Private and public: personalizing the
corporation and corporate personhood

At this point let’s reflect briefly on some possible implications of this organized confusion of a corporation with a person, since the question of whether corporations are people has become a major political and legal issue in the United States. Conservatives have been claiming for more than a century that corporations are people. And in this light, many observers, apparently including the Supreme Court’s liberal minority, believe that in a strongly contested 5-4 decision, Citizens United v. Federal Elections Commission (2010), the Court has now powerfully expanded the rights of corporations, “treating corporate speech the same as that of human beings.”[79] [open endnotes in new window] While the federal courts have long granted corporations special rights of limited liability, the accumulation of capital and eternal life (!), they have also carefully limited the other rights of corporations, especially in the political arena. Now the Supreme Court seems to be reversing this long tradition as it subscribes to the conservative legal doctrine of corporate personhood and perhaps the concept of the corporate persona with individual rights. The New York Times editorialized on this issue in September 2009:

“In an exchange this month with Chief Justice Roberts, the solicitor general, Elena Kagan, argued against expanding that narrowly defined personhood. ‘Few of us are only our economic interests,’ she said. ‘We have beliefs. We have convictions.’ Corporations ‘engage the political process in an entirely different way, and this is what makes them so much more damaging,’ she said. Chief Justice Roberts disagreed: ‘A large corporation, just like an individual, has many diverse interests.’ Justice Antonin Scalia said most corporations are ‘indistinguishable from the individual who owns them.’”[81]

The legal doctrine is accompanied by a popular ideology, summarized most famously by Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney in Iowa in 2011:

“Corporations are people, my friend…. Everything corporations earn ultimately goes to people.”[82]

The concentrated wealth of large corporations backs both the popular ideology and the conservative legal doctrine. Scalia’s comment in particular sounds uncannily like the result of the decades-long work of many people inside the Walt Disney Company and elsewhere, work devoted to maintaining the founder’s image and merging it with that of the institution itself.

As developed by film, television and media industries, the process of personalization actually has two parallel, partially intersecting dimensions, one specific to the Walt Disney Company, the other an industry-wide practice, the classical narrative way of telling cinematic stories developed by the Hollywood film industry and elsewhere between about 1907 and 1917 and now standardized, with variations, in commercial film and media industries around the world.[83] In the visual essay above I describe and analyze how classical narrative is used concretely in Saving Mr. Banks as well as the ways the film is used to idealize Walt Disney and build the Disney brand. Here I briefly summarize some general characteristics of classical film narrative, linking them to the conservative character of the personalization involved in both the legal doctrine that corporations are people and the Walt Disney Company’s distinctive business strategy of building its brand around the simulated identity of its founder.

Public into private:
classical narration as personalization

During the first and second decades of the twentieth century the rapidly growing film industries in Hollywood and elsewhere faced a problem: while audiences loved the movies, films were so far only a novelty. If suppliers were going to stimulate and sustain demand enough to build a viable industry, they needed to make movie going a regular habit, something that large numbers of people did every week. By the nineteen-twenties film industries had accomplished this goal, and a major reason is their development of a way of telling stories that went beyond the short distractions and spectacles of early cinema, that now absorbed huge and diverse audiences in the imaginary lives and emotions of fictional characters. As fiction film collapsed the emotional distance between spectators and screen, audiences learned the pleasures of absorption in the immediate experience of feature-length narratives in which goal-oriented characters pursued mostly personal and individual rather than public, social, collective or institutional goals.[84]

In Saving Mr. Banks, the protagonist, P.L. Travers, begins with conflicted goals, wanting both to sell the rights to her beloved Mary Poppins to Walt Disney and thus make enough money to keep her London house, and also the opposite, to protect her life’s creation from Disneyfication. The extensive narrative flashbacks of Travers’ childhood memories gradually heighten the conflict between these goals, and around the halfway point of the film Disney’s version of Travers no longer is driving the narrative forward. At this point the Disney version of Walt Disney begins to assume narrative control (“We’ve gotta fix this, boys!”) with the goal of completing his film Mary Poppins, which also provides therapy for Travers. The historical encounter of P.L. Travers and Walt Disney was multidimensional and complex, with important cultural, institutional and economic dimensions. But the film presents Travers’ goals and conflicts as almost entirely personal and psychological, and the script flatters Disney by emphasizing his equally personal goal of making the film in order to fulfill a promise he made to his daughters rather than the necessity to continue making profitable movies. Thus the conflict between them is mostly stripped of larger social and historical resonances, radically simplified for pleasurable consumption.

The narrative and character construction is also linear, functional, and economical. In general, only those character traits are introduced which will be useful in involving the audience in the narrative and the individual character’s fate. And only those narrative events will be introduced which will function to move the narrative forward and complete the personal “arc” of the film. When the adult Travers, arriving at her hotel room in Los Angeles, immediately picks out a pear from the welcome basket and throws it out the window into the swimming pool, that action introduces a small narrative question, hook or symptom—why did she do that?—the later answer to which, in the flashbacks of her childhood, forms part of a pattern designed to promote identification with the narrative. Identification with characters and stars with personalized goals is enabled by such identification with the narrative process.

Central to classical narrative is the continuity system, which generates smooth, unbroken continuity across cuts, stabilizing the film’s space and time by mapping it onto a personalized narrative.[85] The 180-degree system, analytic editing, shot-reverse shot, eyeline match, and match on action—these continuity techniques described in the visual essay above work to focus viewers’ attention and emotional identification on individual characters, turning the two-dimensional screen into a window on an imaginary three-dimensional diegetic world of the story. A pleasurably omnipresent camera observer cues and manages narrative information, giving and withholding knowledge, drawing viewers into emotional identification with usually plausible characters and building an industry on the industrial production and consumption of such identification.

While Hollywood and other commercial film industries were built on this conventional storytelling system for live-action features by around 1917, animated cartoons remained short novelties shown before these features, with flat, two-dimensional drawings and equally flat, stylized characters, funny but uninvolving. Although artists and intellectuals as well as larger audiences loved the early Disney shorts and the early, nasty Mickey Mouse, Walt drove his animators throughout the thirties to make cartoons that while still stylized, incorporated more lifelike, naturalistic movement and especially facial expressions.

Disney shorts began to include sweeter, more goal-oriented characters and sentimental stories audiences could care about. They quickly assimilated aspects of the continuity system as well as technological innovations like color and sound for realism and viewer involvement. The Disney studio successfully led the U.S. animation industry into features with Snow White in 1937 even before his animators had fully mastered the illusion of movement and gesture for maximum audience absorption and greater profits. In the thirties the company learned “personality animation,” focusing spectators’ attention on appealing collections of character traits, especially in animals and imaginary creatures like the fully differentiated seven dwarfs. Disney animation became less strange and magical, lost most of the uncanny dimension of moving drawings and paintings as it became more personalized and consumable.[86]

In a sense Disney domesticated animation into a niche product within the personalizing conventions of classical narrative. The company then expanded this niche in two ways in the forties and fifties. First, out of necessity during WWII and later more commercially, it made documentaries and live action features, sometimes incorporating animation into both, as in Mary Poppins. Second, it projected the personalized narratives into three-dimensional built environments in fantasy theme parks and urban design. Only by understanding how the Walt Disney Company hybridized animation, classical narrative, fantasy architecture and urban design through personalization can we understand the bases of the company’s successful postwar diversification.[87]
Public into private:
The Walt Disney Company personalizes itself

While Disney animators were developing a more naturalized and conventional style of telling personalized feature-length stories, everyone in the growing Disney organization was working to personalize the corporation itself, not just its products, for consumers. In the twenties and thirties the company learned how to identify Walt with newly popular “scientific” conceptions of parenting in a variety of media, as Sammond demonstrates.[88] In the fifties and sixties it constructed “Uncle Walt” as the host of Disneyland and other anthology television programs as well as Disneyland the new theme park. And while it constantly found brand-building exchange value in its vaults and archives, it increasingly leveraged access to those same archives in negotiations with independent journalists and historians. The company was constantly trying to impose the Disney version of its own history and especially the magical, central role of Walt in order to subordinate public priorities and information to the imperatives of this private corporation.[89] Through Saving Mr. Banks, for example, many more people now know the Disney version of the making of Mary Poppins than know more historical versions, thus reinforcing the branded myth of the oneness of Walt and his company.

In the age of corporate personhood, perhaps the corporation that seems most at one with a simulacrum of its founder now leads the struggle to legitimize indirectly, through popular ideology, the legal concept of corporate personhood. Could it be that the Disney brand is, in part, a kind of persona, personality or imaginary character that more and more people find to persuasively resemble a human being endowed with inalienable rights? In 2013, Disney was #14 on the Interbrand list of top global brands. Could it be that the qualities of trust, dependability, and innovation that many attribute to top corporate brands are less and less distinguishable from the human qualities we have historically recognized only in individuals?

Corporations as psychopathic individuals

If corporations are persons, then what are the distinctive traits of this type of person? Joel Bakan argues that in endowing the modern corporation with limited liability, legal rights and vastly more power than the individuals who comprise it, a kind of Frankenstein monster has been created, one which now threatens the society from which it emerged. Granting the private corporation personhood makes it an independent being, a “natural entity.” Yet this, the most powerful institution on earth, now given human status, is legally required to maximize shareholder value by relentlessly pursuing its own economic self-interest, ignoring social responsibility, and externalizing its costs wherever possible. While it enormously expands the social forces of production, leading to better lives for many, it is designed to act without regard for the consequences for humans or the environment. Thus it exhibits many of the characteristics of the psychopathic individual: it is amoral and antisocial, manipulative, intensely self-interested, and lacking in empathy or remorse.[90]

Certainly many of the characteristics that I and others have identified in the Walt Disney Company, as with other large corporations, fit this unflattering profile. Its amoral self-interest includes paying its top executives hundreds of millions of dollars a year while many of its employees receive poverty wages and work in oppressive conditions. Its continued exploitation of sexist, racist and homophobic representations long after extensive public criticism and protest demonstrates a lack of empathy and remorse. And its constitutive manipulations include masking these and other antisocial behaviors behind the kindly simulacrum of its founder. What distinguishes the Walt Disney Company from other large corporations, however, is that to an unusual degree its institutional practices often help to generate the very human misery from which its products and services, its stories and characters and songs, promise like no others to provide pleasant and therapeutic escape. This circle closes with particular force in the corporate self-promotion that is Saving Mr. Banks.

Saving Mr. Banks: Disney history

With regard to the events depicted in Saving Mr. Banks, what arguments do the best historical sources allow us to make, and how do those arguments compare with the Disney interpretation in the film? Several relevant sources use primary documents, including a comprehensive biography of Travers by Valerie Lawson and an insightful long essay by Caitlin Flanagan as well as several biographies of Walt Disney.[91] Of these historical interpretations, only Lawson’s biography goes into detail about the ten days that Travers spent in Los Angeles in March 1961, consulting on the script for Disney’s Mary Poppins, and other events and circumstances interpreted in the film, and the film acknowledges her book. In addition, Lawson and Flanagan are independent of both sides in the long-running sparring between Disney and Travers, while Neal Gabler, the authorized Disney biographer, is the most dependent on Disney given his privileged access to the Disney archives and family. He is explicitly critical of Travers, calling her “more than a little dotty.”[92] The only surviving participant in those 1961 script conferences, the songwriter Richard Sherman, consulted with screenwriter Kelly Marcel on her revisions to the script of Saving Mr. Banks, and she credits him with greatly improving the voices of Disney and his writers in the film.[93] And Marcel herself has talked extensively about the script and the film. She says that she listened to many of the recorded conversations the film depicts and read correspondence between Disney and Travers, incorporating the correspondence into the script as face-to-face conversations.[94] However, Marcel, like Neal Gabler, is not independent of the Disney organization since she and Gabler are apparently the only two granted access to relevant documents in the Disney archives. In a long interview Marcel overpraises Disney, her employer on this project.[95]

This is contested terrain, since it concerns protracted conflicts and negotiations not only between Travers on the one hand and Disney and his writers on the other, but also and much more important, and elided in Disney’s version, between a hypercommercial multinational entertainment corporation with platoons of aggressive lawyers and an individual writer, part of a small Irish and English literary elite, and her own New York lawyers. However, these sources can usually be reconciled on what happened, while differing in their emphases and interpretations.

Saving Mr. Banks also treats the process of adapting a literary work into a Hollywood film. This also is contested terrain with a long history, continuing today, of Hollywood films usually represented as simplifying, dumbing down and commodifying literature to fit its image of popular tastes, although literary and artistic sources have sometimes been transformed into new and even original films. While changes by filmmakers to literary sources are not intrinsically betrayals, given reasonable artistic license, neither are the tendentious patterns of those changes a matter of historical indifference. Here I will analyze several major changes the film makes to what we know about the historical events it depicts, not in order to judge Disney for making any changes at all, but to understand the implications of those patterned changes.

Disney on Pamela Travers: personalization

A fascinating, contradictory, sometimes difficult, independent and artistic woman, P.L. Travers left her native Australia for Dublin and London in 1924 at age 25 and became a journalist, actress, dancer, adventurer, and later a writer in residence at Smith and Radcliffe.[96] She wrote poetry and erotica and a series of successful Mary Poppins books from the thirties through the eighties, books loved by Princess Margaret, Caroline Kennedy, Sylvia Plath and Diane Disney among many others. Her family life has been well described by Caitlin Flanagan in The New Yorker:

“[Disney’s] Mary Poppins advocates the kind of family life that Walt Disney had spent his career both chronicling and helping to foster on a national level: father at work, mother at home, children flourishing. It is tempting to imagine that in Travers he found a like-minded person, someone who embodied the virtues of conformity and traditionalism. Nothing could be further from the truth. Travers was a woman who never married, wore trousers when she felt like it, had a transformative and emotionally charged relationship with an older married man, and entered into a long-term live-in relationship with another woman. As she approached forty, she decided that she wanted a child. After a bizarre incident in which she attempted to adopt the seventeen-year-old girl who cleaned her house, she travelled to Ireland and adopted an infant, one of a pair of twins, and raised him as a single mother. Her reverence for the delights of family life was perhaps as intense as Disney’s, but her opinion about the shape such a life might assume was far more nuanced.”[97]

Equally important, Travers became part of the contemporary English and Irish literary circles that included T.S. Eliot and W.B. Yeats.[98] A freethinker and bohemian, her differences with Walt Disney were not just personal but gendered, economic, and cultural, part of larger issues that Emma Thompson, an accomplished screenwriter herself, tried to discuss whenever possible in publicity interviews for Saving Mr. Banks. Thompson tried to place Travers in historical context, as an independent woman who, since her books were no longer selling enough copies to support her, only sold the rights to Disney out of economic necessity. As Virginia Woolf said, “a woman needs money and a room of her own if she is to write fiction.”[99] Thompson:

“It’s not just a financial question. It comes from the age-old difficulty of women being written about by Austen onward. What do you do? How do you make a living, if you’re not going to be married to someone who’s going to pay your bills?”[100]

But as with her own performance, Thompson was often fighting the film and its phalanx of publicity, which largely personalize the gendered differences in economic resources and culture. The film tilts Travers from a complicated representative of a formidably noncommercial value system into a lonely, deeply unhappy spinster with personal problems. From a nonconforming woman she becomes someone who would be happier if she conformed but can’t until Walt provides therapy. She becomes a writer of children’s books who can’t stand children. Her objections to his plans for adaptation become less often the substantive critique of Disneyfication that had developed since the thirties, and more often an arbitrary (take the color red out of the film) or psychologized (save my daddy, Mr. Banks) fancy. Whereas cultural critics and experts on children’s literature like Frances Clarke Sayers had by 1961 been publicly criticizing Disney for decades for his commercialization and simplification of classic children’s fairy tales, on the few occasions when Travers here begins to sound like Sayers and other substantive critics of the period she usually veers off into merely mean or pathetic sidetracks.[101] The film seems to be trying, inconsistently, to both evoke and discredit critics of Disneyfication, now and in the past, as people with personal problems.

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