Yesterday, my husband and I decided to venture outside our warm and toasty house, braving buckets of rain and nasty winds to catch a showing of a film we both had been wanting to see for several weeks: “Saving Mr. Banks.”
For those who don’t know, the film revolves around Walt Disney’s machinations to persuade P.L. Travers, author of the “Mary Poppins” books, to sign over rights to Disney for a film adaptation.
Travers, a feisty, difficult person who had fallen on hard economic times, was loathe to part with the rights to the character, unwilling to sanction what she feared would be a cartoonish and folksy simplification of a story important to her. As the film goes on, we learn the reasons why “Mary Poppins” mattered so much to her. It was not, as we first suppose, Mary Poppins who was important to Travers, but the character of Mr. Banks, the father in the story. Mr. Banks was an idealized depiction of her father. We see just how idealized as the story flashes back to Travers’ past and then to the “present” day, which happens to be the early 1960s, when she was meeting with Disney and the Poppins’ screenwriting team to discuss the story.
Emma Thompson’s thoughtful performance is quite impressive: she brought to life not only Travers’ eccentricities and often supercilious way of dealing with others, but she managed to make us like and, yes, sympathize with that irritating woman. She found a vein of vulnerability in Travers and exploited it for all it was worth. Thus, instead of being piqued by Travers, I found myself in league with her, commiserating with her on the difficulties of her childhood, understanding how complicated is the nature of love, and even how the most unworthy of parents can claim a child’s undying affection. Travers loved her father in spite of the emotional chaos of her childhood, and blamed the child she had been for not being able to exert some sort of control over things that were beyond her ability to address.
Control is a key element of this film: the desire to control events from our past continues to affect us well into our present. Travers, who loved her magnetic, alcoholic father, tried to rewrite history, to control the story by giving it a different spin.
Like Travers, Walt Disney was no stranger to a harsh childhood. He, too, had experienced life with a difficult father whom he professed to love in spite of the pain the man caused his family. Disney went to his grave trying to convince others and himself that he loved the man who never seemed to achieve any lasting security for his family; a man who subjected his children to harsh duties and even harsher punishments.
Throughout his career, Disney catered to rewriting the story of family – all Disney stories, no matter how sad they start out, end in happily ever after. Disney made a career out of redeeming the past.
A visit to the Magic Kingdom starts with a walk down Main Street where an idealized representation of a street from his childhood in Marceline, Missouri, stands. In fact, this version of small town American life probably never existed; at least, not as Disney experienced it in real life. But like all creative people, he takes what he knows and embroiders it. In Disney’s earnest hands, the embroidering is positive and its intent is meant to soothe a heart’s longing for a simpler time, a simpler past. Main Street is Disney’s nostalgia for what might have been. All ugliness, all squalor, all reality is washed clean, enabling us to love and long for those days that never were. Above one of the stores on Main Street is a fake office window with the words ‘Elias Disney – Contractor” in gold lettering. Elias was Disney’s father, a man never successful enough in real life to rate an office on the Main Street of any town, and certainly not the town of Walt’s youth.
But Disney is rewriting history; attempting to control the past. It is a desire for what might have been. It is an effort at redemption.
Travers does the same. A key event in her life was the arrival of her mother’s older, capable sister to the family’s ramshackle house in Australia.
At the time, her father was confined to bed, in the last stages of the illness that would take his life at a young age. Travers watches the arrival of the cool, precise woman who became the inspiration for Mary Poppins, and her eye catches her aunt’s unusual umbrella with its parrot’s head for a handle, and her colorful, tapestry carpetbag, with all of its mysterious magic contained within. Magic? Indeed, it must have seemed so to the young girl as the stern woman pulled from the bag a flower blooming in a small clay pot, her own china tea cup with saucer, and a series of unctions for the unfortunate Mr. Banks. As each item was pulled from the bag, the aunt assured them in brisk tones that she’d brought every cure known that might help the dying Banks. Her arrival was meant to be a godsend: she enters the Travers’ disorganized household with a competent flourish, and then attempts to produce a measure of order and hopefulness for the wretched, defeated family.
Her presence promises to be the cure for what ails the family. But to the childhood mind of Travers, she was there to save the father – not the family. Unfortunately, this was beyond the capabilities of Travers’ strange, no-nonsense aunt; even she lacked the magic needed to save her dying brother-in-law, and young Travers watched her father’s inexorable slide toward death.
In real life, the sister-in-law failed. In the book, “Mary Poppins,” she succeeds because Travers imbues the character with magical qualities. Mary Poppins does indeed save “Mr. Banks,” and in the saving of Banks, she also rescues the family.
Like Mary Poppins, Travers is trying to save her father. She is rewriting her history, embroidering it, trying to give the sad events of her childhood a happy ending. It is why the version to be captured on film was so important to her. She didn’t want her father reduced to a cartoon; she sought for him the understanding and redemption that real life never afforded him.
While watching “Saving Mr. Banks,” I was struck by the thought that every creative person has a charmed life in at least one way: he or she does get to rewrite the past. They get an opportunity to control what once seemed uncontrollable. Perhaps we are haunted by the ghosts of our past, and the only way to quiet them is to give them life in fiction, poetry, painting… or, perhaps, in a theme park that looks at an America that really never existed.
The circumstances of our past not only make us who we are, but they are the fodder for the stories that we seek to tell. Stories that, hopefully, will not only entertain or instruct, but also – just maybe – lay to rest the ghosts that continue to haunt us.