Disney on Pamela Travers: psychologization

The film not only personalizes the conflicts between Disney and Travers, it discredits Travers by simplifying her (though inconsistently), reducing most of her motivations to the psychological. The flashbacks to Helen Goff’s early life in Australia become excessively and symptomatically long (some reviewers complained) since a Disney mandate for the film is to immerse viewers in the pain of her childhood, paint a simplistic picture of a woman captured by her own past. Too much in 1961 southern California reminds her of her childhood in Australia, and working through the script of Mary Poppins brings back memories of how she was unable to save her father. So she must repeat the past, trying to save him in the present. Since she cannot save her father, Walt must intervene to redeem him along with his film.

Travers drives the narrative during the early sections of the film as the intercutting between past and present gradually explains or over-explains her psychology. But her memories of childhood trauma gradually erode her control over the working sessions at Disney until in a confrontation with Walt and the writers, she symptomatically reveals her secret in a scoffing riposte to Walt: “You think Mary Poppins comes to save the children?!”

Since Walt has a few other things to attend to, including planning Walt Disney World, it takes him a while to become a detective and therapist, assuming control of the narrative by tracking down her childhood trauma: it’s Helen’s father, Mr. Banks, that Mary Poppins comes to save. In the process Walt Disney reveals an empathy Travers lacks. In a climactic monologue, the beating corporate heart of the film, Walt not only explains her motivations to her but demonstrates that though his childhood was even more Dickensian than hers, he’s over it, and she should be over hers. The personal choice to be happy is revealed as his artistic credo and his company’s therapeutic mission to make possible for every Disney customer. She begins to heal. She finally signs over the rights to the film, sees her father publicly saved at the premiere of Disney’s Mary Poppins, and starts writing again.

Disney on Pamela Travers: erasure

Finally, not content to personalize and psychologize, the film virtually erases Travers’ unconventional life from early childhood through the film’s present. More important, it erases her significant creative work, the Mary Poppins stories, as anything more than a psychological symptom she must work through. Her nonconformist cultural, sexual and family life remains way too complex for a film trying to be a simple fable, just as her Mary Poppins stories, strange and original, full of quickly shifting tones and narrative directions, would lose most of their distinctive qualities in Disney’s hands. Disney here does to P.L. Travers something similar to what it did to her Mary Poppins books in 1964. To paraphrase another Walt (Walter Benjamin), even the dead will not be safe….[102][open endnotes in new window]

Erasing Travers’ adult life and creative work not only puts this inconvenient woman and her un-commodifiable work in their place, it makes more room in the film for nostalgic re-creations of the Disney studio at work—the talented pop songwriters Richard and Robert Sherman creating songs many in the audience love, and Uncle Walt giving his employees creative freedom while providing just the right amount of creative support from his office just down the hall. In other words, the film is an ad for Mary Poppins and brand-building corporate self-promotion as well as a story about the triumph of Walt Disney’s universal vision for Mary Poppins over P.L. Travers’ personalized and parochial version. The slogan on the poster and DVD cover for the film suggests these changes: “Where her book ended, their story began.” And the film’s title in many Spanish-speaking countries: El Sueño de Walt (Walt’s Dream).[103] Travers’ life and especially her stories become a kind of structuring absence, a constitutive gap that makes possible the film’s apparent unity.[104] Using concepts for understanding such symptomatic absences, the film reveals fissures and contradictions connecting it to larger institutional issues, as I develop below.

Disney: history told by the victors

Not surprisingly, with all this advertising and brand-building to do, the film must make some major changes in the history as recounted by Lawson, Flanagan, Eliot and others. First, before she went to Los Angeles Travers had already signed over most of the rights to her books a year earlier, and she signed over more rights before she left. Second, in exchange for these rights she received what she needed most, the maximum amount of money her New York lawyers could extract from Disney: $100,000 against 5% of the producer’s gross receipts, an amount unheard of for the Disney studio, and a testament to how badly Disney wanted the rights.[105] Third, although Walt had already given her final script approval (and agreed that the film would contain no animation), he ignored all her proposed changes, and of course the film contains animation.[106] In fact, according to Richard Sherman, Disney went to his Smoke Tree Ranch in Palm Springs while Travers was there, leaving the writers alone to be “interrupted, corrected, bullied, and shamed” by Travers.[107]

“They could listen to Travers’ ideas, and present their own, but they had no power to agree to anything that she wanted.”

Finally, Travers cried at the world premiere of Mary Poppins but likely not for the reasons provided in Saving Mr. Banks. Instead of weeping at Disney’s public redemption of her father, which according to Saving Mr. Banks she had been unable to accomplish with her own more feeble creative efforts, Travers more likely cried over what Disney had done to her work: it was “all fantasy and no magic.”[109]
Thus there was far less at stake during Travers’ visit to the Disney studio in March 1961 than the film depicts.[110] Like many another author negotiating with a movie studio, Travers fought for what she saw as the integrity of her work against a more powerful antagonist. But she had little bargaining leverage at this point, since she had already exchanged major property rights for what turned out to be enough money to make her rich for the rest of her life. Disney’s Mary Poppins became a huge hit.

The Walt Disney Company’s historical revisions in Saving Mr. Banks are much more than simple artistic license, more than a compression of all the decisions made years and continents apart into a classical dramatic unity of place and time. Disney and Travers, who came from such different worlds, were bound together in a familiar kind of capitalist social relation so familiar we often overlook it. They both needed the film to be a success, since Disney had bought not only a majority share in her property but her cooperation in maximizing its exchange value as well. So they feared, mistrusted, needed, cultivated and manipulated one another, while speaking more honestly in private. “Disney, she knew, could be ferocious. Once, when she made a disparaging remark, he turned on her with anger,” reports Lawson.[111]

Disney didn’t invite Travers to the premiere because he feared she would criticize the film to the press. She came anyway, trying as she would for the rest of her life to promote her books and her artistic vision, small in the glare of the big Disney parade.[112] After Walt died in 1966 she increasingly made her private criticisms of his films more public, yet her ambivalence kept returning. The Disney organization was both the destroyer of her best creative work and, she hoped, the way she might yet bring it to more people. In the eighties she worked with Brian Sibley on a script for a film sequel to Mary Poppins, but a deal with Disney fell through.[113] Only two years before she died in 1996, she sold the theatrical rights to Mary Poppins to the producer Cameron Mackintosh (Cats, Les Miserables), who said, “She realized I was her best chance.”[114] Although she had specified that no Americans be involved, when the musical opened at the Prince Edward Theatre in London’s West End in December 2004, it was a Disney co-production. The London production was called

“a strange and beautiful thing, containing an astonishing variety of moods and distinguished by a faithful rendering of the books’ brisk and sophisticated comic sensibility.”[115]

But the New York Times compared the 2006 Broadway production unfavorably with the “undiluted wonder” of the opening sequence of Disney’s The Lion King on Broadway, noting that “every act of sorcery comes with a fortune-cookie life lesson attached.”[116] Travers struggled against Disney even after death.

Disney: Travers threatens
our beloved Mary Poppins

In the process of constructing its classical narrative, the Disney version of the making of Mary Poppins changes historical facts, emphases, and interpretations to make an argument. And just as the Disney version of Mary Poppins eclipsed Travers’ original stories in popularity and public memory, the Disney version of the making of Mary Poppins likewise eclipses the history of that making through its institutional domination of the channels of communication. Saving Mr. Banks revises history to change the balance of power in Travers’ favor, emphasizing her bullying and pretending that she held the upper hand in her negotiations with Disney. This makes her look worse and Disney and his corporation look better, since they become innocent victims.

Whereas the historical Walt could largely ignore and manipulate Travers as Hollywood moguls typically did (and do) with writers and other employees, the Disney version of Walt is far less powerful. He was forced by this bullying and unreasonable woman to give in to her every whim until he takes time out of his busy schedule to save his film—one cherished by many in the audience—by figuring out what her problem is. The film tries to inoculate us against incredulity at this obvious hagiography by acknowledging that Walt is an old-fashioned guy who must ask his executive secretary for advice about women. But Saving Mr. Banks pretends that this woman writer had a lot more power against him than she did, and that she used it not to make a better film—isn’t Disney’s Mary Poppins practically perfect in every way?—but to make arbitrary demands and work out her personal issues. The real Travers was marked by her father’s alcoholism and early death, but those traumas weren’t nearly so central to her life or overdetermining of her life or her Mary Poppins stories, as Saving Mr. Banks argues.

The real P.L. Travers wasn’t so dotty either, though she might have appeared so to Disney’s writers. She was, however, desperately trying to save whatever she could of her own work though she was now merely a consultant within this “uneasy wedlock,” as she called it, with a man and his corporation.

“Disney did not just buy the Mary Poppins story but swallowed it whole, as a shark takes a minnow.”[117]

Disney: save the American family

While Saving Mr. Banks attempts to put a difficult real woman in her place and does major repair work on the patriarchal image of Walt Disney, it also symptomatically ignores major changes in the fictional characters of the Banks family in their move from P.L. Travers’ stories to Disney’s Mary Poppins. Saving Mr. Banks constantly cuts back and forth between the adult Travers and the travails of her early family life, and the Banks family in Travers’ stories exists only in her hectoring lectures and questions to the Disney writers: The Banks’ home should be less grand. Why does Mrs. Banks have to be a suffragette? And why must Mr. Banks be so mean as to tear up his children’s letter? The historical Travers did indeed object to these things, yet in its ways of representing them, the film once again pays lip service to history while attempting to inoculate us against its power.

First, for Disney as for other Hollywood studios, the Banks’ home must be grander than the one in Travers’ story because they are selling escape into a world that looks a lot like our world but is one class notch above it—more beautiful, with better clothes, furniture and other consumer goods.

Second, for Walt Disney, Mrs. Banks likely became a suffragette so he could poke fun at the feminists who were, in his conservative ideology, responsible for the breakdown in the family and the rise of divorce.[118]Although the beginning of the second wave feminist movement is usually dated as 1963, with the publication of Betty Friedan’s influential The Feminine Mystique, an English translation of Simone de Beauvoir’s The Second Sex had been published in the United States in 1953. And by 1961 Friedan and others from or influenced by the left had been writing, talking publicly, and organizing around feminist issues for years. Walt Disney had increasingly though quietly identified with the conservative movement since the 1941 cartoonists’ strike activated his anti-Communism. Disney films, always centered on idealized families, during the late fifties and sixties focused more often on internal as well as external threats to those imaginary families. In Disney’s successful 1961 film The Parent Trap, for example, Hayley Mills plays identical twin teenagers who save their family by reuniting their divorced parents.

And finally, the Disney version of Mr. Banks—well, that’s a bit more complicated.

Walt Disney believed that his U.S. audience wouldn’t understand why a reasonable middle class family would turn their children over to a perfect stranger to be raised: a nanny. Mary Poppins had to become what Richard Sherman called a “necessary person,”[119] easily understandable by middle class U.S. viewers. So Disney and his writers made Mary into someone who could fix the family and then go away, and they were aided by the fact that Travers’ Mary Poppins would often leave at the end of a story. In Walt’s version of family values, modern U.S. families were threatened by mothers leaving their traditional place in the domestic sphere and fathers getting so involved with work and making money that they neglected their children.

So Mary had to save the Banks family, but from what? Whereas Mrs. Banks quickly changes from a silly suffragette to a subservient wife when the previous nanny quits, the change in Mr. Banks, the patriarch, forms the narrative arc of the whole film. He must be made mean at the beginning so that the children, with the magical help of Mary Poppins, can save him from himself and his job. By the end he realizes that he wants to spend more time with his family like a model mid-century American dad, Disney style. Disney’s Mary Poppins was about changing Mr. (and Mrs.) Banks in order to save the American family.

Complexities and symptomatic contradictions

The historical context for the production of Disney’s Mary Poppins, and Disney’s version of that production in Saving Mr. Banks, is even more complex than I have indicated so far. Through an analysis of narrative, genre, hyper-commercial capitalist institutions, and larger issues of political-economic and cultural hegemony, the film’s textual conflicts and contradictions—and the management of those contradictions—come into focus. What follows below builds on my visual essay in Part One above.

Textual analyses of films and other cultural products often constitute displaced ways of talking and revealing assumptions about the social institutions and historical changes within which those texts are produced and received. Aesthetic approaches that argue or assume that the work of art will balance or harmonize external forces into formal elements suggest, implicitly or explicitly, that such art models the larger social and historical institutions within which it exists, institutions which are assumed to be legitimate and capable of harmonizing conflicting forces. Valuing aesthetic unity, stability, order, narrative closure and continuity, such arguments from conventional aesthetics are often deeply conservative and supportive of the political and economic status quo.

Variations on this model are more open and provisional, building uncertainty and incompleteness into their understandings of art, and accepting conflict and disunity to the point of celebrating them as aesthetic principles and social values. We might call these more liberal approaches to cultural products, including valuation of social problem films or many types of experimental films.

More radical approaches, however, are less likely to accept conventional textual or social models as legitimate or unifying. Instead, conflict in them rises beyond the level that can be contained within the level of narrative, character, or aesthetic form generally. Since they see the society generally as riven with structural conflicts, insupportable inequalities and deep, unmanageable contradictions, they are not likely to understand the cultural products of that society as ritual confirmations of its goodness. For these folks, where there is no justice in the society, there is not likely to be peace in the structure of its stories or songs.

Thus one of the most useful radical approaches to film and cultural analysis has been the concept of the symptomatic analysis. Usually combining Marx’s social critique of class oppression under capitalism with a Freudian or Lacanian psychoanalysis of the symptoms of familial repression, this approach has generated the productive concept of the structuring absence. Rather than assuming that the cultural text will ratify the social context within which it exists, this concept looks for what the collective or institutional (not personal) text cannot say, what it signifies by what is missing from it. Applied in influential works like the Cahiers du Cinema analysis of Young Mr. Lincoln and later, similar scholarship, it has yielded important radical insights that constitute an alternative tradition to more conventional aesthetic approaches.

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