2014, Jump Cut: A Review of Contemporary Media
Jump Cut, No. 56, winter 2014-2015
Saving Mr. Banks and building Mr. Brand:
the Walt Disney Company in the era of corporate personhood
by Mike Budd
This essay is in two parts. Part I is a visual essay closely analyzing key elements of the narrative, style, and ideology of Saving Mr. Banks. The images and captions in the visual essay provide illustration and further evidence for many of the larger arguments in the text in Part II. Part II critically analyzes selected aspects of the political economy, culture and history of the Walt Disney Company, and how these aspects and Saving Mr. Banks are mutually illuminating. Either part of the essay can be read first. [open notes in new window]
Part I: visual essay (extended captions)
1. The opening credit sequence of Saving Mr. Banks, with the camera seeming to float through the sky and clouds, directly evokes a similar credit sequence in Disney’s Mary Poppins (1964). There the camera also seemed to float through the clouds to discover the famous nanny in the skies above London. Viewers will more likely recognize the soundtrack throughout the credits, a wistful piano version of the signature song from the Disney film, “Chim Chim Cher-ee.” The release of Saving Mr. Banks is timed to promote the 50th Anniversary DVD/Blu-Ray of Mary Poppins and related Disney products as well as the image of the company and its eponymous founder. Thus the film will miss few opportunities to sell as well as narrate, attempting to activate the nostalgia that many viewers have for the earlier film and the Disney folks who produced it. More systematically than perhaps any other multinational corporation, the Walt Disney Company designs its commodities and services as ads for other Disney products, thus creating a relatively closed, internally referential corporate discourse that tends to exclude non-Disney culture where possible.
2. A few seconds later, the apparently continuous moving shot passes these tall palm trees, with a title identifying “Maryborough, Australia, 1906.” This is a narrative and stylistic hook, since a bit later in the film the adult Helen Goff, now renamed P.L. Travers, will encounter similar palm trees during a limousine ride through 1961 Los Angeles on her journey to discuss the script of Mary Poppins with Walt Disney and his writers. The film motivates (justifies, explains) all the flashbacks as Travers’ memories, prompted by the palm trees and other reminders in her southern California experience of another journey she didn’t want to make. Flashbacks show her move in 1906 from the relatively lush Maryborough to parched rural Allora, Australia, after her father, Travers Goff, was fired from his job at a bank.
3. As the crane shot continues its descent to reveal this Maryborough garden, it catches the weathervane turning from west to east as the voice of Travers Goff (Colin Farrell) speaks intimately in voice over: “Wind’s from the east, mist coming in, like something is brewing, about to begin. Can’t put my finger on what lies in store, but I feel what’s to happen all happened before.” Although there is no historical evidence to suggest that Goff got this verse from her father, the film here clearly implies that she did. This Disney film will repeatedly suggest that Disney is the author of Mary Poppins, and that Travers only contributed autobiographical elements.
4. The shot continues to descend and tilt down, now directly over the young Helen Goff, sitting in the garden with her eyes closed. The seemingly continuous moving shot from the clouds above to the child below establishes a reassuringly stable, apparent continuity of space and time for narrative purposes. The juxtaposition of sound and moving camera as it approaches the child below suggests that the father’s words are in the child’s mind, more insistently attributing Travers’ words to Disney (and its employees, the songwriting Sherman brothers). As the camera cranes down closer to the figure of the child below, the image quickly dissolves to…
5. …an image of P.L. Travers in her London office in March 1961, matching both the action of the camera movement and the pose of the meditating figure at the center of both compositions. The camera comes to rest to frame an eye-level medium shot of Travers as she opens her eyes and the 1961 narrative begins. The matches on camera movement, gesture and composition in moving almost seamlessly from 1906 to 1961 imply the child, statically unchanged, resides in the woman. The film will build up this implication through repetition into causality. Seemingly the child’s trauma overtaks and determines the woman’s life before Walt Disney intervenes to save her. This complicated and expensive opening sequence thus presents a great deal of narrative and ideological information in its economical orchestration of moving image and sound, setting up the film’s argument and beginning to sell Disney’s version of Mary Poppins. It also establishes the diegetic (story) spaces within which the parallel narratives will take place. The continuity editing style within the classical narrative system thus orients viewers in space and time.
6. The first scene establishes the conflict within the protagonist, P.L. Travers, over whether or not to sell the rights to her beloved Mary Poppins (“She’s family, you know”) to Walt Disney. This shot and surrounding scene are lit and composed to focus attention on the performer’s face and gestures in order to promote empathy and identification so that viewers will “naturally” confuse characters with real people. It is a familiar editing pattern of establishing, then analyzing space in closer shots like this, then re-establishing, then again breaking down the space, all to follow an invisible but omnipresent narrating agent. Thus the breaks between shots become continuities between parts of a seamless story. The shot and scene ends with Travers saying to her agent, “I want to keep my house.” Cut to…
7. …the first flashback, returning to the young Helen in the garden (above) in 1906 Australia, now building a miniature house of sticks and leaves. Her cherubic face in close-up contrasts with the worried expression on her adult face in the previous shot. As viewers learn that the little girl is the youthful Travers, they may also begin to comprehend the beginnings of a pattern in which the adult’s psychological state motivates the flashback. As in other classical narrative films, viewers are invited to follow a trail of questions and clues, beginning with the enigmatic title: Who is Mr. Banks and why does he need to be saved? If viewers remember Mr. Banks as a character from Disney’s Mary Poppins, why save Mr. Banks and not Mrs. Banks or the children? And by now, only a few minutes into the film’s exposition, viewers are invited to understand that the flasback’s motivation (justification, explanation) is something about the character’s psychology. But what? Does the pointed cut to the child building a playhouse directly after the adult character’s expression of concern for her house indicate causation? Is the adult’s action motivated by some yet-undisclosed childhood event? Classical narrative and continuity editing will lead viewers to preliminary answers and also more questions, gradually leading down a path of narrative mini-problems and solutions, delays and advances, through a pre-established cause-and-effect line.
8. In the next scene, Travers is on a plane to Los Angeles, and the character is constructed partly through Emma Thompson’s performance of “her” snobbery and irritation at having to travel to the Disney studio. As she falls asleep in the plane, the narrative returns…
9. …to another flashback, to another journey she disliked, with her family from Maryborough to Allora. By motivating the flashback once again as Travers’ memory (or dream), and through her similar attitude to both journeys, this second return to the past draws on and contributes to viewers’ commonsense pattern recognition, popular psychology and previous experience of classical narrative films and television. Social, historical, and natural determination will take a back seat to psychological, private and personal explanations for how the world works, contributing to the naturalization of such privatized understandings.
In addition to developing the beginnings of a simple psychology for the protagonist, this flashback picks up the 1906 narrative soon after the previous flashback ended (as Helen left the garden with her father), thus following the convention of a series of flashbacks motivated by character psychology which will form a chronological and coherent narrative about the past (1906), organized to gradually reveal the reasons for the character behavior in the chronological narrative in the present (1961).
In this shot, the Disney version of the Goff family visually articulates the family conflict. On the train to Allora travelling through the countryside, young Helen stands on the rear platform looking longingly back toward where they’ve left. From frame left Helen’s mother glares across the frame toward her father in frame right as he takes a swig from a bottle, thus establishing his alcoholism.
10. On her arrival at the Beverly Hills Hilton, Travers finds her room filled with welcoming Disney stuffed animals, including Mickey Mouse. But she is most upset by the pears in the fruit basket, grabs them, rushes to the sliding glass doors and throws them into the swimming pool. Why pears? Another small narrative puzzle and hook to draw us further into the diegetic world, creating conditions for empathizing with characters as if they were real people.
11. In contrast to her own uptight unhappiness, Travers first encounters Walt Disney when she sees his television image, beaming with joy, in her hotel room as he hosts his weekly anthology program, which is also a commercial for Disneyland and other Disney products. A familiar Disney pastiche of modes and styles combines nonfiction, fantasy and animation. Tom Hanks blends his trustworthy star persona with Walt Disney’s avuncular image, holding his arms out in welcome to television viewers, with Oscars and other awards providing background and Tinkerbelle levitating him with her magic pixie dust.
12. The next day Travers meets the “real” Walt Disney in person in his office,. He is introduced in a shot nearly identical in composition to his televised image, as if visually to reassure viewers that the public and private Disney are the same. In fact, historians have documented how Disney constructed and played a public “Walt Disney” at considerable odds with his private actions as boss and businessman. But these two shots and scenes, and the film in general, minimize the distance between the public and private Disney. For example, in a momentary deviation from the classical narrative conception of moving image as invisible narrating guest, it is as if viewers and the character of Travers had been invited into Walt’s office as the nonfiction television camera appeared to have been the night before. On television Disney addresses the audience directly, looking directly into the camera, but this is a classical narrative scene in indirect address, with the camera as invisible guest. However, here Disney/Hanks looks almost directly into the camera at the opening of the scene, as the image composition implicitly imitates the television image in the previous scene. The rest of this scene proceeds in standard classical narrative style.
13. In the continuity editing style that seems to stabilize space within the classical narrative system, one of the key conventions is the 180 degree rule. An invisible line is drawn between the major figures in the scene, and the camera usually stays on one side of this line. This insures some common background space from shot to shot, allowing viewers to quickly orient themselves and thus focus their attention on the characters. As analytic editing and matches on action smoothly take viewers closer and closer to the characters, the style invites them to see the film as the continuous actions and emotions of the characters rather than as a discontinuous series of shots (and sounds).
One of the first shots in the scene, shown previously, sets Walt Disney against the wall of his public awards. Then, as he and P.L. Travers converse a bit later in the scene, this shot shows them against a wall apparently adjoining the background of the previous shot. But whereas the previous office shot imitated the public, television image of Disney, this more private shot frames a drawing of Disney’s daughter Diane between him and Travers. Disney explains that he wants to make Mary Poppins because he promised his daughters he would do so, and a father never breaks a promise to his children, right? He asks Travers if she has a family, and she uncharacteristically stumbles with her answer, symptomatically beginning to reveal the Disney version of their contrasting family experiences that will become central to the film’s narrative.
Thus the overlapping background space in this scene not only stabilizes the narrative space through the 180 degree rule, but it also enables a continuous visual commentary on the foreground action. Viewers can see how literally close the private Disney (family picture) is to the public Disney (Oscars and other awards), and how within the Disney universe, Walt’s motives begin with family. The film’s mise-en-scene sometimes resembles an illustrated promotional lecture, with the background visually supporting the foreground narrative conversation and action.
14. Emma Thompson vividly incarnates the starchy and imperious P.L. Travers, in her performance often bringing nuance and complex shadings missing elsewhere in the film. Here the character looks down her nose in mixed pity and wonder at the benighted U.S. soul who imagines that Dick van Dyke, cast as Bert the chimney sweep in Disney’s Mary Poppins, might be like Olivier or Gielgud, “one of the greats.”
15. In an overhead shot of her that evening in bed, Travers/Thompson shows more vulnerability, developing and deepening the narrative pattern of flashbacks triggered by the day’s discussion of the script. Flashbacks will thus be revealed as revelatory of painful episodes from her childhood. The film’s style and narrative takes viewers more and more deeply into the character’s imaginary subjectivity. As she murmurs “Responstible,” another narrative hook, motif or symptom, there is a quick dissolve into….
16. …Travers’ memory image in this overhead shot of the young Helen Goff. The shot visually matches or rhymes with the similar descending camera movement and composition in the opening sequence, designed to invite alert viewers to compare this brown and arid landscape unfavorably with the green garden landscape in that opening sequence. The family’s declining fortunes can be economically measured through this comparison. Style and technique both support narrative (establishing a new scene) and develop thematic meaning (the made-up word “responstible” triggers her memory, but why?).
17. Whereas the camera movement in the opening ends with a cut to the adult Travers in her London home, then later returns to the young Helen Goff making her miniature house of sticks and leaves, here the descending camera movement is completed, with Helen making another house in this inhospitable location. And again her father approaches, this time on the family’s white horse, enchanting her once more with his fanciful but irrespons(t)ible tales.
18. Like many contemporary Hollywood films appropriating techniques associated with the international art cinema, the film’s time in this sequence moves fluidly between past and present. A flashback that began with Travers in bed at night ends with this 1961 image of the tall palm trees that remind her of Australia, an image that then…
19. …in a cut is marked retroactively, and somewhat ambiguously, as Travers’ point of view out the limousine window. The character’s narrative arc also begins its movement in Thompson’s performance as Travers starts privately to soften.
20. The culmination of this sequence is a peak moment in the young Helen’s idolizing her father. A romance, with father and daughter riding the white horse in slow motion and haloing light with vaguely perverse sexual overtones, establishes the idealized memory of Travers Goff, namesake of P.L. Travers, which must be saved through the figure of Mr. Banks.
21. As Travers’ memories of her father reach a romantic peak in the past, she confronts Walt Disney in the present with her most arbitrary demand, that there be no red in the film. This seems to signal that her memories increasingly influence her present actions.
22. Whereas Travers’ biographer points out that the historical Travers had already signed over most of the rights to Mary Poppins before she arrived in Los Angeles, would sign over more before she left, and signed over still more later, the film greatly exaggerates whatever power she had over the script and production.[open notes in new window] Disney apparently largely ignored most of her suggestions and demands since he likely knew or suspected how much she needed money at this point. But here Disney and his writers are frustrated by her control, and he assents to her unreasonable demand because she has not yet signed over the rights.
23. After this conflict, a high angle long shot of Travers on a bench outside the Disney office building, waiting alone for her limousine. This shot is then retrospectively identified as Disney’s point of view…
24. …by the next shot of him looking out his office window, which appears to be reassuringly close to the rehearsal room. Disney begins to assume the role of investigator into Travers, increasingly assuming control of the narrative as he learns what viewers already know, and more.
25. Travers’ memories take the past narrative further into her family’s conflicts, as her father here presents her mother with a pear while young Helen looks on. The scene in part answers the narrative question posed when the adult Travers throws the pears out her hotel room door into the swimming pool. Now viewers can infer that Travers still associates pears with her childhood unhappiness—perhaps her father’s irresponsibility in leaving work early or her jealousy of her mother.
26. Tom Hanks evokes Walt Disney’s mythic ability to experience as a child as he hears the song “A Spoonful of Sugar” for the first time.
27. Why the adult Travers doesn’t like the word “responstible,” coined by Disney’s writers. Her beloved father liked to play with words, too, but he was also irresponsible. Here the young Helen Goff witnesses her father’s humiliation, nearly fired from his bank job and told to by his boss “be responsible!” Much of the film’s narrative involves viewers and Walt Disney using the skills of popular psychology, tracing her adult symptoms back to childhood traumas such as this one.
28. In addition to a psychologized, bad-tempered, and snooty aversion to Disneyfication of her Mary Poppins stories, Travers’ adult symptoms include insomnia, lots of pills, and esoteric (Buddhist?) statues referencing the historical Travers’ interest in mysticism and the spiritual teachings of G.I. Gurdjieff. Here, after remembering her father’s humiliation and her own disillusionment in him, Travers touches her pill bottles, then gets out of bed to…
29. …bring back a truer friend, the large stuffed toy Mickey Mouse she had on her arrival banished to the corner (“until you learn the art of subtlety”), continuing her private accommodation to the Disney magic. The historical Travers never made any such accommodation. Though for publicity purposes she and Disney endured their “uneasy wedlock” (her words), after his 1966 death she was more publicly critical of his Mary Poppins film and his company’s products generally.
30. While Travers is learning to love Mickey Mouse, Disney sits on the same bench where she had sat earlier, contemplating her resistance to him. But whereas the shot of her visually emphasized her solitude, here the scene performs his sensitivity and human connectedness. He hears the sound of Richard Sherman playing the piano from the rehearsal room above, turns to listen and then gets up to go upstairs.
This shot is part of a repeated pattern in the film which connects Disney’s office, the rehearsal room where conflict is played out, and the space just outside the building with the bench on the lawn, a space into which Travers had thrown the script earlier that day to dramatize its weightlessness. Thus the diegetic or story space connects indoor and outdoor locations. Visually, as the very foundation of viewers’ narrative comprehension, cinematic space establishes the Disney studio as a place where the empathetic boss is literally and figuratively close to his workers, and the whole workplace has a casual human connectedness to it, starting with the famous man himself. This is one of many ways continuity editing and the classical narrative system can build unexamined assumptions and values into the way stories are told.
31. Now Disney sits next to Richard Sherman at the piano as Sherman plays “Feed the Birds (Tuppence a Bag),” a sad song from Mary Poppins. As the narrative and dramatic conflict rises and we approach the film’s midpoint, not only does the character of Walt Disney contemplate an intervention to save his film (in this, the Disney version, not historically), but new genre elements begin to appear as well. If the 1961 story has so far been a backstage comedy-drama about a show (Disney’s Mary Poppins) struggling to emerge from its author’s tragic and melodramatic past, then at this point the 1961 story of Saving Mr. Banks struggles to become a backstage musical about putting on a show, about the birth pangs of a musical comedy that many viewers already cherish. And Saving Mr. Banks exists in part to refurbish and re-commodify that love, activating affection for Mary Poppins among older viewers and re-introducing it to younger generations along with the accompanying Disney mythology about its own history.
So as Disney and Sherman commiserate with one another about how Travers is wrecking their plans, the song Sherman performs and Disney loves no longer refers just to conflicts among some characters created by Travers, but reflexively to their own situation as they see it. Disney jokes to Sherman that the “bitter pill” in his lyrics refers to “someone we know,” meaning Travers. Travers’ biographer says that Disney swallowed Travers’ Mary Poppins “whole, as a shark takes a minnow,” and the film performs that incorporation, but it wants viewers to celebrate the corporation’s victory. The film’s hybrid of genre elements begins to include the reflexive, self-justifying musical genre as it celebrates Disney’s appropriation of Mary Poppins from Travers. As the story in a classic backstage musical like Dames or Singin’ in the Rain approaches maximum conflict, the show and the film about the show partially merge, and something similar happens here. Viewers are invited to collapse the distance between themselves, the performers putting on a show, and the film about those performers. Reflexivity has often been used for critical or progressive ends, to reveal the operations of text and social formation, as in Brecht or Godard. But here, as in most musicals, it is used conservatively, to divert attention from such operations, working to align viewers as smoothly and imperceptibly as possible with Disney and his writers who must save their film.
The reflexive self-justification of the classic musical proceeds partly through the performers’ empathy, and here the attribution of empathy to Walt Disney becomes narratively central. Disney, always positive, empathizes with Travers because he remembers being in her situation (“I fought this battle from her side”), the little guy up against a powerful producer who wants to buy your creation – in his case, Mickey Mouse. This representation of Disney makes him a true man of the people whom he entertains, and he recognizes his commonality with Travers: “It woulda killed me to give [Mickey] up,” and “The mouse is family,” this last echoing Travers’ earlier comment: “[Mary Poppins] is family, you know.”
32. As P.L. Travers’ internal conflict increases, she becomes lost in thoughts of the past, no longer commanding the narrative with her personal goals. This sequence builds those conflicts to a dramatically orchestrated climax in image and sound, with rapid intercutting between past and present. The film constructs “her” subjective state as caught between her memories and what’s going on around her. Here, in foreground, Travers remembers the source of the song, “Fidelity Fiduciary Bank,” that the writers are singing in satirical style in the background, as in Disney’s Mary Poppins. But viewers are temporarily invited to empathize with her, since as so often in the film, the song evokes painful memories of her father’s alcoholism, hatred of his job at the bank, and romantic irresponsibility.
33. The Disney writers’ satirical frenzy unknowingly evokes the frenzy of Travers Goff speaking on behalf of the bank from the stage at a country fair. In front of his precious daughter and wife, his boss and much of the town, and yelling the words he hates to say, he is, as remembered by his grown daughter, mocked by the writers’ interpretation of her own creation, Mr. Banks. The film ironically matches the father’s furious voice and performance with that of the writers’ singing: “…directors invest as propriety demands.”
Unfortunately, in moving directly back and forth between Travers’ father’s words and the Disney song, the film elides Travers’ own work as it does throughout. In turning Travers’ stories into nothing but the neutral transcription of her own childhood experiences, seen in the film’s extensive flashbacks, which are then creatively transformed by Disney and his team, the film erases her contributions, suggests she’s unoriginal. Thus the film reflexively justifies her marginalization in Disney history.
34. In this overhead shot of Travers Goff lying on the ground beside the stage where he has fallen drunk in front of everyone, the youthful Helen Goff’s trauma is crystallized, her family’s public humiliation complete and its downfall foretold. This narrative encourages viewers to read it psychologically for sources of the adult Travers’ behavioral symptoms in 1961.
35. And such a symptom appears right on cue with Travers, usually distant, imperious and playing the only grownup in the room, now dissolving into childlike pleading to the writers as she flees the room: “Why do you have to make him [Mr. Banks] so cruel? I’ll feel like I’ve let him down again.”
36. Why does she think she let him down? Because as she is at her father’s deathbed, he rejects her poem because she didn’t bring him a bottle, so she immediately goes in search of a bottle to win his approval.
37. The past now fully determining her actions, an adult regressed to childhood, the fully psychologized Travers searches the lawn near the bench for leaves and twigs with which to build a house (security) like the ones earlier scenes showed her making as a child. Ralph, the limousine driver sitting nearby, notices her and comes over.
38. Intercut with her memory image of her younger self finding a bottle for her father, Travers accepts a cup of tea from Ralph and, self-absorbed, begins to listen to him talk about his daughter who’s in a wheelchair. This shot-reverse shot sequence establishes a new closeness with someone she had previously spurned. She now understands that his preference for the sun over the rain is not mindless optimism, but good weather allows his daughter to be outside. She now understands that while to her the line, “A leisurely stroll is a gift,” was associated with the personal pain of her father’s duplicity in pretending the family was walking to the train station in Maryborough out of choice rather than his lack of train fare, this same seemingly mundane phrase means something quite different to Ralph and his daughter. She begins to learn to empathize, like Ralph and like Walt Disney and his writers.
Many reviewers couldn’t understand what the character Ralph was doing in this film, but he’s a crucial figure, since he functions here as an average guy. Like Walt he’s a simple, straightforward person without irony, the model Disney consumer, an independent corroborator of Walt’s mission statement, evidence for Walt’s arguments.
39. In the reverse shot, tacitly knitting the space together for focus on character subjectivity, Travers responds to Ralph with new humility and chagrin. Others have bigger problems than hers, and theirs are right now. Ralph moves her toward a new empathy, which anticipates the more powerful influence of Disney on her character arc a few scenes later.
40. In this long shot of Travers and Ralph on the lawn, she pours tea into a little river she’s dug in the lawn next to her playhouse. This act seems motivated by the memory in the next flashback, in which she saves her mother from drowning herself in the river near their house. Perhaps Travers is beginning to learn to forgive herself for her imagined responsibility for her father’s death, and Disney will ask her to do so.
41. Disney calls Travers at her hotel, asking her, “What do I have to do to make you happy?” Since she currently can’t be happy, she hangs up on him.
42. Disney walks into the rehearsal room, saying, “Boys, we’ve gotta fix this.” This line signals Disney’s full assumption of narrational agency in order to save his film, including a series of narrative ellipses. The narrative so far has been relatively unrestricted, with viewers generally knowing more than any of the characters. However, as Disney takes control of it, the narrative becomes selectively more restrictive. He takes actions that viewers don’t learn about until they happen, such as taking Travers to Disneyland and (implicitly) moving the writers to make Mr. Banks less cruel to the children. Whereas the historical Disney did little or nothing to respond to Travers’ “consultations,” here Disney becomes her paternal therapist.
43. Following directly after Disney tells his writers that “we’ve gotta fix this [Travers’ obstructions],” a flashback shows Aunt Ellie arriving at the Goff’s home, here seen initially through a curtained window from inside. The shot resembles a shot of the Goff family on their first arrival and another one at the end, when the film returns to the family home as the adult Travers forgives in imagination her younger self. These three shots at key moments, framed through the curtained window of the family home, carry emotional associations projected from the protagonist to viewers. The shots form a significant stylistic pattern in this film, along with other images that link indoor and outdoor spaces through windows, doors, porches and other openings. These frame-within-frame images, often spatially juxtaposing inside spaces of family, home and security with outdoor, less secure spaces, include the shots of the young and the adult Travers building play houses that express her insecurities about home and family. They also include the interplay at the Disney studio between the rehearsal room and Disney’s office on the second floor and the outdoor space on the lawn just outside these windows. The director of Saving Mr. Banks, John Lee Hancock, seems to have learned from the films of John Ford (and Sergio Leone) about activating the narrative and emotional associations of indoor and outdoor spaces when they are juxtaposed in shots framed through doors and windows.
Equally important, after the film has followed for half its length the convention that flashbacks are motivated or explained as the memories of the protagonist, Travers, now the pattern changes. As Disney takes over the narrative initiative, his injunction to “fix this” is followed by the arrival in the past of another fixer, the prototype of Mary Poppins, Aunt Ellie. Disney’s agency now triggers the flashbacks, which had previously been prompted by Travers, organized solely around the construction of her interiority.
In addition, in the intricate and shifting set of parallels the film sets up among characters in Australia, those in 1961, and those in both Travers’ and Disney’s Mary Poppins, viewers are now encouraged to see Walt Disney, like Aunt Ellie and Mary Poppins, as someone who arrives to save the family. The Walt Disney Company pays homage to its founder by paralleling him with its version of Mary Poppins. They both fix families if only in the patriarchal imagination. This film mythologizes as follows: “complete” families (Disney’s) make complete families, while “broken” families (Travers’) make broken families.
44. Aunt Ellie’s arrival silhouettes her in the doorway, referencing Mary Poppins. The character of Aunt Ellie, plain and severe, resembles Travers’ Mary Poppins more than she does Julie Andrews in the Disney version, but she nevertheless serves Disney here. Viewers who see this film are much more likely to have experienced Disney’s film than Travers’ books. Saving Mr. Banks minimizes Travers’ creative accomplishments, presenting her conception of the stories largely as a direct transcription of her autobiographical experiences.
45. Viewers may be surprised to discover Disney’s narrative agency only when Travers does, thus emphasizing the change in who’s in charge. Disney asked Travers the night before what he had to do to make her happy. Here he answers his own question, now central to the film’s narrative direction: he takes her to the happiest place on earth, Disneyland. In this shot Disney welcomes Travers at the front gate, and Tom Hanks’ regular-guy image smoothly updates the Walt Disney Company’s image of its founder. Period details such as the posters provide not only realist detail for most viewers but also fodder for Disney enthusiasts and trivia fans.
46. Disney takes Travers on the carousel, where he waves and enjoys himself as both child and leader, while she sits sternly in the background. Subsequent shots in this scene move into close-ups of Travers as she thinks again of her childhood, leading into the next flashback scene. Travers is no longer moving the 1961 narrative, but only motivating the flashbacks to a past narrative that has its own cause-and-effect continuity.
47. Illustrating that narrative continuity, Travers’ memory seems to tell a story that follows the conventions of classical narrative. Here the flashback, showing Aunt Ellie leading the family in putting things right, picks up soon after the last flashback ended as she unpacked her carpet bag Mary-Poppins-style. In the film’s psychologizing terms, Travers’ flashbacks seem more and more to have a life of their own, to control her rather than the other way around.
48. As Travers thinks of her dying father, Da Gradi begins the scene by responding to her plea from the previous scene by agreeing not to make the father so cruel. Implicitly prompted by Disney, the writers, joined by the receptionist, then perform rather than read the scene. The scene turns into a version of a backstage musical, with the 1961 characters trying to put on a show that Travers’ past life and narrative are trying to prevent. It is as if through the Disneyland carousel, this singing and dancing performance, and ultimately the world premiere of Mary Poppins itself, Disney and his studio are reflexively justifying, both to Travers and to viewers, why Disney’s Mary Poppins film had to be a musical. In genre terms, a beloved musical struggles to be born out of a tragic family melodrama from the past.
49. Accepting the kite as token of their good will, Travers is drawn into the musical magic of their singing and dancing; they’re saving Mr. Banks through the song, “Let’s Go Fly a Kite.” The previous day’s song about bankers had seemed to mock her precious memories of her father, showing his romanticism as a weak defense against the performance demands of his capitalist bosses. Now this music affirms and redeems him, and she joins in, here dancing happily with Don, then singing enthusiastically around the piano with the communal group.
While she had earlier berated Disney for his escapism, for teaching children that their nanny brings magic to do their work for them, perhaps beneath this stern, grownup defender of discipline and realism is just a little girl who wants them to save her father. The Walt Disney Company takes this opportunity to try to reduce to the simplest version of childhood one of its more complicated public critics. But the conflict masks a deeper agreement: Travers and Disney seem to agree that the problem with bankers is not their imperialism (“You see, Michael, you’ll be part of / railways through Africa /…Plantations of ripening tea”) but their soul-destroying stuffiness, inviting superficial satire. Bankers’ obsession with money is more like bad manners, constantly talking about something impolite or embarrassing, than something as rude as human exploitation.
50. At this moment the major conflict within Travers, and between Travers and Disney, seems to be moving toward resolution. However, the narrative engages in a surprise delay of the inevitable conclusion since most of the audience knows that Disney’s Mary Poppins will be made successfully. Nevertheless, even if viewers know the ending, the delay likely works to increase suspense and absorption with the narrative and characters. On learning accidently that Disney plans to use animated penguins when she had forbidden any “cartoons,” Travers angrily confronts Disney and leaves without signing the rights contract which this film insists, against historical evidence, that he does not yet have.
This narrative development is more than an arbitrary delay, though, since the mixture of live action and animation had been part of the Disney aesthetic since the twenties, and the studio frequently used animation to insert Disney magic into its sometimes mundane live-action features. Critics sometimes attacked this practice as barbaric and impure, as if it were some kind of aesthetic miscegenation. So it becomes useful for Disney’s self-justifying history of Disney to have Travers reject (though perhaps being in denial about her enjoyment of) animation mixed with live-action singing and dancing, since her rejection seems anachronistic today. Trying to psychologize and trivialize its critics, Disney uses its hegemonic power to partially neutralize and incorporate alternatives or opposition.
51. Travers is newly friendly with Ralph as he drops her at the airport. The conflict within the protagonist has evolved to the point where, though she has denounced Disney and is returning to London, the character arc is prepared for the final initiative by Disney to (virtually) complete her therapy and save Mr. Banks, her father. She gives Ralph empathetic gifts for him and his wheelchair-bound daughter, and she makes an empathetic joke about Disney.
52. Puzzled by the name Helen Goff on her airline ticket, Disney asks, “Who is Helen Goff? Have we been talking to the wrong person?” These questions about her identity increase his role as narrative investigator and mover of events. They set up the next big scene of revelation. The extensive flashbacks have provided viewers with more information to answer these questions than any of the characters have, but Disney will now catch up and pass viewers in narrative knowledge and insight. This is accomplished through narrative ellipses: through a convention of classical narrative, elllipses temporarily restrict or withhold narrative knowledge of the hero’s actions from viewers in order to build suspense for the big reveal or climax.
53. The young Helen Goff returns to tell her father she dropped the pears he asked for, but he is dead. She has disappointed him again, and even Aunt Ellie, her own Mary Poppins, can’t fix this trauma. The flashback narrative has been synchronized with the 1961 narrative so that this low point, the worst of Travers’ childhood, occurs just before Disney will put everything in a new perspective for her. Like Ralph, he will demonstrate that some people’s lives have been more difficult than hers.
54, 55. Disney follows Travers to London and presents her with a long, empathetic monologue about fathers, using his new narrative knowledge and legendary human insight. The scene is shot in standard shot-reverse shot style, with Disney usually backed by a Buddhist (?) statue with its arm raised as if in blessing. Travers is increasingly moved by his words, as in this shot of her late in the scene, holding herself, shaken by his tale. One critic said of the film, “it would be unfair to dismiss [it] as an exercise in corporate self-promotion. It’s more of a mission statement.” The monologue is the emotional heart of this Disney mission statement, so I have transcribed it here:
“Disney: You see I have my own Mr. Banks. Mine had a mustache.
Travers: So not true that Disney created man in his own image.
Disney, chuckling: No, no, it is true that you created yourself in someone else’s. Yes? (Pause) Ever been to Kansas City? Do you know Missouri at all?
Travers: I can’t say I do.
Disney: Well, it is mighty cold there in the winters, bitter cold. My dad, Elias Disney, he owned a newspaper delivery route there. A thousand papers twice daily, a morning and an evening edition, and dad was a tough bidness man, he was a save-a-penny-anywhere-you-can type of fellow, so he wouldn’t employ delivery boys, no, no, no, he used me and my big brother Roy.
I was, ah, eight back then, just eight years old, and like I said, winters are harsh and old Elias, well he didn’t believe in new shoes until the old ones were worn through. Honestly, Mrs. Travers, the snowdrifts sometimes were up (gestures over his head) over my head and we’d push through that snow like it was molasses, cold and wet seeping through our clothes and our shoes, skin peeling from our faces, and sometimes I’d find myself sunk down in that snow. Just waking up, cause I must have passed out or something, I don’t know.
Then, well, it was time for school, and I was too cold, too wet to figure out equations and things and then it was right back out in the snow again to get home just before dark. Mother would feed us dinner and then it was time to go right back out and do it again for the evening edition.
(In mother’s voice) You best be quick there, Walt, you better get those newspapers up on that porch and under that storm door, papa’s gonna lose his temper again and show you the buckle end of his belt.
Now, I don’t, I don’t tell you this to make you sad, Mrs. Travers. I don’t. I love my life. I think it is a miracle. I love my dad. He was a wonderful man, but rare is the day wherein I don’t think about that eight year old boy delivering newspapers in the snow and old Elias Disney with that strap in his fist. And I am just so tired, Mrs. Travers, I’m tired of remembering it that way.
Aren’t you tired, too, Mrs. Travers? Now we all have our sad tales but don’t you want to finish the story? Let it all go and have a life that isn’t dictated by the past? It’s not the children she comes to save, it’s their father. It’s your father, Travers Goff.
Travers: I don’t know what you think you know about me, Walter.
Disney: You must have loved and admired him a lot to take his name.
Disney: It’s him that this is all about, is it, all of it, everything. (Pause) Forgiveness, Mrs. Travers, it’s what I learned from your books.
Travers: I don’t have to forgive my father. He was a wonderful man.
Disney: No, no, you need to forgive Helen Goff. (Pause) Life is a harsh sentence to lay down for yourself. Give her to me, Mrs. Travers. Trust me with your precious Mary Poppins. I won’t disappoint you. I swear that every time a person walks in to a movie house in Leicester Square or Kansas City, you will see George Banks being saved. They will love him as kids. They will weep for his cares. They will wring their hands when he loses his job, and when he flies that kite, oh, Mrs. Travers, they will rejoice. They will sing. In movie houses all over the world in the eyes and hearts of my kids and other kids and mothers and fathers for generations to come, George Banks will be honored. George Banks will be redeemed. George Banks and all he stands for will be saved. Maybe not in life, but in imagination. This is what we storytellers do. We restore order with imagination. We instill hope again and again and again. So trust me, Mrs. Travers. Let me prove it to you. I give you my word.”
56, 57. Delivered with all the formidable sincerity, gravitas and command of American regional accents that Tom Hanks has brought to similar big speeches in Philadelphia, Saving Private Ryan and other films, this monologue becomes a powerful brand builder, ideal for all potential Disney customers and employees as well as stockholder and sales meetings and other inspirational gatherings. Viewers learn that it has convinced Travers immediately after, in a fluid right to left tracking shot, revealing through a doorway Travers sitting across from the large stuffed Mickey Mouse doll she has brought from Los Angeles, now signing the rights contract with Disney, resolving the interior conflict that has been narratively central to the film.
Hanks’/Disney’s speech mixes secular and religious tropes, blending a particular white American kind of sales pitch with its Protestant roots. Walt begins by powerfully evoking the sufferings of his youth. Against these, the difficulties of Travers’ young life, in which her memories have immersed us at great length, may seem minor by comparison. Life may be a vale of tears, but Walt has chosen to put these sufferings in the past. Movie houses all over the world become U.S. churches from Walt’s youth where fathers and mothers and children, modeled on U.S. families, will be redeemed. And Disney’s movies will spread this U.S. gospel of happiness, optimism, and family harmony, with global audiences as churchgoers weeping, wringing their hands, rejoicing, and singing. The patriarch is redeemed, returned to the place of honor from which the feminists and the liberals and the Communists have toppled him. Of course this cannot happen in real life but only in imagination since storytellers restore the existing order with imagination, ratify the status quo with their art. Storytellers cannot address or solve real problems, as Travers’ Mary Poppins does, and even as Disney’s version of Travers advocates. They show us how to escape from those problems into an imaginary order, instilling a hope that must constantly be repeated since its source is the repression of any confrontation with the real problems of the world. “Imagination, in other words, is a form of repression. Joy is a kind of denial.”
58. In her London home, now in 1964, Travers is relaxed and casual, in a bright housedress and writing again, newly prosperous from Disney funds, and newly friendly with her maid and her agent.
59. At the 1964 world premiere of Disney’s Mary Poppins at Grauman’s Chinese Theater in Hollywood, Travers is alone and largely ignored. The entire film has, in a sense, been a narrative justification for why Disney doesn’t invite her to the premiere until she shows up, since, as he puts it, “I’ve got to protect the picture” from her potentially negative comments to the press. So Travers again finds a friend in Mickey Mouse, who offers her his arm to walk into the theater.
60. On screen in Mary Poppins, Dick van Dyke dances with animated penguins, and the premiere audience loves it. A huge triumph for Disney, his writers and animators, but…
61. …sitting with Disney’s writers and in front of Disney, Travers seems to be the only one in the theater not enjoying the mixture of live action and animation, the element which she had denounced so vehemently and for which she had nearly shut down the production. She covers her mouth as if to avoid getting caught up in the enthusiastic happiness of the crowd around her, yet the point is clear: Disney is right and she’s wrong, since if most people like it, it’s good.
62. On screen, Julie Andrews as Mary Poppins says to the children, “Sometimes someone you love can’t see the nose in front of their face.” Travers’ characters have now become fully Disney’s, psychologically as well as legally, and now speak back to her through Disney. The historical Disney told Travers that he knew more about Mary Poppins than she did, and this fictional scene dramatizes that claim.
63. Travers’ reaction to this line indicates that she takes it as applying directly to her, and she begins to sob. She becomes the model viewer of a classical narrative film, so absorbed in the narrative that she takes it as addressed directly to her personally, as if she were the only viewer.
64. On screen, Dick van Dyke, whom Travers had denigrated, as Bert defends Mr. Banks to his children, saying, “He really does love you.”
65. Travers, sobbing more deeply now, wipes her tears, signifying that subjectively the difference between her real father and Disney’s Mr. Banks has collapsed. Disney is saving Mr. Banks, keeping his promise not only to his own daughters but also to her, his symbolic daughter.
66. Travers’ memory image of the house where her father died is shot similar to others that frame outdoor spaces through windows or doors, evoking home and security juxtaposed with outside spaces. But the house is now empty, with only the curtain moving in the breeze, indicating that she is starting to say goodbye, and forgive herself.
67. In implicit continuation of the indoor shot shown above, a long shot of two female riders, silhouetted, arriving in the yard on the family’s white horse.
68. In medium shot at father’s bedside, young Helen places a full bottle in her father’s unmoving hand, further indicating that she can forgive herself for giving him the alcohol that might have helped kill him.
69. A memory image of Travers’ psychological reconciliation: young Helen and her father embrace at the bank, scene of his humiliation.
70. Onscreen in Mary Poppins, Mr. Banks walks away, alone. But the image is no longer framed by the stage curtain as in the previous onscreen images from the premiere of Mary Poppins. Now we are watching Mary Poppins, apparently unmediated by any diegetic space in Saving Mr. Banks. The two films have momentarily merged. Occurring at the emotional climax of Saving Mr. Banks, this effect both models and tries to produce what Roger Ebert called “the out-of-body experience” one has at a good narrative film, when viewers are no longer sitting at the edge of the narrative space. Rather, they are inside it, completely given over to the illusion of having their story questions asked and answered in effortless sequence, their needs for closeness to characters, omnipresence, voyeurism, and emotional justice activated and seemingly fulfilled. Here the film attempts to collapse the distance among the films Mary Poppins and Saving Mr. Banks, the imaginary subjectivity of Travers, and the very real subjectivity of viewers watching Saving Mr. Banks. That is, if Mary Poppins is the love (and sales) object of Saving Mr. Banks, then this is the point when the subject (or its human viewer) is supposed to merge with its object. Viewers may experience a desire to see Mary Poppins, and the sale is made.
71. In close-up, Travers is now crying uncontrollably, her critical distance and haughty manner now collapsed, humbled by the power of Disney’s psychologizing vision and the redemption of both her father and herself.
72. Disney, sitting behind Travers, tries to comfort her: “He [her father] is gonna be OK.” Travers, crying: “I can’t abide cartoons.” The historical Travers did indeed cry at the premiere, but because she hated what Disney had done to her stories, not because Disney had saved her father’s memory. Yet this scene, along with Disney’s expression a moment later (you can’t make some people happy), maintains that Travers was in denial over how deeply moved she was by his film, that her objection to animation was only a cover for her embarrassment over her tearful identification with the film.
73. Onscreen but, like the image of Mr. Banks above, full screen, the cues for our complete identification with narrative and characters in both films continuing at full throttle. And this happens as Saving Mr. Banks becomes, like Mary Poppins, a musical, a genre increasingly associated with Disney. Only the musical can adequately celebrate Mr. Banks’ redemption, since the musical involves a break in narrative plausibility as characters sing and dance their feelings, reflexively celebrating the musical genre itself. Here the promise of the earlier scene in the rehearsal room, its hopeful rhythm blocked by Travers’ sudden angry departure, is fulfilled in the completed musical number. Disney’s Mr. Banks and all his family sing and dance “Let’s Go Fly a Kite” around the house, then out the door and down the street. As Disney had promised Travers, her father is saved, released in imagination from the dreadful world of the bank that had weighed so heavily and repetitively on his romantic soul in her Disneyfied memories.
74. Reprising peak father-daughter moments: Travers’ self-forgiveness is now signified by the relentlessly affirmative associations of her memories, here exemplified by the slow-motion horse ride in the golden Australian sunset, the young Helen Goff glowing with angelic light.
75. Travers is still in tears, but smiling now as Disney’s universal Mr. Banks is fully transformed back into her personal experience, modeling the viewer of classical narrative as satisfied individual consumer.
76. Travers’ point of view of her father on his deathbed. She says goodbye not to Mr. Banks from Mary Poppins, but to what Saving Mr. Banks posits as her real father. He smiles back in recognition, reprising previous shots but now with a forgiving and happy ending.
77. Final narrative closure and emotional justice, a stylistic reversal of and rhyme with the opening scene. Where the first overhead crane shot descended to find young Helen alone, here the similar shot ascends in benediction as father and daughter embrace against the Maryborough lawn. As elsewhere in classical narrative, technique and style serve narrative and character, functioning to advance the story and immerse viewers in the interiority of the characters, here by cuing comparison of beginning and ending through symmetrical camera movements.
78. Beginning of the closing credit sequence. This has been a Disney movie for grownups about the making of one of the most successful Disney movies. Lest anyone think that Disney magic or sleight of hand is at work here, Disney has lots of historical artifacts from the Disney archives on display in the credit sequence, to conclude its case for the authenticity of this mission statement and imply (falsely) that what you’ve been watching is based in such documentary evidence. Accompanying the writers’ credits here is a black and white photo of the historical Disney and Travers together, apparently at the Mary Poppins premiere, smiling for the camera.
79. More documentary evidence that the real Travers was just as mean, pretentious and outrageous as her portrayal in the film you’ve just seen. Don Da Gradi’s fictional version in Saving Mr. Banks is seen sketching, so that through several of his acerbic drawings the Disney case against Travers is supposedly anchored in historical authenticity. What we’re seeing is the writers’ frustrations, expressed in justifiable satire, at having to absorb Travers’ justifiable frustrations at needing Disney’s money but hating the Disneyfication of her work. Travers’ biographer says that Disney went off to his ranch while Travers met with the writers, who had no power to change anything. In effect, Disney allowed his employees to absorb her abuse while he escaped the more or less staged conflict, since he largely ignored Travers’ “consultations.” But you’ll never see that in a Disney movie, fiction or nonfiction.
80. More credits: Emma Thompson’s name over a picture of Pamela Travers, and Tom Hanks’ name over a picture of Walt Disney. Now we know what the real people looked like, we can further confuse them with the stars who play them.81. An overhead close-up of the vintage tape recorder that both the historical and fictional Travers demanded in order to record all her consultations with Disney’s writers in 1961. The tapes and transcriptions are in the Disney archives, and transcriptions also with Travers’ papers in New South Wales, Australia. The final credit sequence shows this image while the sound-over seems to be the historical Travers’ voice, directing the writers, providing a patina of documentary authenticity, or “truthiness.” The image is also used behind the DVD/Blu-Ray menu of Saving Mr. Banks, but this time with Emma Thompson’s voice.
Saving Mr. Banks and building Mr. Brand: the Walt Disney Company in the era of corporate personhood
Part II: critical analysis
Starring Tom Hanks and Emma Thompson and released by the Walt Disney Company to theaters around the world in late 2013 and early 2014, Saving Mr. Banks cost around $35 million and by April 2014 had earned more than $112 million in theatrical rentals worldwide.[open notes in new window] Directed by John Lee Hancock (The Blind Side) from a script by Kelly Marcel (Fifty Shades of Grey, 2015) and Sue Smith, the film presents the Disney version of the making of one of Disney’s most successful and cherished films, Mary Poppins (1964), starring Julie Andrews and Dick Van Dyke.
In March 1961, P.L. Travers (Emma Thompson), the English (originally Australian) author of the Mary Poppins stories on which the Disney film will be loosely based, comes to Los Angeles to meet with Walt Disney (Tom Hanks), the scriptwriter, Don Da Gradi, and the songwriters Richard and Robert Sherman. She needs money, since her books are no longer selling and she isn’t writing more, but she hates the idea that her books will be trivialized, “turned into one of his silly little cartoons.” Stubbornly and unreasonably objecting to every creative interpretation, large and small, by the Disney team, Travers finally returns to London two weeks later, having refused to sign over the rights. However, the difficult negotiations have dredged up the sources of her Mary Poppins stories in memories of her childhood traumas in early twentieth century rural Australia. Much of Saving Mr. Banks focuses on Travers’ humble childhood as Helen Goff, daughter of a romantic, alcoholic father (and partial model for Mr. Banks in her stories and the film) and suicidal mother. In addition, Travers has been moved by talking with her chauffeur in Los Angeles, Ralph (Paul Giamatti), whose daughter is in a wheelchair. Walt Disney follows Pamela Travers back to London, where he persuades her to trust him with her precious creation, and she finally signs over the rights. The film ends with the world premiere of Mary Poppins some three years later, where Travers weeps cathartically, Disney having kept his promise to save in imagination her father, Mr. Banks.
In many ways Saving Mr. Banks is a predictably ordinary commercial film, constructed according to the conventional narrative practices of most Hollywood films and made by a company that is known for its conservative business practices, family-friendly products, social conformity and merchandising tie-ins. Indeed, in characteristic Disney fashion, the film’s theatrical release was carefully timed to coincide with the wide release of the 50th Anniversary Edition of the DVD/Blu-Ray of Mary Poppins and various other cross-promotional events at Disney theme parks and elsewhere so that the two films, new and old, could not only sell themselves but also constitute powerful advertisements for one another and many ancillary Disney products as well.
However, Saving Mr. Banks is revealing not only for its familiar elements but for its unusual ones: it is a Disney film about the making of a Disney film, and stars Tom Hanks, perhaps the most trusted star in the U.S., as the eponymous founder of the company. The Walt Disney Company is, on the one hand, a global media and entertainment conglomerate, #61 on the 2014 Fortune 500 list, with revenues of $45 billion and profits of $6.1 billion. On the other hand, the company is named after one man. Few if any multinational corporations have such a defining relation with their founder, and few have made it such a priority to create and cultivate a public image of that person for so long. Nicholas Sammond has argued, in fact, that beyond Mickey and Donald and all of the hundreds of other characters the Disney company has produced, the image and public persona of Walt Disney himself has been the corporation’s most important product, the story of this self-made man “the company’s most enduring tale.”
A mission statement
A.O. Scott writes in the New York Times that
“it would be unfair to dismiss this picture…as an exercise in corporate self-promotion. It’s more of a mission statement.”
Why a feature film as mission statement, and why now? What can we learn about Saving Mr. Banks from studying The Walt Disney Company, and vice versa? Here I argue that distinctive characteristics of the film and the company that made it are reciprocally illuminating, that the peculiar role that this film plays for Disney at this historical moment gives it a particular resonance with the current political economy and ideology of this corporation and of capitalism today.
More specifically, for the first time since Walt and his brother Roy O. Disney got into the animation business nearly a century ago, no one from the Disney family participates in running the company. Roy E. Disney, the son of Roy O. and the nephew of Walt, had been the last family member actively involved on the board of directors and in a top executive position, and he died in 2009 after helping to refocus and maintain the diversified firm’s attention on feature animation as its central financial and creative force.And on a symbolic level, Saving Mr. Banks bears, during its closing credit sequence, a dedication to Walt’s only biological child, his daughter: “Dedicated to Diane Disney Miller, 1933-2013,” who had died less than a month before the film’s theatrical release.
More than a mere gesture, this dedication helps the film in its larger project of building the Disney brand, one of the most powerful and auratic in the world. The film represents Walt’s intense desire to make a film of Mary Poppins less as a smart business decision and more as the result of a promise he made to his daughters some twenty years before:
“A man can’t break a promise he’s made to his daughters…That’s what being a daddy is all about, is not breaking a promise…My motion picture is not just going to make my kids happy, it’s going to make all kids happy.”
Since the film posits that it is precisely the failure of Pamela Travers’ father to keep all his romantic promises of happiness that constitutes her childhood trauma and determined adult unhappiness, Walt’s exemplary paternal behavior is set up to constitute a pointed contrast with that of her own father. (Although Travers’ relationship with her father, who died when she was a child, marked her whole life, the film makes this relationship determining and central.)This fictionalized contrast in father-daughter relationships becomes central to the film’s narrative argument and the triumph of Walt Disney’s conception of Mary Poppins over that of its original author, P.L. Travers.More important, it also helps shore up a significant piece of the larger corporate myth of Walt Disney as a man whose business success was based less in calculation and persistence, let alone the hard work of his employees, than in his simple and innocent desire to extend to children everywhere the pleasures of storytelling and fantasy that he shared with his own children. Walt Disney’s persona represents a huge, impersonal, multinational corporation that depends on public perceptions and has built its reputation for quality in significant part on the guarantee that its globally-recognized brand signifies that parents everywhere can trust their children with its products. So the legitimation of a personal, parent-child relationship between its founder and his children as the imaginary core and inspiration for all the company produces is something you can take to the bank.
Disney’s histories of Disney: a man and his corporation
At this moment, when the family ties to the ultimate family corporation are broken, there’s value in a brand builder and mission statement like Saving Mr. Banks. The film along with the other films discussed below symbolically reconnects the diversified global Disney empire, now projecting its private power into multiple public domains, to its originating father and patriarchal family as the source of its supposedly universal appeal. In a sense, the film is a culmination of a series of smaller films, three documentaries and a cartoon, distributed recently by the studio, which present the Disney version of its own corporate history: The Pixar Story (2007), Walt & El Grupo (2008), Waking Sleeping Beauty (2010), and Get a Horse! (2013). The company has always tried to control its own history by making films, television programs, books and other Disney products reflexively telling behind-the-scenes promotional stories which resemble its other stories, but these films may be seen as a small but significant new approach to this control.
In the tumultuous years from 1984 to 2005, Michael Eisner expanded and diversified the company beyond its existing product base, but he also brought Hollywood-style executive excess and spotlight-hogging public melodrama to a company built on its conservative family reputation. In addition to an egotistical inability to work with anyone who might threaten his position, he also appeared to be using his power to construct an image for himself as the sweet and avuncular new Walt Disney. His successor in 2005, Robert Iger, adopted a lower, more subdued profile seen as more appropriate to the Disney image, not attempting to appropriate the Disney family and corporation’s reputation for himself. Wall Street approves of Iger’s performance, and the first of his acquisitions, Pixar in 2006, is the subject of the first of these films. Thus, whether directly approved by Iger or not, the films can be seen as reasserting the conventional wisdom of the corporation’s historical connections to its charismatic founder and to quality animation generally after a period in which usurpers attempted to appropriate the value of those connections.
The three documentaries and a cartoon short have an edgier, less conformist appeal than the usual Disney product. They reveal a still marginal dimension of the company’s culture that—under the influence of a new generation of animators and marketers, prominently including those from Pixar—attempts to keep up with social and cultural changes that threaten to leave a stodgy Disney company behind. On the other hand, these films follow and expand on the company’s distinctive and longtime practice of treating everything the studio produces as a commodity designed to be fragmented and recombined into new commodities in other media, texts and platforms.
Much of the company’s success is built on constructing cute, appealing and fungible modular units of character traits, visual narratives and songs. Organized into live-action and animated feature films, these commodified units can then be dismantled into their constituent modules, sold as toys, clothing, books, music and other merchandise as well as reassembled into other contexts as online or other media segments. They can also be adapted and projected from two into three dimensions as narrative experiences for theme parks, cruise ships, resorts and theatrical productions. In this case, the spectator now walks or rides through a Disney fantasy world instead of sitting in front of a screen.Examples include the reappearance of elements of Disney movies and television shows in rides (“Dumbo the Flying Elephant”) and attractions (Cinderella Castle, Disney characters) at the Disney theme parks, and reciprocally of promotion of Disney theme parks and films through recontextualized segments on Disney anthology television shows from Disneyland in 1954 to the present. And the Disney Channel is a kind of totalizing experience, with all commercials and programs promoting Disney products all the time with a relentlessly perky rhythm and cast of characters.
These four films join Saving Mr. Banks in raiding different parts of the Disney vaults, finding exchange and brand-building value in extrinsic or obscure Disney-related materials, constructing and appealing to emergent and established Disney fan groups, and extending the Disney gravitational field, drawing peripheral artifacts and audiences into the Disney universe. Janet Wasko constructs a useful typology of Disney audience archetypes, from fanatics, fans and consumers through cynics, the uninterested, resisters and antagonists.All five of these films target intense Disney fanatics, fans and consumers, who buy large quantities of Disney products, often cherish their insider knowledge of Disney trivia, and though they sometimes question Disney’s activities, almost always accept the general frames and explanations generated by the company’s extensive publicity, including the company’s version of its own history. Though intense fans are relatively small in number, Disney seems to have recognized that they likely have influence far beyond their numbers. They often function as unpaid publicists and/or future employees. These films in different ways address them specifically within a more general address to less engaged or knowledgeable mass audiences.
Documentary and truthiness
Perhaps more important, all of these films use the documentary mode in one way or another to present what seems like factual knowledge behind the façade of the fictional fun factory that is Disney. By now, many adults and even teenagers know there is an extensive and sometimes sordid history behind Disney’s public façade. It is one of the jobs of Disney’s perception management apparatus to seem to reduce this gap between the perceived history and the façade by updating the façade with the conventions of current documentary “truthiness,”inoculating the slightly hipper and more knowledgeable of its consumers against alternative or oppositional, more critical frames.
The first three of these films are relatively conventional low-budget documentaries, made independently but within the Disney orbit. The Pixar Story, released the year after Disney bought Pixar in 2006, with John Lasseter and Steve Jobs as contemporary creatives exhibiting dimensions of Walt’s talents, traces the rise of this company which has re-energized Disney animation by challenging it both creatively and commercially. Though the film doesn’t probe this deeply, John Lasseter is emerging as a possible 21st-century Walt without the self-promotion. He is now Chief Creative Officer of both Pixar and Walt Disney Animation Studios as part of a deal to preserve Pixar’s identity and its potential to provide a creative counterforce protected from Disney’s pervasive corporate culture of deadening hypercommercialism, which measures every creative idea against its ability to move merchandise and generate theme park revenue. Company management, including Lasseter, Ed Catmull, a Pixar co-founder, and Disney CEO Robert Iger, seems to be looking for a way for Pixar and Disney animation to compete productively with one another as well as with Dreamworks, Fox and other, newer producers. And this management strategy clearly owes a lot to Steve Jobs, who, as an advisor and confidant to Iger, helped ease out Eisner in 2005 and became a major force on Disney’s board of directors after Disney bought Pixar in 2006 until his death in 2011.
Walt & El Grupo organizes home movies taken by Walt Disney and his wife Lillian, along with sixteen of the studio’s artists, into a travelogue about their ten-week goodwill tour of Latin America in 1941, urged by President Roosevelt to help build ties in the hemisphere to counter Nazi influence there. However, like the other films here and Disney history generally, the film neglects and devalues the cartoonists themselves in favor of their boss, who was partly avoiding a strike back in Burbank by many of his cartoonists during the summer of 1941. They were protesting precisely that devaluation in the form of low pay, forced overtime, Walt’s practice of taking credit for their work, and his authoritarian and paternalistic management.
More than the other two documentaries, Saving Sleeping Beauty, focusing on Disney animation from 1984 to 1994, sometimes captures the viewpoint of the working artists who actually produce Disney and Pixar movies, since it consists largely of home movies by and interviews with animators. The film captures some of the manic creative energy, impossibly long hours and stressful working conditions of what was until recently a virtually all-male environment. The new digital animation industry often shares such working conditions with other emergent digital industries in what Andrew Ross calls “the industrialization of bohemia.” And the new Disney or Pixar worker frequently shares many traits with his/her counterparts in other digital workplaces. They have a youthful ability and willingness to devote long hours to loosely-supervised creative projects organized for deadlines rather than regular production. And they prefer contingent, casual and casualized work consistent with their countercultural, artistic and anti-authoritarian attitudes.
However, Saving Sleeping Beauty encloses the animators’ viewpoint within the larger priorities of Disney management, and it is directed by Don Hahn, a Disney producer. It most often turns its fascinated gaze on the over-publicized battles between the grotesquely overpaid Disney executives Michael Eisner and Jeffrey Katzenberg, intermittently mediated by Roy E. Disney and Disney President Frank Wells. The film focuses on the 1984-94 period when Eisner and Katzenberg take most of the credit for the “renaissance” of Disney feature animation with The Little Mermaid, Beauty and the Beast, Aladdin and The Lion King. The film ignores the later years of Eisner’s reign when, having elbowed Katzenberg out of the race to become the new Walt Disney, his outsized compensation packages, subservient board of directors, and incessant self-promotion attracted attention even from a usually uncritical business press as well as from theme park visitors grumbling about rapidly rising prices.
You will not learn from this film that this was the era when U.S. workers’ productivity began to be disconnected from their wages, when longer, more intense work hours and technological innovations resulted not in rising wages for Disney and other U.S. employees, but in ever more spectacular salaries, bonuses and golden parachutes for top owner-managers. Now treated as stars, Michael Eisner and his cohort in the world’s most successful entertainment conglomerate became poster boys for this trend: In 1993 Eisner was the highest-paid executive in the country, with more than $203 million in salary and stock options. Katzenberg would later receive a golden parachute of around $100 million and Michael Ovitz over $200 million, while U.S. minimum-wage earners in 1997, including many Disney “cast members” and other theme park employees, were making $4.75 an hour. If we understand that the neoliberal policies (deregulation, union-busting, authoritarian populism) of Walt’s old ally in anticommunism Ronald Reagan are gathering momentum during this period, it casts a different light on the documentary authority of the film, the animators’ photos and home movies of their meetings with the bosses, handheld images and recorded memories of the bosses’ public and private feuds, and the endearing cartoonists’ caricatures of Eisner and Katzenberg.
Get a Horse!, a delightful six-minute cartoon that played theatrically with Disney’s 3-D hit Frozen in 2013 and also appears on the DVD of that film, pays homage to Walt Disney’s earliest Mickey Mouse shorts like Steamboat Willie and Plane Crazy (both 1928). Thus it symbolically links the first well-known Disney animated successes with the company’s contemporary hit. And its style limns a narrative of animation’s Technological Progress, a version of history much beloved at Disney and elsewhere: Mickey and his pals go out for a hayride in 2-D black and white hand-drawn images, and their subsequent chase and fight with Pegleg Pete eventually bursts through the small screen into larger-screen 3-D color computer animation. Whereas the three documentaries discussed above are aimed at smaller but possibly influential audiences of Disney fans, Get a Horse! reached a much larger audience with its wide theatrical “piggyback” release, a practice Disney has used before with its animated features, which are often less than ninety minutes. Many of those in the mass audience, however, had no context for what they were seeing. Fans and aficionados, on the other hand, some of whom are aspiring animators, could develop some usually uncritical context online. This smaller audience could be socially rewarded for sharing its insider knowledge as context, a documentary supplement to its anarchic fun. They could tell their friends and acquaintances that Walt Disney himself recorded the voice of Mickey Mouse in more than a hundred cartoons beginning in 1928. And the high, squeaky voice of early Mickey is here reconstructed by painstakingly selecting, rerecording and assembling fragments of Disney’s voice into Mickey’s new dialogue.
Two of the urban legends about Walt Disney maintain that he had himself cryogenically frozen so he could be resurrected by a more advanced future medical science, and also that he made several short films just before his death to be viewed every five years by his employees as instructions for the direction of the company. Certainly these rumors suggest symptomatic anxiety over his death and its implications for his company’s future. But as Sammond argues, they also testify to
"an intimate association between the man and his corporation, the idea that the company was nothing more or less than the physical manifestation of his innermost desires and dreams, a fantasy he made real and shared with the world."
At this historical moment when the increasingly diversified conglomerate, now lacking direction from Walt’s descendants, may be losing its mythical family identity, what could be more apposite than a technological resurrection, only superficially secular, which brings back the literal voice of the man himself, realizing and sharing his founding fantasy with the world?
The documentary element in Get a Horse! is available and interesting only to a minority with special knowledge. Saving Mr. Banks, on the other hand, uses the nonfiction mode as guarantor of the truth of its fiction, its version of history, more prominently in its closing credit sequence. In those credits: “The producers wish to acknowledge the work of Valerie Lawson, author of 'Mary Poppins, She Wrote—The Life of P.L. Travers.’” Lawson tells us that all of Travers’ script conferences with Disney’s writers were recorded. Saving Mr. Banks presents Travers as insisting on the recordings, making them a central part of its narrative, both painful and funny; then the closing credit sequence provides a big close-up of the early-sixties model reel-to-reel tape recorder we have just seen in the film. But this time we hear not the voice of Emma Thompson playing Travers, but the voice of the real P.L. Travers lecturing Da Gradi and the Sherman Brothers in 1961. It is as if The Walt Disney Company were addressing us directly through the film: This is a true story, and we’ve got the tapes to prove it! But as we will see, the film’s 1961 story (its present) is anchored less in any documentary authenticity than in an evanescent “gut feeling” of documentary truthiness as guarantor for a film in which the conventions of classical narrative form and genre (melodrama, the musical) contend with the demands of Disney corporate self-promotion.
Characteristics of Disney and its products: commodification
Let’s summarize the arguments made so far about The Walt Disney Company, and develop their implications further in order to understand some conditions of possibility for the corporation’s representation of Walt Disney and itself in Saving Mr. Banks.
The Walt Disney Company has built an entertainment and media empire on appeals to largely white, middle class and culturally conservative consumers with stories, characters and products about idealized nuclear families: parents, children and pets. Since the late twenties, the company has built the public figure of “Walt Disney” into a simulacrum of itself—model parent, empathetic family-entertainment creator, and paternal boss. That is, although the public image of “Walt Disney” is largely a product of the private corporation itself, that image also acts as the external referent, authenticator and justifier for the systematized functions of the corporation that produces it.
However, Disney’s target audience has always been more racially and sexually diverse; the family dynamics of Disney consumers are more various, contradictory and nuanced than the characters and families in Disney stories. And as the corporation has grown and its consumers multiplied, the constructed image of “Walt Disney” as simulacrum for the company and its imagined audience has aged, has become less and less credible as it moves more firmly into the past. From the thirties to today, this image has receded from model father and parental identification figure to uncle, grandfather, and now great-grandfather, of whom those now living have little or no memory. As the real children of Walt and Roy O. Disney have themselves passed on, and their children have gone their own ways, so the imagined family of Disney consumers constructed by the corporation’s products has, since the eighties, been forced to expand, even while maintaining conventional standards of white beauty and patriarchy. It’s clearly time for a remodeling of Walt’s image, for him to be played by Tom Hanks, a new simulacrum for managing change.
Disney’s business model is built on quickly readable modular units of familiar personality traits, song and narrative fragments, and highly conventionalized visual elements of color, design and movement. Designed for reproduction and easy adaptation to a number of commercial and industrial contexts—indeed to destroy and remake those contexts—these standardized and highly commodified constructs are combined into animated and live action films or other media products, sold as merchandise, or made into built environments (theme parks, resorts, cruise ships) where the modules become three dimensional fantasy “themes” in which you can move, eat, play, live and consume. The commodity modules must all function as both appealing products on their own and also as advertisements for other Disney products: cross-promotion, reciprocal advertising and media convergence, combined with careful attention to quality of products and services, generate a magical synthesis. They have created an aura around the Disney brand much more valuable than that of competing brands like Universal or Dreamworks, and updated in recent years through its institutional and marketing association with Apple. The larger self-referential Disney universe excludes elements from outside in the same way the theme parks exclude outside buildings or other sights and sounds that would break the fantasy illusion. The distinctive Disney brand must be constantly built, maintained, protected and extended. Steve Jobs helped remodel the Walt Disney Company because he understood that brand, combined with a distinctive quality of products and services, is a form of capital. He
“encouraged Disney executives to think in terms of ‘brand deposits’ or ‘brand withdrawals’ every time they made a movie, television show or consumer product.”
Saving Mr. Banks is the kind of brand deposit or investment likely to continue to pay cultural dividends for many years.
Disney animated features most fully exemplify the corporate practice of generating commodity-modules, since they must generate merchandisable stories, situations and personalities as well as pop songs with lots of musical hooks. In fact, musical hooks are not only an example but also a good model for all the commodity-modules with which Disney and other producers commercialize culture. A musical hook is a musical or lyrical phrase, usually seven to ten seconds long, that is repetitive, memorable, attention-grabbing, made to sell and often easy to dance to. It’s the most efficiently commodified unit within the pop song, since it simultaneously separates itself from its musical context and returns listeners, almost involuntarily, to the song again and again.
If you’ve seen Disney’s Mary Poppins or Saving Mr. Banks, think of “Chim-chim-inee, chim-chim-inee, chim-chim cheree,” “Let’s Go Fly a Kite,” or “Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious.” If you’ve encountered “Let It Go,” the quasi-feminist “power ballad” from Disney’s Frozen (2013), you may remember the song’s soaring musical phrase that has snagged an edge of your memory’s network. Likewise, a narrative hook in a written or visual story is an early action, mystery, engaging setting or character that pulls the reader or spectator through the textual experience by hooking readers’ attention, efficiently subordinating form and style, space and time to narrative, making the story more consumable. (“I couldn’t stop reading/watching/listening.”) Commercial film and media makers, game and theme park designers work to orchestrate narrative and formal elements into spatial and temporal hooks that facilitate their own decontextualization, are easily resold in other venues, and beckon us in distraction back to the cherished ride or game or movie again. For Disney and other entertainment companies, virality can be a sign of success for their modal commodity-hooks.
While the narrative, visual and musical hooks are perhaps less obvious in a film like Saving Mr. Banks, targeted as it seems to be primarily to adults rather than to children and teenagers, there are still plenty of them. The film is full of lively songs-in-process, seeing Disneyland with Walt himself in 1961, and the world premiere of Mary Poppins at Grauman’s Chinese Theater in 1964. Lacking virtually any evocation of the very different, less commodifiable charms of P.L. Travers’ Mary Poppins books, Saving Mr. Banks is much more likely to take you to the newly-reissued 50th Anniversary Edition of Disney’s Mary Poppins or another Disney product than it is to any of Travers’ books. And reciprocally, Disney’s new Mary Poppins DVD bears scarcely a mention of P.L. Travers’ work, though it carries a promotional special feature, “Becoming Mr. Sherman,” including a “fun and musical-filled afternoon” with Dick Sherman, the surviving Sherman brother, and Jason Schwartzman, who plays him in Saving Mr. Banks. It also has “heartwarming, revealing stories about the making of this beloved musical,” Sherman’s reminiscences about working with Walt and a “sneak peek” at the new film, thus leading us back to that biggest of all making-of movies, and completing the ritualized cycle of mutual back-patting among Disney commodities.
As we will see, Saving Mr. Banks will lead us away from Pamela Travers and toward Walt Disney in many more ways than just its invocation of Disney’s Mary Poppins film. Saving Mr. Banks is virtually a narrative argument for Walt’s contention to her that he understood Mary Poppins better than she did. Within the commercial universe of standardized culture-units that his company built and that he lived in, he was right.
History of Disney: synergy and convergence
I don’t wish to leave the impression that the many parts of The Walt Disney Company work together in smooth capitalist synergy like the apparently smoothly operating parts of one of its successful films or the soothingly ludic environments created for maximum consumption by the theme parks. In fact, much of the corporation’s history concerns its often unsuccessful struggles to make the conglomerate’s parts work together, struggles that continue to this day and that constitute a dominant theme in the biographical, business and critical literature on Disney.
The company built early success with merchandising and cross-promotion, which helped pay for its expensive move to feature animation. Walt’s interest in theme parks, urban design and live action films from the late thirties on was spurred by the expense and unreliable box-office returns of feature animation as well as the 1941 cartoonists’ strike against the studio. An argument raged for decades, both inside and outside Disney, over whether feature animation was not only part of the company’s public identity but the key source of new characters and other commodified module-hooks necessary to sell more merchandise and advertising time on television and to create new attractions for repeat business at the theme parks. Top Disney executives from Walt to the present have failed to resolve this argument, to provide a consistent flow of new material from animated or live action features (or other sources) so as to keep the biggest profit centers, merchandising, television and theme parks, humming with new product and cash for growth.
Finally, after the spectacular gilded-age battles among top owner-managers Roy E. Disney, Ron Miller, Jeffrey Katzenberg, Michael Eisner and others, Robert Iger, allied with Steve Jobs, produced or expanded a tentative compromise, reducing the company’s strategic risk and providing multiple sources of new branded personality-commodities. They did this by purchasing Pixar in 2006, the Marvel stable of characters and stories in 2009, and the Star Wars franchise with Lucasfilm in 2012. CGI technology aided this compromise for many by blurring the boundaries between animation and live action in big studio films, and the families that were Disney’s core audience assumed new forms and colors. Thus the extension of the Disney brand to include Pixar, Marvel, Star Wars and other intellectual property prompted more questions about whether Disney in the new century meant anything except an increasingly vague commitment to an increasingly fractured family market, a brand devoted above all to managing diversity, surveilling and controlling its customers, and extracting maximum loyalty and cash from children of all ages.
In this context, then, Saving Mr. Banks resembles other Disney products. As Alan Bryman has argued,
“nothing ever seems to be done by Disney for a single reason because of its commitment to [marketing and merchandising] synergy.”
Thus there’s a common impression that the panoply of family fun and magic, so perfectly planned and controlled, also has other less obvious functions in that planning and control. Just as people may become aware, pleasurably or not, of some of the myriad ways in which they are being controlled in the theme parks, resorts or cruise ships, Saving Mr. Banks and other Disney films, more than other Hollywood products, often create the impression that there is something else going on here besides an entertaining experience, that corporate agendas are being fulfilled, that a sales pitch and an argument is also being made. By now Disney’s nearly century-long brand-building may be precision-tuned and pervasive, but its functionality, its systemic efficiency, also emerges more frequently into visibility, producing a cynicism which may accompany consumerist pleasures. Several reviews of Saving Mr. Banks reference this quality:
It’s hard for a movie to be just a movie when it also has to be a commercial for other Disney products.
Private control, public resistance
All of this suggests that The Walt Disney Company—as its private power has grown, as it has reached into more and more aspects of everyday life around the world—has increasingly come into conflict with changing public priorities and values. These conflicts range from particular communities and local governments opposing new Disney developments in their locations to long-running public criticism, largely unanswered, of pervasive racism, sexism, and naturalization and idealization of rigid social hierarchies in many Disney films. And the corporation’s imperative to control its public image increasingly conflicts with competing public interests, since it necessarily involves trying to control publics, turning them into atomized consumers.
Since the late thirties the company has become known for Disneyfication, its systematic transformation of every story or other property it acquires, no matter how original or unconventional, into something superficial, formulaic and sanitized. But in more recent decades the theme parks have become the most socially and institutionally influential part of the growing Disney empire. This influence is perhaps best described as Disneyizatio (in parallel with McDonaldization, after the fast food chain), the spatial and social extension of Disneyfication. Disneyization includes
These practices have been adopted by private and public institutions far from the Disney entertainment universe, including those with significant public missions such as airports, museums, zoos, and urban planning generally. Disneyization is a key dimension of the increasing privatization of these and other public institutions.
Many multinational corporations aspire to control their public image and their publics as effectively as does Disney. But Disney’s distinctive brand has increasingly been unable to avoid well-publicized contradictions within its often rapacious corporate behavior. And the press and public sometimes enjoys a good story about the Mouse House’s bad behavior almost as much as it does Disney’s own products. That a corporate conglomerate would try to present itself as not only clean and efficient, but also just as innocent, naïve and childlike as its paradigmatic founder and consumer are supposed to be, invites the 80% of Disney’s customers who are not children, plus the rest of us, to engage in some demystification even if we enjoy Disney experiences. So by now there are myriad historical reports detailing the growing contradictions between Disney’s relentlessly cultivated family-values image and its sociopathic determination to maximize shareholder value, a determination and zeal seldom matched among U.S. corporations and often reported with the barely-concealed glee of someone bursting a child’s balloon.
There is an extensive popular and academic literature on this subject, and a full exploration of the topic is beyond the scope of this essay, so here I’ll just summarize a sample of this private corporation’s numerous clashes with changing public values and institutions. These problems generate a fuller, less flattering and more contradictory context than Disney can control, and while most of them are not directly about Saving Mr. Banks, they do cast the film and other Disney products in a very different light than the familiar Disneyfied one.
Private and public: constructions of social hierarchiesGender. Always a politically and culturally conservative corporation, Disney has reproduced many popular gender stereotypes from its earliest days, with special emphasis on the conventionally attractive white princess who needs rescuing, and later just needs a conventionally attractive man. From the antic chases of the first Silly Symphonies to the long line of princesses from Snow White (1937), Cinderella (1950) and Pretty Woman (1990) through Ariel in The Little Mermaid (1989), Belle in Beauty and the Beast (1991), and beyond, Disney has taught that girls must be paired off with men to be happy. And it continues to teach this lesson through the recirculation of these films and images.
But increasing with second wave feminism in the sixties and seventies, Disney has encountered a growing chorus of criticism for its representations of gender. The company pretended to ignore this criticism as it grew, yet has tacitly engaged with its critics as its heroines have become superficially more ethnically diverse (Pocahontas , Mulan , and The Princess and the Frog ) and central to the films’ narratives (Frozen ). However, the corporation has been slow to promote women to positions of responsibility, and as yet no woman has solo directed a Disney animated feature. Throughout, Disney has failed to respond to changing social constructions of gender until resistance became more visible and public, and the corporation continues to market its older, more blatantly patriarchal films in multiple venues to new generations.
Sexualities. As more complex understandings of sexualities have supplemented conventional notions of gender, some have come to understand that Disney, seemingly a bastion of compulsory heterosexuality, has not only made covert and a few overt appeals to gay audiences, but it has long employed lesbian, gay, bisexual, queer and transgendered people, while keeping LGBTQ characters largely invisible in its products. Sean Griffin has complicated these emergent queer understandings with his explorations of the history of gay culture’s use of various Disney motifs, the role of lesbians and gays within the company, and the ongoing struggles over “Gay Days” at the Disney theme parks.
These struggles can be seen as uneven and often unsuccessful yet continuing attempts to treat a private company as a public resource and the private property of the theme parks as public spaces, to be defined by their heterogeneous workers and citizen-consumers as much as by Disney. While the gay rights movement generally operates within a liberal political framework of appeals for full inclusion within public life, some aspects of it strive for a more expansive and radical definition of citizenship to include a rejection of the consumer capitalism that constantly privatizes and constricts that public life. Capitalism commodifies gay as well as straight identities by turning the public signs of identity into private property. As Griffin concludes,
“As Disney and its advertising seem to encourage homosexual viewers to ‘do’ gay readings of their product, such advertising also regulates how that reading is supposed to be done and who is authorized to do it, turning a subversive strategy into a potential for more profit….[although] such target marketing is not completely effective.”
Unfortunately, while Disney has begun to take cautious steps to make its marketing address more of the world’s sexual (and gender and racial) diversity, it ignored a major opportunity in Saving Mr. Banks. The real P.L. Travers was bisexual and complicated. She moved in literary and bohemian circles where she could be relatively open about her romances and associations. But Saving Mr. Banks is tasked with making Walt look as saintly as possible, though it tries to inoculate itself against criticism by acknowledging but de-emphasizing his drinking, smoking, and patriarchal attitudes. So the company apparently thinks it must, by contrast, turn Pamela Travers into a too-often mean and psychologically one-dimensional spinster with major daddy issues. Thus there is no hint of Travers’ bisexuality or many of her other interesting traits.
Race. Since its beginnings, Disney’s racist and ethnocentric constructions have also been pervasive, including widely-discussed racial caricatures in such films as The Three Little Pigs (1933), Fantasia (1940), Dumbo (1941), Peter Pan (1953), The Jungle Book (1967), The Little Mermaid (1989), Chip n’ Dale Rescue Rangers (1989 TV series), and Aladdin (1992). Of course many other media corporations have sold racist products. The difference here is that, with the sole (and likely temporary) exception of Peter Pan, Disney continues to re-circulate these films worldwide in 2014. Re-selling everything from its vaults seems to be a compulsion the company can’t break. Even its most notoriously racist film, Song of the South (1946), picketed and protested since its opening, still turns up wholly and in commodified pieces throughout the Disney universe and elsewhere. Jason Sperb has insightfully analyzed the ugly reception history of this film, including the confusions of its twenty-first century fans. He notes that Disney’s famously aggressive legal department continues to ignore the easy availability online of pirate copies of the film and related Disneyana. Perhaps more important, the film is legally available in many other countries outside the United States.
Neo-Colonialism. Newer approaches contextualize Disney representations of gender, sexuality and race within larger neo-colonialist narratives. In their analysis of Disney’s Pocahontas (1995) and Pocahontas II: Journey to a New World (1998), Radha Jhappan and Daiva Stasiulis acknowledge the improvements Disney has made over previous representations of women and “Indians” while demonstrating how the films continue to demonstrate white (English and American) superiority and justify colonialism:
“The impression left at the end of each film, that British imperialism was called off, is indeed one of the most fanciful yet serious departures from reality committed by Disney’s narratives….the interracial love story between Smith and Pocahontas serves to legitimize that colonization.”
Private and public: Disney’s exploitation of labor
The Walt Disney Company has a long corporate history of aggressive property development, obsessive control of copyrights and trademarks, and bad corporate citizenship within the societies and communities from which it extracts resources, employees and capital. Although I am not claiming any direct causal connections with Saving Mr. Banks, nevertheless to understand more fully the contradictions in the company’s actions is to understand more fully the import of Saving Mr. Banks as corporate self-promotion and mission statement. Here I will focus on updating previous accounts of Disney’s exploitation of its workers, which began with cartoonists in the twenties and thirties and now extends to the workers of the world.
Like many multinational corporations, Disney makes huge profits on merchandise sold at high prices in developed countries and made in low wage, often sweatshop conditions throughout the developing world. Because Disney and other corporations refuse to protect those who make their products with the same zeal with which they protect their own brands and trademarks, those workers often labor in unsafe, oppressive and inhumane sweatshop conditions. Although these workers are employed by suppliers and subcontractors, Disney, Wal-Mart, Apple and other companies repeatedly create, with the low prices they demand, the conditions for sweatshops.
Over and over again, such sweatshop injustices are compounded by tragedies in which workers lose their lives. On the evening of November 24, 2012, at least 112 garment workers were killed at the Tazreen Fashion garment factory in Bangladesh. Disney and Wal-Mart garments were being sewn there. Three weeks later, the Institute for Global Labour and Human Rights reported on similar conditions in another factory making Disney and Wal-Mart products, the Dream International Toy Factory in Shenzhen, China.
Meanwhile, around the world in Orlando, Florida, Walt Disney World is the largest employer in the region, so large (around 60,000 workers, over 12 percent of the total regional workforce) that its low wages depress the already low wages in the whole Central Florida area with its predominantly tourist-driven economy. In 1998, through all-too-common collective bargaining laws and processes designed to weaken workers and their unions, and to make organizing practically illegal, Disney effectively imposed a two-tier wage system on its non-tipped service workers. Those hired after Dec. 12, 1998 received smaller pay increases starting in 2001, so they have been permanently paid at a lower rate than their counterparts hired previously.
“In 1998 its entry level hourly wage scale was 5-8% higher than its competitors [Universal Studios and Sea World]; by 2006 it was 3-4% lower.”
The tens of millions of dollars Disney saves in this way is mostly extracted from the economy of greater Orlando and goes to stockholders, top-level executives, and investments elsewhere.
In 2010 UniteHere Local 362, one of six unions negotiating a new contract for over 27,000 bus drivers, waiters, custodians, parking attendants and front desk staff, produced a documentary film titled Mouse Trapped 2010. With average wages for union workers around $10 an hour, Doug, a worker in Animal Kingdom, said on camera,
“For me and my family to survive, we have to go to the churches. We have to go to the church and we get handouts.”
And Bryan in the Transportation and Ticketing Center said in the film,
“I can work for 50 hours a week and bring home $165 because of my insurance and other deductions that come out of my paycheck.”
By 2014, many of Disney World’s employees were still only making the minimum wage of $8.03 an hour in Florida, a right-to-work-for-less state. In 2013, Walt Disney World, along with Darden Restaurants, a low-wage chain, and other business groups, successfully lobbied the Florida Legislature and Governor for a new state law prohibiting local governments from enacting measures to guarantee paid sick days for all food service workers, thus ensuring that many of those workers, mostly women, would be forced to come to work sick and spread their illnesses to others.
Private and public: Abigail Disney refuses to build the family brand
The corporate media, composing the first draft of public history, continue to ignore or de-emphasize any more critical or complete account of the activities of Disney or other large corporations. So it’s not surprising that they largely ignored Meryl Streep’s unusual introduction of Emma Thompson at the annual National Board of Review awards gala in New York on January 7, 2014, which was more fully reported in the trade press and British newspapers. Streep, who had reportedly been offered the part of P.L. Travers for which Thompson was being honored, pointed out that Walt Disney
“had some…racist proclivities. He formed and supported an anti-Semitic industry lobby. And he was certainly, on the evidence of his company’s policies, a gender bigot.”
She went on to quote a 1938 letter from Disney to a young woman named Mary Ford of Arkansas, who had applied to his company’s training program for cartoonists. Disney replied,
“Women do not do any of the creative work in connection with preparing the cartoons for the screen, as that task is performed entirely by young men. For this reason, girls are not considered for the training school.”
It is not news that Walt Disney was a man of his times, or that there was a sexist division of labor in animation as in many other areas of life during this period as in our own. Streep’s historical claims are well supported by the historical literature, including even Neal Gabler’s authorized hagiography of Walt Disney. But the trade press and blogosphere mostly treated her remarks as controversial. The reaction from Disney fans in online comments was predictably defensive and hysterical, attacking Streep as a bad actor and a “bitch.” As elsewhere, conservative defenses of bigotry in the past slid quickly from “everyone was doing it” to nostalgic attempts to recreate a time when critiques of bigotry could easily be ignored or silenced.
What happened next was less predictable. It came from Abigail Disney, Roy E. Disney’s daughter and Walt’s grandniece, a documentary filmmaker, social activist and philanthropist with a Ph.D. from Columbia and politics very different from her famous family members. On her Facebook page on Jan. 10, 2014, Disney acknowledged “mixed feelings” about Walt:
“Anti-Semite? Check. Misogynist? OF COURSE!! Racist? C'mon, he made a film (Jungle Book) about how you should stay 'with your own kind' at the height of the fight over segregation! As if the 'King of the Jungle' number wasn't proof enough!! How much more information do you need? But damn, he was hella good at making films and his work has made billions of people happy. There's no denying it. So there ya go. Mixed feelings up the wazoo.”
She went on to criticize Saving Mr. Banks as “a misplaced attempt at hagiography”:
“I LOVED what Meryl Streep said. I know he was a man of his times and I can forgive him, but Saving Mr Banks was a brazen attempt by the company to make a saint out of the man.”
Only in the worlds of Hollywood publicity and Disney fetishism could these comments seem startling. More interestingly, at the moment that the corporation attempts to assimilate other brands (Pixar, Marvel, Star Wars) around its core brand, thus stretching the Disney brand to the breaking point, it seeks to ground its synthetic identity ever more thoroughly in its own constructions while the real Disney family ceases to act as guarantor of brand identity. Ms. Disney’s comments record a moment in the separation of the Disney family from the corporation that bears its name, and a shifting in the connotations of the Disney brand as the connections between family and corporation become almost entirely symbolic. In its attempts to mythologize itself by systematically confusing a corporation with a person, the company can no longer count on much help from the younger generation of Disneys. One can easily understand why Abigail Disney might prefer to separate her identity from the company’s, and might even wish that the company stop pretending it has a human identity.
I referred above to the relatively small but influential audience of Disney fans, many of whom read and comment on online stories about Disney and comprise the most attentive audience for The Pixar Story, Walt & El Grupo, Waking Sleeping Beauty, Get a Horse! and to a lesser extent Saving Mr. Banks. Based on their comments on press reports of Meryl Streep’s mild and factual remarks about Walt Disney, these Disney fans have a lot in common with the fans of Disney’s Song of the South discussed by Jason Sperb. Many in both groups seem unable to accept that a film they love, especially one they cherish from childhood, might turn out, like its creators, to be on further adult reflection sexist, racist or otherwise bigoted. Beyond those who might wish to deny the existence of any bigotry in Disney or anywhere else, there is here an attempt to deny any imperfection in the object of their affection, a denial that many people will reasonably find some of Disney’s films less than timeless and universal, and Walt and his crew historical rather than magical.
As if to demonstrate in miniature why the Disney brand needs constant maintenance through products like Saving Mr. Banks, Meryl Streep and Abigail Disney, representing the East Coast feminist wing of non- or anti-Disney culture, generate and expose small, peripheral fissures in the smooth, magical surface of the Disney public image. In her introduction of Emma Thompson, Streep called Thompson “a rabid, man-eating feminist, like I am.” And as I will show below, although Meryl Streep and Abigail Disney are talking explicitly about Walt Disney, they are also talking implicitly about how Walt’s company, continuing the policies he began, has, with Saving Mr. Banks, done its best to finally put Pamela Travers firmly in her (Disney) place.
The compatibility of the Disney and Tom Hanks brands
Although Abigail Disney is not willing to build the Disney brand, Tom Hanks certainly is. In many ways he is uniquely positioned, as a commodity-brand, to help remodel the simulacrum that is “Walt Disney” for the twenty-first century. In February 2014, according to Forbes magazine, Tom Hanks was the “Most Trustworthy Celebrity” among Americans, just ahead of Carol Burnett and Morgan Freeman, and he also topped the Reader’s Digest “Trust Poll” in 2013. In December 2013 The Harris Poll named Tom Hanks as “America’s Favorite Movie Star,” and he was the favorite among both the most-educated (post grad) as well as the least (high school or less). In 2014, when NPR’s “All Things Considered” asked U.S. men what movies made them cry, an unexpected pattern developed: in more than 5000 replies,
“Hanks was mentioned far more than any other actor, and for a wider range of performances.”
Popularly known for playing ordinary, everyman guys, Hanks has come to embody for many the nice boy next door, charming, familiar, good natured, and emotionally open, a contemporary Jimmy Stewart. Beginning with comedy roles on television series like Bosom Buddies (1980-1982), he went on to movie stardom in Splash (1982, Disney) and Big (1988), then to three of his biggest successes, Philadelphia (1993), Sleepless in Seattle (1993), and Forrest Gump (1994). By then his star brand was well-established: boyish and soft-bodied, sexually muted or passive, Hanks became the boomer alternative to the rampaging tough guys played by Sylvester Stallone, Bruce Willis and Mel Gibson. He starred in Saving Private Ryan (1998) and The Green Mile (1999) and began a star franchise with The Da Vinci Code (2006). The core of boyish asexuality remained key to most of his later star performances, and certainly to his updating and reconstruction of the image of Walt Disney. Hanks was 57 when he played Disney, and the role merges the brands of Walt Disney and Tom Hanks into the apotheosis of the ordinary man Hanks has played so often, now older and legitimized in a “hierarchical order of adult male power and authority,” yet whose talent lies in his intimate connection with the innocent and playful boy-child as Disney consumer within.
The real Walt Disney apparently remained unable or unwilling to fully articulate anything like a mission statement, but his company has grown so large, so distant from its playful and anarchic origins that it requires a new, twenty-first century Walt. Those very mid-twentieth century Audioanimatronic figures at the Hall of Presidents speaking those mechanical civics-lesson clichés perhaps inadvertently expressed the viewpoint of the conservative Walt Disney and his corporation on democracy, the state, and the public realm. In Tom Hanks the Walt Disney Company found its ideal new Walt. In Hanks the corporation found an actor to embody itself, an actor as technically accomplished and alive as those embodiments of the public state were inept and dead. More important, though, as Fred Pfeil has pointed out, a generally unnoticed dimension of Hanks’ star persona is that he generally plays characters who are exclusively concerned with private and psychological life, who are publicly and politically indifferent:
“There are no larger purposes or higher values in the world in which Hanks’ masculinity is normative than that of accomplishing whatever mission you happen to be given—and/or, insofar as you are still a bagman, doing as you please.”
Given the corporate values of most Hollywood films, this may be a trait that Hanks’ persona shares with that of most other contemporary U.S. stars. However, it certainly assures his compatibility with Disney, a corporation like others devoted to the neoliberal values of commodification and privatization, and an indifference or hostility toward public institutions and civic life.Perhaps in time future generations will, at the mention of Walt Disney’s name, conjure up an image of Tom Hanks rather than that genial old guy on the old television images. If so, that would be entirely appropriate, since Hanks would seem to be the ideal personalizing star for a personalizing era.
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.” 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.’”
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.”
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. 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.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. 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.
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.
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. 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. 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.
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. 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.” 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. 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. 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.
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. 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.”
Equally important, Travers became part of the contemporary English and Irish literary circles that included T.S. Eliot and W.B. Yeats. 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.” 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?”
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. 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.
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….
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). Travers’ life and especially her stories become a kind of structuring absence, a constitutive gap that makes possible the film’s apparent unity. 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. 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. 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.
“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.”
Thus there was far less at stake during Travers’ visit to the Disney studio in March 1961 than the film depicts. 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.
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. 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. 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.” 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.”
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.” 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.”
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.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,” 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.
Symptomatic and structuring excess in Saving Mr. Banks
We can extend and reconsider this tradition by looking more closely at symptomatic contradictions in Saving Mr. Banks, beginning at the level of narrative and its conventional building block, character. In conventional aesthetic terms, one of the more obvious problems with this film is a perceived imbalance between the two parts of its narrative. Several reviewers pointed to it: The long flashbacks to Travers’ childhood in Australia are significantly longer than narratively necessary, and melodramatically excessive. They form a full narrative continuity in the past that overwhelms Travers’ present narrative with childhood guilt and trauma, and are often drenched in the sentimental light of memory and topped with insistent music to drive each repetitive point home again and again. These flashbacks symptomatically over-explain and oversimplify the adult Travers, who otherwise usually seems a much more complex and conventionally interesting character. If the point is to explain and evoke the reasons for the adult Travers’ behavior in the 1961 story, the film spends way too much time and stylistic energy doing so. That is, rather than saying too little, here the text says too much. Instead of a structuring absence, Saving Mr. Banks evidences a structuring excess. If the film is a social rather than a strictly personal symptom, then it prompts us to ask: What might cause this excess?
To begin with the simplest explanation first, with the script’s genealogy: the producer of a 2002 documentary about Travers, the Australian Ian Collie, commissioned a screenplay by Sue Smith. The project migrated to BBC Films and Ruby Films, where producer Alison Owen hired Kelly Marcel to co-write the script. After several rewrites, the screenplay was good enough to make the Blacklist in 2011, voted by producers as one of the best un-produced screenplays in Hollywood. It was acquired and quickly produced by Disney, where the director, John Lee Hancock, removed one or two scripted scenes set in Australia, which Marcel attributes to her sentimentalizing, “overegging the pudding.” Since it is generally the Australia scenes that sentimentalize and simplify the 1961 story, some of the reasons for the excess of those scenes may lie in the origins of the project.
However, this seems an inadequate explanation for such a significant structural and stylistic problem, which is more likely to be found in the more proximate influence of the Walt Disney Company on the internal structure of its intellectual property. As Marcel acknowledges, Walt Disney is not the antagonist to the fictional Travers’ protagonist; the internally conflicted Travers is her own antagonist. Conventional wisdom dictates that the more complex and multifaceted the antagonist (not necessarily a villain), the better the story. (This is because conventional classical narrative requires exterior conflict between protagonist and antagonist, generating action; if the conflict becomes too interiorized within the protagonist, or becomes more social or institutional, the film becomes less conventional and commodified, resembling art cinema.) But here is the crux of the problem: the Walt Disney Company puts very narrow, overdetermined limits on the representation of its founder. Saving Mr. Banks must update the simulacrum of Walt Disney, key to its brand and a construct into which the corporation has poured enormous resources for many decades. (A symptom of the corporation’s power in this situation is Marcel’s excessive praise of the company as “incredibly brave” for showing him drinking and smoking, “and I love them for it.”)
So in conventional terms, the film must locate virtually all conflict and complexity within its protagonist, since it is prohibited from exploring major conflicts and complexities in Walt Disney, including the well-documented historical ones. This unbalances the film, oversimplifying Walt Disney, who logically should be a complex antagonist rather than an idealized therapist. In the process Pamela Travers becomes, contradictorily, both a complex adult and someone totally controlled by her past, over-explained with excessive flashbacks. As one critic put it,
“[The Australian story] is thick with dubious sentiment and leavened with glimmers of sensitive wisdom, but the light it casts on the grown-up Mrs. Travers is harshly literal. The film asks us to believe that she is at once an astute storyteller and an emotional automaton entirely lacking in psychological insight.”
The very commercial imperatives of brand building work here against the conventions of commercial classical narrative.
To put this a different way: A Hollywood commercial imperative, even stronger in Disney movies, dictates that the main character must be likeable, someone with whom you can identify and empathize. Disney is trying, despite its institutional mandate to merchandise everything, to occasionally make movies for grownups. This film suggests how difficult the company finds such a process, especially when the film is about itself. Since Travers is so often unpleasant, unhappy, and even mean in order to make Walt, his writers and his beloved film of Mary Poppins into her innocent victims, perhaps the only way to make her more sympathetic is to explain, over and over again in symptomatic overcompensation, why she’s only acting that way because she doesn’t want to let her father down again. Kelly Marcel confirms the filmmakers’ need to make Travers more likeable, noting that the small but important character of Ralph, the limousine driver, was added “late in the first draft…because somebody’s got to like her besides Mickey Mouse,” Mickey being the stuffed toy who seems to be her only friend.
Managing contradictions and conflicts
However, it’s important not to overstate the salience of this symptomatic excess. Though it may cause some viewers to enjoy the film less than they might, most are not likely to understand the causes of the problem if they do notice it, since they lack a critical conceptual framework with which to connect this insight with other, larger issues. So this symptomatic excess is probably a minor and manageable contradiction within the film’s reception. Given the film’s commercial success, the mission of this mission statement has likely been accomplished. As a social text, the film is perhaps being asked to fulfill some contradictory functions, which must be managed not to erase them, but to limit them to marginal notice (like this essay!) or frame them in conventional terms as aesthetic flaws.
Thus it is useful to emphasize not the symptomatic contradictions and conflicts among the parts of the film, but the ways the film ideologically manages these problems—not to make them disappear to everyone but to marginalize them, to construct a reassuring consensus around the film. In this the film at the micro-level may operate in ways analogous to its parent corporation at the macro-level, both of them necessarily generating contradictions that need not be made invisible but only marginal within the public marketplace. I say necessarily because, under the increasingly intensified commodification of consumer capitalism, big-budget studio films are more and more likely to become unstable pastiches of heterogeneous genres, narrative fragments, star personae and visual styles. Each element is designed to appeal to a different demographic or advertise some different merchandise, and the whole package is lightly overlaid with the residual patina of a unified work of art. Viewers are likely to be expecting less a unified aesthetic experience (whatever that is) than a series of “intensities” or pleasurable impressions lightly strung together. Certainly Saving Mr. Banks demonstrates some of these characteristics.
And at the macro-level, a global corporation as large as Disney can manage its precious brand without erasing or even minimizing every contradiction in corporate behavior. If some Americans and Europeans don’t like the company’s racist or sexist products or its exploitative labor practices, it probably matters less as long as a lot of Chinese don’t complain. And there’s limited evidence that consumers acting as citizens, asking Disney to act like a corporate citizen as well, have had much direct influence on Disney’s behavior.
Mythically resolving conflicts: the musical genre and the melodrama
A complementary perspective that emphasizes the mythical or ideological resolution of social conflicts centers on genre. In her analysis of the classic (especially MGM) musical, Jane Feuer demonstrates its reflexive, self-justifying qualities. Musicals collapse the distance between movie performers spontaneously singing and dancing their feelings, the audiences for those performances represented in the films, and the audiences of the musicals themselves. And many if not most of these films are backstage musicals, about putting on a show, which happens to be the show we are seeing. Musicals often celebrate themselves and the musical genre itself.
We can understand Saving Mr. Banks in generic terms as a domestic melodrama about P.L. Travers’ traumatized family in the past threatening to destroy Walt Disney’s vision for the family in Mary Poppins in the film’s present and future. And Disney’s vision is Mary Poppins as a musical, with the future realized and the family saved through the symbolic triumph of the musical genre over the melodrama. The world premiere of the musical that is his Mary Poppins climactically relegates Travers’ family melodrama to the dead past, reflexively justifying the value of the musical genre itself as the last shots show the young Helen Goff saying farewell to the past and her now-redeemed father. Thus the tragic family melodrama from the past frames Saving Mr. Banks at beginning, end, and throughout, with a 1961 backstage comedy/drama trying to emerge from inside it, and an already beloved 1964 Disney musical comedy trying to emerge from both. As a backstage musical, the film parallels the maturation of the show, seen in script conferences and initial performances, with the maturation of the trauma in the past that threatens to prevent the show from realization. To the backstage musical element the film adds a bit of the more recent “making-of” genre, trying to activate the audience’s nostalgia for Mary Poppins.
Thus Saving Mr. Banks can be usefully understood as a hybrid of the family melodrama and the musical that performs a kind of competition between these two genres, with the 1961 backstage comedy/drama mediating between them. Although historically P.L. Travers’ life and writings were not melodramatic, Disney’s film associates her with this genre. And since Disney films are usually musicals about characters who sing and dance their feelings, the film associates Disney with the musical genre. Walt takes Travers to Disneyland, and she begins to smile as they ride on a musical carousel that reminds her of a happy moment in her youth. Then, as the conflicts between Travers and Disney’s writers sharpen and Travers reveals her key melodramatic goal not to let her father down again, the writers respond by turning the writing room into a musical performance space, along with the receptionist singing and dancing Travers’ heart’s desire, and Travers joins them in singing and dancing “Let’s Go Fly a Kite.” They successfully counter the relative realism of melodrama with the utopian stylization of the musical, with its expressive unity of emotion, character and performer (and, hopefully, viewer).
A key Disney commodity:
musical comedy, mixing live action and animation
Complementing the narrativized competition between genres is a parallel contrast between live action and animation. Travers’ hostility to having her Mary Poppins singing and dancing is overcome when she saves her father, in imagination, through singing and dancing, but she still cannot accept cartoons. However, a central element in the Disney commodity is musical comedy plus animation, and everyone agrees that Travers cried during the film’s premiere showing. So although Travers herself (confirmed by Marcel) says she cried because she disliked the film, Saving Mr. Banks makes Travers’ tears into her climactic catharsis, the fulfillment of Walt’s paternal promise and the final redemption of her own Mr. Banks. Feuer says that the musical film mythically resolves all social conflicts within the utopian stylization of performance, and Disney’s addition of animation adds a further level of stylized fantasy to the musical genre as cartoon penguins dance with live action characters. Drawings and human actors are harmonized through Disney magic, figuring the harmonizing of more mundane and earthly conflicts. But as Walt, at the premiere sitting behind Travers and noticing that she is sobbing as Mr. Banks is saved onscreen, tries to comfort her, she says, “I can’t abide cartoons,” thus denying what viewers are likely to understand as her true feelings.
Like Walt in this scene, viewers are invited to conclude that you just can’t make everybody happy. While Saving Mr. Banks reflexively celebrates the musical genre within itself and the genre’s magical ability to transcend the gulf between live action and animation, it identifies and labels the adults who resist, or claim to resist, its magic. They are a small, marginal group that resists the full, transcendent Disney happiness. Though Walt has saved her Mr. Banks and rejuvenated her life, she is less than grateful, the film suggests. Since the company has made untold billions through Disneyfying dozens of stories in the public domain, and bought many others cheaply from their authors, it is tempting to speculate that this ending, while on its surface redemptive, also constitutes a kind of corporate revenge on a stubborn author who fought them, took them, needed them and fought them some more for a half century. After her death, the corporation gets the last word.
Notes for Part I: visual essay
1. Special thanks to Clay Steinman and Suzanne Sheber as well as the editors of Jump Cut for invaluable editing, advice and support on this project. In addition, thanks to the folks at http://disneyscreencaps.com for the images from Saving Mr. Banks. [return to captions of visual essay]
2. Valerie Lawson, Mary Poppins, She Wrote: The Life of P.L. Travers. New York, Simon and Schuster, 1999, pp. 242-248, 254.[return to captions of visual essay]
3. Lawson, pp. 244-255, 270-280.
4. Lawson, p. 242.
5. Jane Feuer, “The Self-Reflexive Musical and the Myth of Entertainment,” in Grant, Barry Keith, ed. Film Genre Reader II. Austin, University of Texas Press, 1995, pp. 441-455.
7. A.O. Scott, “An Unbeliever in Disney World.” The New York Times, December 12, 2013. http://www.nytimes.com/2013/12/13/movies/saving-mr-banks-with-tom-hanks-and-emma-thompson.html?pagewanted=all. Accessed August 28, 2014.
8. Scott, “An Unbeliever.”
9. Lawson, p. 250.
10. Whereas the director of Saving Mr. Banks, John Lee Hancock, maintains that the reasons for Travers’ tears during the premiere screening are indeterminate, all the most credible sources, including co-screenwriter Kelly Marcel, agree that Travers cried because, as Marcel puts it, “she hated the film.” Sky MoviesHD, “Saving Mr. Banks Special with Tom Hanks and Emma Thompson,” http://skymovies.sky.com/saving-mr-banks/saving-mr-banks-special-2. Accessed April 26, 2014; Susan Wloszczyna, “John Lee Hancock on Saving Mr. Banks," December 12, 2013, http://www.rogerebert.com/interviews/john-lee-hancock-on-saving-mr-banks. Accessed August 29, 2014; Jeff Goldsmith, “Saving Mr. Banks Q&A [with Kelly Marcel],” The Q&A with Jeff Goldsmith. December 24, 2013. (App. minute 45:00) http://www.theqandapodcast.com/2013/12/saving-mr-banks-q.html; Lawson, pp. 272-279; Caitlin Flanagan, “Becoming Mary Poppins: P.L. Travers, Walt Disney, and the making of a myth,” The New Yorker, Dec. 19, 2005. http://www.newyorker.com/archive/2005/12/19/051219fa_fact1. Accessed May 9, 2014.
11. Lawson, pp. 244-279, esp. 248, 254.
Notes for Part II: critical analysis
1. “Saving Mr. Banks (2013) Release Info.” http://www.imdb.com/title/tt2140373/releaseinfo?ref_=tt_ov_inf. April 25, 2014; “Box Office Mojo,” http://boxofficemojo.com/movies/?page=main&id=savingmrbanks.htm, April 28, 2014. [return to critical essay]
2. See, for example, http://movies.disney.com/saving-mr-banks and http://movies.disney.com/mary-poppins as well as http://www.insidethemagic.net/2013/12/walt-disney-world-recreates-mary-poppins-movie-premiere-with-characters-for-saving-mr-banks-meet-up-event/. April 28, 2014. Interestingly, the Disney.com sites focus primarily on other Disney movies and products, suggesting that the company believes that these two films will primarily sell each other and the Disney brand rather than other Mary Poppins-related merchandise. Of course one can quickly find scores of other Mary Poppins products online, most of them from Disney, including books, songbooks, and CDs.
3. “Fortune 500 2014.” http://fortune.com/fortune500/the-walt-disney-company-61/. Accessed December 11, 2014.
4. Nicholas Sammond, Babes in Tomorrowland: Walt Disney and the Making of the American Child, 1930-1960. Durham, Duke University Press, 2005, p. 26.
5. A.O. Scott, “An Unbeliever in Disney World,” The New York Times, December 12, 2013. http://www.nytimes.com/2013/12/13/movies/saving-mr-banks-with-tom-hanks-and-emma-thompson.html?_r=0. April 28, 2014.
6. James B. Stewart, DisneyWar. New York, Simon and Schuster, 2006; Brooks Barnes, “Roy E. Disney Dies at 79; Rejuvenated Animation,” The New York Times, Dec. 17, 2009. http://www.nytimes.com/2009/12/17/arts/television/17disney.html?_r=0. May 1, 2014.
7. Saving Mr. Banks. Dir. John Lee Hancock. Perf. Tom Hanks, Emma Thompson. Ch. 4, “All Aboard.” Disney, 2014. DVD.
8. Valerie Lawson, Mary Poppins, She Wrote: The Life of P.L. Travers. New York, Simon and Schuster, 1999, esp. pp. 13-17.
9. Lawson reports that Travers often talked of an exchange in which Walt Disney claimed to know more about Mary Poppins than she did. Lawson, p. 250.
10. Sammond, esp. pp. 25-80.
11. Stewart, DisneyWar, esp. pp. 529-541.
12. Stephen M. Fjellman, Vinyl Leaves: Walt Disney World and America. Boulder, Westview Press, 1992, pp. 4-17, 25-33; Dick Hebdige, “Dis-gnosis: Disney and the Re-tooling of Knowledge, Art, Culture, Life, Etcetera.” In Mike Budd and Max Kirsch, eds. Rethinking Disney: Private Control, Public Dimensions. Middletown, CT: Wesleyan University Press, 2005, pp. 37-52.
13. Janet Wasko, Understanding Disney: The Manufacture of Fantasy. Cambridge, Polity, 2001, pp. 195-218.
14. The word was coined, or revived, by Stephen Colbert in the pilot episode of his satirical television program The Colbert Report on October 17, 2005.
“Truthiness is a quality characterizing a ‘truth’ that a person making an argument or assertion claims to know intuitively 'from the gut' or because it 'feels right' without regard to evidence, logic, intellectual examination, or facts."
Dick Meyer, “The Truth of Truthiness,” CBS News, December 12, 2006. Rpt. In “Truthiness,” Wikipedia. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Truthiness. May 3, 2014.
15. Adriane Quinlan, “Wreck-It Disney? How the Animation Giant Stole Pixar’s Mojo,” The New Republic, Feb. 21, 2013. http://www.newrepublic.com/article/112488/pixar-disney-oscar-battle-animation-studio-may-be-swapping-places. May 3, 2014; Brooks Barnes, "At Disney, A Celebration That Was a Long Time Coming,” The New York Times, March 4, 2014. http://www.nytimes.com/2014/03/05/business/media/at-disney-a-celebration-that-was-a-long-time-coming.html?_r=0. May 3, 2014; Dawn C. Chmielewski, “Steve Jobs brought his magic to Disney,” Los Angeles Times, October 6, 2011. http://articles.latimes.com/2011/oct/06/business/la-fi-ct-jobs-disney-20111007. August 30, 2014.
16. Culhane, Shamus. Talking Animals and Other People: The Autobiography of a Legendary Animator. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1986, pp. 113, 136, 141, 144-145, 149, 183, 236-240; Kinney, Jack. Walt Disney and Assorted Other Characters – An Unauthorized Account of the Early Years at Disney’s. New York: Harmony Books, 1998, pp. 9-42, 72, 109, 140-156, 158; Sito, Tom. Drawing the Line: The Untold Story of the Animation Unions from Bosko to Bart Simpson. The University of Kentucky Press, 2006, p. 111; Gabler, Neal. Walt Disney: The Triumph of the American Imagination. New York: Random House, 2006, p. 207; Norman, Floyd. Toon Tuesday: The Beatles were going to be " ... a flash in the pan"?! Or said Walt Disney. 26 September 2006. http://jimhillmedia.com/blogs/floyd_norman/archive/2006/09/25/5948.aspx, all cited in Johnson, Lisa, "The Disney Strike of 1941: From the Animators' Perspective" (2008). Honors Projects Overview, Rhode Island College, Paper 17. http://digitalcommons.ric.edu/honors_projects/17, pp. 3-41. See also Mike Nielsen and Gene Mailes, Hollywood’s Other Blacklist. London, British Film Institute, 1995; and Steven Watts, The Magic Kingdom: Walt Disney and the American Way of Life (New York: Houghton Mifflin, 1997), pp. 203-227.
17. Andrew Ross, No-Collar: The Humane Workplace and Its Hidden Costs. New York, Basic Books, 2003, pp. 123-160.
18. Ross, p. 144.
19. Lawrence Mishel, “The Wedges Between Productivity and Median Compensation Growth,” Issue Brief #330, Economic Policy Institute, April 26, 2012. http://www.epi.org/publication/ib330-productivity-vs-compensation/
20. Wasko, Understanding Disney, 42.
21. Mekado Murphy, “Resurrecting His Master’s Mouse Voice: Walt Disney’s Voice Lives in New Mickey Mouse Cartoon,” The New York Times, November 26, 2013. http://www.nytimes.com/2013/12/01/movies/walt-disneys-voice-lives-in-new-mickey-mouse-cartoon.html?_r=0. May 4, 2014; “Get a Horse!” Wikipedia. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Get_a_Horse! May 4, 2014.
22. Sammond, p. 25.
23. Lawson, p. 252.
24. Saving Mr. Banks. Ch. 24, “End Credits”. DVD.
25. Colin Leys and Barbara Harriss-White, “Commodification: The Essence of our Time,” https://www.opendemocracy.net/ourkingdom/colin-leys-barbara-harriss-white/commodification-essence-of-our-time, April 2, 2012.
28. Gary Burns, “A Typology of ‘Hooks’ in Popular Records,” Popular Music 6, 1, January 1987, pp. 1-20.
29. John Jurgenson, “’Let It Go’ and ‘Frozen’ Soundtrack Keep On Going,” Wall Street Journal, http://online.wsj.com/news/articles/SB10001424052702303409004579563923915472580 May 15, 2014.
30. “Mary Poppins: 50th Anniversary Blu-Ray Edition Detailed,” Blu-Ray.com. http://www.blu-ray.com/news/?id=11912. May 5, 2014.
31. Lawson, p. 250.
32. Douglas Gomery, “Disney’s Business History: A Reinterpretation.” In Eric Smoodin, Ed. Disney Discourse: Producing the Magic Kingdom. New York, Routledge, 1994, pp. 71-86, 238-240; Richard Schickel, The Disney Version: The Life, Times, Art and Commerce of Walt Disney. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1968, 1985.
33. Schickel, esp. pp. 137-294.
34. Alan Bryman, Disney and His Worlds. London, Routlege, 1995.
35. Stewart, DisneyWar; Bryman, Disney and His Worlds; Devin Leonard, “How Disney Bought Lucasfilm – and Its Plans for Star Wars,” Bloomberg Businessweek, March 7, 2013. http://www.businessweek.com/articles/2013-03-07/how-disney-bought-lucasfilm-and-its-plans-for-star-wars. May 6, 2014; Devin Leonard, “The Pow! Bang! Bam! Plan to Save Marvel, Starring B-List Heroes,” Bloomberg Businessweek, April 3, 2014. http://www.businessweek.com/articles/2014-04-03/kevin-feige-marvels-superhero-at-running-movie-franchises. May 6, 2014. See also William C. Taylor and Polly LaBarre, “How Pixar Adds a New School of Thought to Disney,” The New York Times, Jan. 29, 2006. http://query.nytimes.com/gst/fullpage.html?res=F70A1FFB3A5B0C7A8EDDA80894DE404482. August 30, 2014.
36. Henry Giroux and Grace Pollock, The Mouse That Roared: Disney and the End of Innocence. Second Edition. Lanham, MD, Rowman and Littlefield, 2010.
37. Alan Bryman, The Disneyization of Society. London, Sage, 2004, p. 85.
38. For example, in a story about Disney’s 2013 patent applications for drones to fly over its theme parks, one local newspaper columnist writes: “But when you have drones at your command, wouldn't the next step be to link them with the MagicBands for pinpoint surveillance and targeted payload delivery? I've got a hunch that Disney is pioneering what may end up becoming the way business is routinely conducted everywhere in the near future. When we think of Big Brother, it's fears of an all-seeing, all-knowing big government intruding on our lives. But the real threat may actually be from Big Commerce, which has plenty to gain from keeping close tabs on our purchasing history and movements. In a cashless world, where just a movement of a wrist band toward a sensor is all it takes for a completed purchase, it will never be easier to fall prey to the siren call of consumerism.” Frank Cerabino, “The Palm Beach Post, Florida, Frank Cerabino Column,” HispanicBusiness.com., August 26, 2014. http://www.hispanicbusiness.com/2014/8/26/the_palm_beach_post_fla_frank.htm. August 30, 2014.
39. Anthony Lane, “Goings On About Town: Saving Mr. Banks,” The New Yorker, Jan. 20, 2014. http://www.newyorker.com/arts/events/revivals/2014/01/20/140120gomo_GOAT_movies
40. Anthony Lane, “Only Make Believe,” The New Yorker, Dec. 23 & 30, 2013, p. 131. Print.
41. Robbie Collin, “Saving Mr. Banks, review,” The Telegraph, Nov. 28, 2013. http://www.telegraph.co.uk/culture/film/filmreviews/10375018/Saving-Mr-Banks-review.html. May 5, 2014.
42. Liam Lacey, “Saving Mr. Banks: Mary Poppins Author Gets the Disney Treatment,” The Globe and Mail, Dec. 13, 2013. http://www.theglobeandmail.com/life/holiday-guide/holiday-survival-guide/saving-mr-banks-mary-poppins-author-gets-the-disney-treatment/article15918252/. May 5, 2014.
43. Stacy Warren, “Saying No to Disney: Disney’s Demise in Four American Cities,” pp. 231-260; and Lee Artz, “Monarchs, Monsters and Multiculturalism: Disney’s Menu for Global Hierarchy,” pp. 75-98, both in Budd and Kirsch, Rethinking Disney.
44. Thousand Oaks, CA, Pine Forge, 1993.
46. Manohla Dargis, “Dumped by Her Prince, So Watch Out.” The New York Times, May 29, 2014. http://www.nytimes.com/2014/05/30/movies/angelina-jolie-stars-in-maleficent-from-disney.html?_r=0. August 30, 2014.
47. See for example Elizabeth Bell, Lynda Haas, and Laura Sells, eds., From Mouse to Mermaid: The Politics of Film, Gender, and Culture. Bloomington, Indiana University Press, 1995; Mia Adessa Towbin, Shelley A. Haddock, Toni Schindler Zimmerman, Lori K. Lund and Litsa Renee Tanner, “Images of Gender, Race, Age, and Sexual Orientation in Disney Feature-Length Animated Films,” Journal of Feminist Family Therapy 15, 4, 2004, pp. 19-44; Dargis, “Dumped.”
48. Rebecca Keegan, “Frozen, Get a Horse! female directors mark firsts for Disney,” Los Angeles Times, Nov. 22, 2013. http://touch.latimes.com/ - section/-1/article/p2p-78270810/. May 7, 2014.
49. Sean Griffin, Tinker Belles and Evil Queens: The Walt Disney Company from the Inside Out. New York: New York University Press, 2000; Sean Griffin, “Curiouser and Curiouser: Gay Days at the Disney Theme Parks,” in Budd and Kirsch, Rethinking Disney, pp. 125-150.
50. Griffin, Tinker Belles, p. 214.
51. See, for example, http://www.cracked.com/article_15677_the-9-most-racist-disney-characters.html
and http://soctheory.iheartsociology.com/2011/11/01/racist-stereotyping-in-disney-movies/. August 30, 2014.
52. Jason Sperb, Disney’s Most Notorious Film: Race, Convergence, and the Hidden Histories of ‘Song of the South.’ Austin, University of Texas Press, 2012. See also Christian Willis’s website: http://www.songofthesouth.net/about/index.html. May 6, 2014.
53. Radha Jhappan and Daiva Stasiulis, “Anglophilia and the Discreet Charm of the English Voice in Disney’s Pocahontas Films,” in Budd and Kirsch, eds., Rethinking Disney, pp. 160, 170.
54. On Disney’s aggressive property development, see Warren, “Saying No to Disney,” in Budd and Kirsch, pp. 231-260. On Disney’s approach to copyright and the Copyright Term Extension Act of 1998, also known derisively as the Mickey Mouse Protection Act, see Lawrence Lessig, “Copyright’s First Amendment,” 48 UCLA L. Rev. 1057, 1065, 2001; Martha Buskirk, “Commodification as Censor: Copyrights and Fair Use,” October 60, Spring 1992, pp. 82-109; Timothy B. Lee, “15 Years Ago, Congress Kept Mickey Mouse out of the public domain. Will they do it again?” October 25, 2013. http://www.washingtonpost.com/blogs/the-switch/wp/2013/10/25/15-years-ago-congress-kept-mickey-mouse-out-of-the-public-domain-will-they-do-it-again/. August 15, 2014.
55. National Labor Committee, “An Appeal to Walt Disney,” in Andrew Ross, ed. No Sweat: Fashion, Free Trade, and the Rights of Garment Workers. New York, Verso, 1997, pp. 95-112.
56. Institute for Global Labour and Human Rights, “Wal-Mart and Disney Toys from Hell: Blocked Fire Exits in Another Dangerous Fire Trap,” Dec. 17, 2012. http://www.globallabourrights.org/reports/wal-mart-and-disney-toys-from-hell. May 9, 2014.
57. Bruce Nissen, Eric Schutz, and Yue Zhang, “Walt Disney World’s Hidden Costs: The Impact of Disney’s Wage Structure on the Greater Orlando Area,” Research Institute on Social and Economic Policy, Center for Labor Research and Studies, Florida International University, Miami, 2007. http://www.risep-fiu.org/wp-content/uploads/2009/04/wdw_hidden_costs.pdf. May 7, 2014.
58. Nissen, Schutz and Zhang, p. 4.
59. Nissen, Schutz and Zhang, p. 2.
60. Nissen, Schutz and Zhang, pp. 10-12.
61. Reuters, “Disney World workers say they rely on handouts,” Moneycontrol.com, Dec. 1, 2010. http://www.moneycontrol.com/news/world-news/disney-world-workers-say-they-relyhandouts_502329.html. May 7, 2014.
62. Liz Dwyer, “Homelessness in the Happiest Place on Earth: Disney World Workers Sleep in Motels,” Takepart, April 26, 2014. http://www.takepart.com/article/2014/04/25/homeless-happiest-place-earth-disney-world-employees-forced-shack-motels. May 7, 2014.
63. David Damron and Aaron Deslatte, “Scott blocks paid sick-time vote in Orange, statewide,” The Orlando Sentinel, June 14, 2013. http://articles.orlandosentinel.com/2013-06-14/news/os-scott-signs-local-paid-sick-time-ban-20130614_1_florida-chamber-ballot-orange-county. May 7, 2014.
64. Bennett Marcus, “Meryl Streep Slams Walt Disney, Celebrates Emma Thompson as a ‘Rabid, Man-Eating Feminist,’” Vanity Fair, January 8, 2014. http://www.vanityfair.com/vf-hollywood/meryl-streep-emma-thompson-best-speech-ever May 7, 2014. The anti-Semitic industry lobby to which Streep refers was the Motion Picture Alliance for the Preservation of American Ideals.
66. Gabler, esp. pp. 450-458; Watts, The Magic Kingdom; Marc Eliot, Walt Disney: Hollywood’s Dark Prince. New York, Birch Lane Press, 1993.
67. Ramin Setoodeh, “Meryl Streep Blasts Walt Disney at National Board of Review Dinner,” Variety, Jan. 8, 2014. http://variety.com/2014/biz/awards/meryl-streep-blasts-walt-disney-at-national-board-of-review-dinner-1201035989/. May 9, 2014.
68. Scott Feinberg, “Walt Disney’s Grandniece Agrees with Meryl Streep: He was ‘Racist,’” The Hollywood Reporter, Jan. 15, 2014. http://www.hollywoodreporter.com/race/walt-disneys-grandniece-agrees-meryl-670039. May 8, 2014.
71. Kirthana Ramisetti, “Tom Hanks, Carol Burnett, and Morgan Freeman top Forbes’ list of 2014’s Most Trustworthy Celebs,” New York Daily News, Feb. 12, 2014. http://www.nydailynews.com/entertainment/gossip/tom-hanks-named-forbes-trustworthy-celeb-2014-article-1.1611899. May 14, 2014.
72. Regina A. Corso, “He Was Both Captain Phillips and Walt Disney and Tom Hanks is Also America’s Favorite Movie Star,” Jan. 10, 2014. http://www.harrisinteractive.com/NewsRoom/HarrisPolls/tabid/447/mid/1508/articleId/1362/ctl/ReadCustom Default/Default.aspx. May 14, 2014.
73. Colin Dwyer and Serri Graslie, “Break Out The Hanky: Tom’s Got It Out For Your Tearducts,” NPR Special Series: Men in America, August 4, 2014. http://www.npr.org/2014/08/04/337795032/break-out-the-hanky-toms-got-it-out-for-your-tearducts
74. Fred Pfeil, “Getting up there with Tom: The politics of American ‘Nice,’” Masculinity Studies and Feminist Theory: New Directions. New York, Columbia University Press, 2002, pp. 90-118.
75. Pfeil, p. 105.
76. However, when asked about his formula for success, Disney replied, “I suppose my formula might be: dream, diversify -- and never miss an angle.” M. Gordon, “Walt’s profit formula: dream, diversify, and never miss an angle.” The Wall Street Journal, Feb. 4, 1958, pp. 1, 12.
77. Pfeil, 105-110.
78. David Harvey, A Brief History of Neoliberalism. New York, Oxford University Press, 2005, pp. 2-3.
79. Adam Liptak, “Justices, 5-4, Reject Campaign Spending Limit,” The New York Times, January 21, 2010. http://www.nytimes.com/2010/01/22/us/politics/22scotus.html?pagewanted=all&_r=0. May 8, 2014.
80. For a sample of the legal and other commentary on the issue of corporate personhood, see “Corporate Personhood” on the website “Reclaim Democracy! Restoring Citizen Authority over Corporations.” http://reclaimdemocracy.org/corporate-personhood/, esp. Carl J. Mayer, “Personalizing the Impersonal: Corporations and the Bill of Rights,” Hastings Law Journal, 4, 3, March 1990. http://reclaimdemocracy.org/mayer_personalizing/. May 9, 2014; David H. Gans and Douglas T. Kendall, “A Capitalist Joker: The Strange Origins, Disturbing Past and Uncertain Future of Corporate Personhood in American Law,” Constitutional Accountability Center, 2010. On the concept of the corporate persona as an expansive version of the corporate brand, see Margaret M. Blair, Corporate Personhood and the Corporate Persona,” The University of Illinois Law Review, 2013, 3, 785-820. http://illinoislawreview.org/wp-content/ilr-content/articles/2013/3/Blair.pdf. May 9, 2014.
81. Editorial, “The Rights of Corporations,” The New York Times, September 21, 2009. http://www.nytimes.com/2009/09/22/opinion/22tue1.html. May 9, 2014.
82. Philip Rucker, “Mitt Romney says ‘corporations are people’ at Iowa State Fair,” Washington Post, August 11, 2011. http://www.washingtonpost.com/politics/mitt-romney-says-corporations-are-people/2011/08/11/gIQABwZ38I_story.html. May 9, 2014.
83. David Bordwell, Janet Staiger, and Kristin Thompson, The Classical Narrative Cinema: Film Style and Mode of Production to 1960. New York: Columbia University Press, 1985.
84. Bordwell, Staiger, and Thompson.
86. Esther Leslie, Hollywood Flatlands: Animation, Critical Theory and the Avant-Garde. New York, Verso, 2002, esp. pp. 200-218, 289-300; Richard Neupert, “Painting a Plausible World: Disney’s Color Prototypes,” in Eric Smoodin, ed., Disney Discourse: Producing the Magic Kingdom. New York, Routledge, 1994, pp. 106-117, 240-241.
87. These developments are relevant to recent reconsiderations of basic assumptions in film theory resulting from the technological change from photographic film to digital processes. Perhaps distinguishing live action as cinema from “alternatives” such as animation, documentary and experimental film needs to be rethought; perhaps animation is less marginal to cinema history than previously imagined. See Karen Beckman, “Animating Film Theory: An Introduction,” in Animating Film Theory. Durham, Duke University Press, 2014, pp. 1-22; Lev Manovich, The Language of New Media. Cambridge, MIT Press, 2002.
88. Sammond, esp. pp. 25-80.
89. In a more disciplined and aggressive way than other powerful corporations, Disney has consistently used access to its private archives to gain manuscript approval from authors and publishers, especially about works on Walt Disney:
“M-G-M doesn’t care what kind of book you write about its founder Louis B. Mayer, but the Disney Company cares deeply what you say about Walt.” (743).
Jon Wiener, “Murdered Ink,” The Nation, May 1, 1993, 743-750.
90. Joel Bakan, The Corporation: The Pathological Pursuit of Profit and Power. New York, Free Press, 2005; The Corporation. Dir. Jennifer Abbott and Mark Achbar. Zeitgeist, 2005. DVD.
91. Lawson; Caitlin Flanagan, “Becoming Mary Poppins: P.L. Travers, Walt Disney, and the making of a myth,” The New Yorker, Dec. 19, 2005. http://www.newyorker.com/archive/2005/12/19/051219fa_fact1. May 9, 2014; Gabler; Watts; Marc Eliot, Walt Disney: Hollywood’s Dark Prince. New York: Carol, 1993. See also Brian Sibley, “Writer Brian Sibley on Saving Mr. Banks and the unmade sequel to Mary Poppins,” London Evening Standard, Nov. 27, 2013. http://www.standard.co.uk/goingout/film/writer-brian-sibley-on-saving-mr-banks-and-the-unmade-sequel-to-mary-poppins-8966198.html. May 10, 2014.
92. Gabler, 596.
93. Jeff Goldsmith, “Saving Mr. Banks Q&A [with Kelly Marcel],” The Q&A with Jeff Goldsmith. December 24, 2013. App. minute 30:00.
http://www.theqandapodcast.com/2013/12/saving-mr-banks-q.html. Accessed December 11, 2014.
94. Goldsmith, Q&A (with Marcel), app. minute 49:30.
95. For example, Marcel says, “I was relieved when [the script] sold to Disney, but also scared they would sanitize it.” Goldsmith, Q&A. App. minute 38:50.
98. Lawson, 85-139.
99. Virginia Woolf, A Room of One's Own. New York, Harcourt Brace & Co., 1989, p. 4.
100. Margy Rochlin, “Not Quite All Spoonfuls of Sugar: Tom Hanks and Emma Thompson Discuss Saving Mr. Banks.” The New York Times. Jan. 3, 2014. http://www.nytimes.com/2014/01/05/movies/awardsseason/tom-hanks-and-emma-thompson-discuss-saving-mr-banks.html?_r=0. August 30, 2014. See also, for example, “Emma Thompson – Saving Mr. Banks Interview (2014). http://www.best-videos-youtube.com/emma-thompson-saving-mr-banks-interview-2014-video_f85bd9692.html. August 30, 2014.
101. Schickel, 349-351.
102. “Only that historian will have the gift of fanning the spark of hope in the past who is firmly convinced that even the dead will not be safe from the enemy if he wins. And this enemy has not ceased to be victorious.” Walter Benjamin, “Theses on the Philosophy of History,” in Hannah Arendt, ed. Illuminations. Trans. Harry Zohn. New York, Schocken, 1969, 255.
103. “Saving Mr. Banks (2013) Release Info.” http://www.imdb.com/title/tt2140373/releaseinfo?ref_=tt_ov_inf. May 11, 2014.
104. The concept of structuring absence seems to have originated in the psychoanalytic work of Jacques Lacan. It was taken up by the Marxist theorist Louis Althusser, and then entered film studies through the influential study of the film Young Mr. Lincoln by the editors of the French film journal Cahiers du Cinema (Cinema Notebooks), published in English as A Collective Text by the Editors of Cahiers du Cinema, “John Ford’s Young Mr. Lincoln,” Screen 13, Autumn 1972, pp. 5-44.
“What follows in their analytic essay is a scene-by-scene breakdown that repeatedly emphasizes the gap between the most apparent level of narration and deeper, more contradictory, aspects of the unfolding film. In particular these are revealed by ‘structuring absences,’ things that are repressed by the film: particularly politics and sexuality. The idea of a structuring absence—something that signifies although it is not present—is probably the most influential part of the Cahiers approach. The concept opens up analysis to not just mimicking or mirroring what a film says overtly, but to looking for that which it cannot address.”
Chuck Kleinhans, “Young Mr. Lincoln and ideological analysis: a reconsideration (with many asides),” Jump Cut: A Review of Contemporary Media. 55, Fall 2013, p. 2. http://www.ejumpcut.org/currentissue/KleinhansCahiersInContext/index.html, August 31, 2014.
105. Lawson, 242-248, 254.
106. Eliot, 258; Lawson, 242.
109. Flanagan; Lawson, 272-276; Marcel confirms that, rather than having a cathartic experience at the premiere of Disney’s Mary Poppins, Travers “hated the film.” Jeff Goldsmith (2013), “Saving Mr. Banks Q&A [with Kelly Marcel],” The Q&A with Jeff Goldsmith. December 24, 2013. (Approximately minute 45:00). http://www.theqandapodcast.com/2013/12/saving-mr-banks-q.html. Accessed August 19, 2014.
110. For further documentation of the extensive differences between Saving Mr. Banks and the best historical accounts, see “Saving Mr. Banks: Production: Historical Accuracy,” Wikipedia. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Saving_Mr._Banks. August 31, 2014.
111. Lawson, 276.
112. Flanagan; Lawson, 269-280.
116. Ben Brantley, “Meddler on the Roof,” The New York Times, Nov. 17, 2006. http://www.nytimes.com/2006/11/17/theater/reviews/17popp.html?_r=0. May 12, 2014.
121. “Saving Mr. Banks: Production: Development,” Wikipedia. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Saving_Mr._Banks. August 31, 2014.
122. Goldsmith, Q&A (with Marcel), app. minute 12.
123. Goldsmith, Q&A (with Marcel), app. minute 26:20.
124. Goldsmith, Q&A (with Marcel), app. minute 39:00.
125. Scott, “An Unbeliever.”
126. And who is more likeable, who more able to manage the structural contradictions of Saving Mr. Banks, than Tom Hanks? In this odd interview response, he makes it sound like the Walt Disney Company was virtually forced to make the film. What he calls “straightforward” sounds on reflection like anything but straightforward.
“Margy Rochlin: Meanwhile, Tom, you’re playing the fellow who created the company whose movie it is. Can you walk us through what sounds like a strange job offer?
Tom Hanks: It was incredibly straightforward. [Disney’s chief executive, Robert A. Iger, called and] said: 'Look, we have a bit of a circumstance here. We have to make this movie about Walt Disney. We didn’t develop it. It came to us from somewhere else. It’s a great script, and if we don’t do it, that means somebody else might be able to do it, and we’re going to look heartless. But if we quash it, we’ll look like we’re trying to hide something. So will you play Walt Disney?'”
Quoted in Rochlin.
http://www.nytimes.com/2014/01/05/movies/awardsseason/tom-hanks-and-emma-thompson-discuss-saving-mr-banks.html?_r=0. August 31, 2014.
127. Goldsmith, Q&A (with Marcel), app. minute 23:30.
129. Jane Feuer, “The Self-Reflexive Musical and the Myth of Entertainment,” in Grant, Barry Keith, ed. Film Genre Reader II. Austin, University of Texas Press, 1995, pp. 441-455.
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