at the age of 86, one half of the famed Sherman Brothers, is a tremendous loss for the world of music.  The name might not immediately ring familiar, but his body of work certainly would.  Beginning in 1961 with The Parent Trap, Sherman’s prolific collaboration with brother Richard was the soundtrack for millions of childhoods – films like The Jungle Book, Chitty Chitty Bang Bang, Bedknobs and Broomsticks and most famously, Mary Poppins.  Kids learned Sherman Brothers songs along with “Mary Had a Little Lamb” and “Old MacDonald.”  They were catchy, upbeat and relentlessly optimistic – songs that just made you feel good and want to learn all the words.  This was all the more remarkable given Sherman’s service in World War II, and that he had led Allied forces into the Dachau concentration camp in 1945 shortly after it had been abandoned by the Germans.  To have seen such horror and to come out the other side with one’s faith in humanity intact is simply remarkable – not to mention retaining the ability to communicate that faith through art.

It is perhaps that spirit of unflappable positivity that continues to endear Mary Poppins to one generation after another.  To me, the secret of its appeal has always laid in its unsung hero, the man the story is truly about:  uptight financier and family patriarch George Banks, played perfectly by David Tomlinson, an actor who never achieved movie star wattage, but was always highly regarded by his peers as a good and honourable soul – qualities that he brought to what is perhaps his iconic part.  Mary is charming, Bert is a happy-go-lucky goofball (dodgy Cockney accent and all) and the kids are cute without being cloying, but the movie is George’s story through and through.  George starts the movie as a man of business – Ebenezer Scrooge without the cruelty or sneering condescension at the less fortunate.  He is a man locked into the machine, always dressed in black and white, very much accustomed to his place as one of the cogs that drives the British economy.  And he has come to believe that this is how his family should operate as well – his opening number, “The Life I Lead,” details with clockwork precision how he wants his household to run; like a bank.  He has truly put aside childish things and buried his imagination beneath his bowler hat.  Indeed, he is a man for whom the audience feels great sympathy, because he is good and kind, but lost.  His eventual triumph, when, after having been ritually sacked, he bursts into laughter at rediscovering the mirth inherent in life, is like watching pure joy unfold before your eyes.  It’s a liberating reminder that things can indeed be “supercalifragilisticexpialidocious” – it’s all in how we choose to look at them.  And we can find a Buddha-like tranquility and fulfillment in just going to fly a kite.

One has to wonder if the message would have resonated as strongly without the Sherman Brothers’ wonderful songs to deliver it.  Something that has always perplexed me when it comes to criticism, whether it’s music, film or literature, is the seeming bias against work that conveys a positive message.  Critics tend to go for bleak and raw, the ugliest emotions stripped to their very bone.  Certainly there is merit in such work; we cannot present a fair and accurate portrait of humanity without acknowledging its inherent duality and contradictions, the best and the worst of us.  But uplifting art is often dismissed as candy, as artifice of the most deceptive kind.  No, Mary Poppins is not Taxi Driver, and the Sherman Brothers’ songs aren’t Radiohead.  But ask yourself how you want to feel.  Does anyone really enjoy being depressed?  Do we not always crave the light?  Is there perhaps more truth to be found in the songs of a man like Robert Sherman, who saw the worst of humanity and still found reason to celebrate life, than in those of a  latter day pretender whose worst tribulation was that their high school crush didn’t return their affections?  Would anyone’s needs be served by watching George Banks crashing and burning and leaving his family bereft?  Pish posh, I say.  Instead, we are lifted as he completes his journey and achieves enlightenment.

To me, art that appeals to our sense of hope is infinitely more valuable and truthful than that which wallows in the cesspool of despair.  It’s easy and a cop out to be depressed at the state of the world.  But let’s be honest – like the Mary Poppins Sherman Brothers song goes, we all still love to laugh.  So I can close today with a quote from George Banks that never fails to make me smile:

“I know a man with a wooden leg named Smith.”

“What’s the name of his other leg?”