JUMP CUT
A REVIEW OF CONTEMPORARY MEDIA

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.[2][open endnotes 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 by his boss to “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.[3]

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,”[4] and Saving Mr. Banks 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[5] 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.[6]

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. The film reflexively justifies her marginalization in Disney history.

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.

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.

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 carriage 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.
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.

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.

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