JUMP CUT
A REVIEW OF CONTEMPORARY MEDIA

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 him 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 is 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.[6] [open endnotes in new page] 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 Travers 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.

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, ellipses 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 , dropping 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.”[7][open notes in new window] 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.
Travers: I…
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.”[8]
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.

Go to page 4 of visual essay


To topPrint versionJC 56 Jump Cut home

Creative Commons License
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 2.5 License.