Momentous Monday: Saving Mr. Banks

A movie about that time Walt Disney tried to get Mary Poppins’ author to sell out to him…

This is one of those films that I really wanted to see when it came out, but just never got around to going to the theater, so I caught up with it on streaming recently. The cast and premise in the trailer hooked me immediately. It stars Tom Hanks and Emma Thompson as, respectively, Walt Disney and P.L. Travers, aka author and Mary Poppins’ creator.

The film itself was pitched as chronicling the somewhat troublesome relationship  between the two as Walt attempts to adapt Mrs. Travers’ book into the 1964 film musical we all know, Mary Poppins. Walt’s childlike wonder clashes completely with Mrs. Travers’ almost cynical realism, and with two great actors playing these characters, it looked like a lot of fun.

Which I nonetheless missed on its first run. As for Mary Poppins, I know that I saw it as a kid because all of us had every single classic Disney film shoved down our throats as a child no matter when we were born — it was just a matter of when those re-releases or “escapes” from the vault happened like clockwork.

I remember enjoying the film as a kid, but the first time I watched it as an adult, my initial reaction was, “My god, Mary Poppins is a total bitch.”

In Saving Mr. Banks, Emma Thompson’s Mrs. Travers comes across as a total bitch on steroids from her first seconds on film.

We catch up with her in her London home in 1961, on the day that she’s supposed to fly off to Los Angeles (with the British mispronunciation of Law Sangelees — argh!) in order to meet with Walt to finally negotiate a deal on selling the rights to the characters.

It’s not an idea she’s fond of, although her agent does remind her that she hasn’t exactly published anything recently and royalties have dried up. She’s also had to let her maid go to cut back on expenses, and if she wants a quick infusion of cash, this is the way to do it.

She reluctantly boards the eleven-hour flight to Los Angeles, only to immediately start abusing the crew by insisting that she doesn’t need their help, and there are very telling moments about her complete lack of empathy — maybe borderline sociopathy? — when a woman with an infant offers her suitcase for the flight attendant to take up front so that Mrs. Travers can keep hers stowed above her seat.

Does Mrs. Travers thank the woman for her gesture? Nope. She just notes that there’s a baby and wonders, “Is that going to be a nuisance on this eleven-hour flight?”

Bang — put the capital B in Bitch right there.

By the way, I’m referring to them as Walt and Mrs. Travers for a reason very specific to the film. Another gigantic pet peeve of Mrs. Travers is when people don’t call her exactly that. Although her first name is Pamela and her pen name starts with P.L., she insists on only ever being called Mrs. Travers.

Kind of ironic because in real life she never married, but all that will be revealed later. God forbid, though, that anyone should call her Pamela or Pam or even P.L. And don’t even think of shortening it to just Mrs.

Meanwhile, Walt hates to be called Mr. Disney, because “that was my father,” and in fact he’s on a first-name basis with everyone in his employ and vice versa. Now, this may have also been a huge cultural difference between the Britain and U.S. of 1961, and especially the already informal L.A. and entertainment industry.

But it does emphasize that both parties consider what people call each other to be very important and keeping an ear out for who refers to whom and how at which points in the film is a really strong indicator in the script of how they’re trying to manipulate each other and who’s winning.

While the film focuses on the tumultuous several weeks during which Mrs. Travers is in Beverly Hills, Burbank, and environs in order to decide whether to sell her most beloved creation before a jump-forward to the movie’s premiere three years later, there’s a parallel story running in Australia in 1906, during which time Mrs. Travers is the seven-year-old Helen Goff, recently relocated to the very rural Allora, Queensland with her mother, younger sister, and alcoholic Irish father who inspires her to be a dreamer.

Yeah, that didn’t stick when she got to adulthood, obviously, but Mrs. Travers is the real focus of the story, and the brilliance of the script is that it takes this woman who was introduced as a totally unreasonable, inflexible, well, bitch, and peels the onion until we finally realize exactly why she is how she is.

And that’s kind of the key to the film working for one simple reason — no matter how many times her character throws wrenches into the works — like refusing the casting of Dick Van Dyke, not wanting it to be a musical, and banning anything animated — we all know what we got in the film Mary Poppins, so, clearly, Mrs. Travers was not able to stop the project.

The real story unfolding is Helen’s relationship to her father, and her slow disillusionment with him and with herself. And yes, we do meet the inspiration for Mary Poppins in the form of Helen’s own great-aunt and namesake Helen, who actually failed at her job.

It’s a great credit to Emma Thompson as an actress that she has absolutely no qualms about making us hate her character from the first frame, and then slowly luring us in as her humanity leaks out.

Likewise, Hanks pulls an equally humanizing turn in his portrayal of Walt, as he starts out as this apparently shallow media mogul money machine, but the scene in which his monologue finally convinces Mrs. Travers to let the movie be made likewise humanizes the hell out of the character — not to mention connects with Mrs. Travers on so many levels.

The only reason in this scene that I did not think that Walt finally sicced a pack of expensive lawyers on tracking down Mrs. Travers’ life story to give him ammo was that he managed to catch the next flight from L.A. to London after hers, so he just wouldn’t have had time, so he really did intuit her life story from his, with the topper being the one biographical detail his secretary and executive assistant managed to find.

I also have to wonder, since the closing credits include the audio of one of the actual development sessions between the co-screenwriter, composers, and real P.L. Travers (in which they all sound very cordial and collaborative) whether Mrs. Travers’ bitchiness wasn’t really, really played up for this film.

Of course, she was dead by the time it was made — born in 1899, she died in 1996. Not a bad run, really.

The other things that make the film so enjoyable are the attention to period detail — recreating 1961 Los Angeles and, even more-so, Disneyland with a butt-ton of extras, isn’t easy, after all — and the casting and acting all around is pitch-perfect.

As noted, Hanks and Thompson own their roles, with Hanks vanishing into Walt, and Thompson carries the film on her shoulders, in turns nasty and vulnerable.

Other standouts are Colin Farrell in a rare pseudo-hero role as Helen/Mrs. Travers’ father, the always memorable Ruth Wilson as her mother, and Rachel Griffiths as the great aunt who inspired Mary Poppins.

On the L.A. side of things, Paul Giamatti, who also vanishes into his role, plays her Disney-assigned driver in L.A. and his is the only character who she ever allows to call her by her first name.

The rest of the Disney people we see are also perfectly cast: Jason Schwartzman and B.J. Novak as the sibling composers of the film, Richard and Robert Sherman; Bradley Whitford as Don DaGradi, co-screenwriter or the film, and Melanie Paxson and Kathy Baker as Walt’s secretary and executive assistant, both part time Mrs. Travers wranglers.

Two actors are listed as playing Dick Van Dyke and Julie Andrews in the film, and while I assume that they must have been somewhere in the 1964 Grauman’s Chinese film premiere sequence, I never spotted them.

TL;DR: If you’re a fan of either Hanks or Thompson, love Disney, or Hollywood insider historical stuff, or just well-made movies, then this is one worth putting in your queue.

By the way, if you want to read a detailed and very correct script analysis of how the film’s screenplay was constructed, you can do so here.

Friday Free for all #46: Superpower, character swap

The next in an ongoing series in which I answer random questions generated by a website, although it’s been on hiatus since the Christmas Countdown began. Here, I resume with this week’s questions. Feel free to give your own answers in the comments.

What would be some of the downsides of certain superpowers?

A lot of people would like the power to be invisible, but if we’re going to be completely realistic about it, in order to be invisible, you have to be completely transparent to light. This is all well and good except… if you are transparent to light, then when you’re invisible, you can’t see a damn thing.

The only workaround would be if the essential parts of your eyes — iris, lens, cornea, retina, and optic nerve — were still sensitive to light, but if they were, then they would become visible. Ergo, you would be a pair of creepy eyes on stalks floating around, and that defeats the purpose.

The abilities to fly or run super-fast also seem like cool powers, but they come at a cost, and that is caloric intake. To do either would take enormous amounts of energy, and we’re talking numbers that would put triathlete-in-training 10,000 calorie a day diets to shame.

At least flying, at the right speed, would actually be akin to swimming in terms of course control. Running, though, would be a different matter, and to get up to Flash speeds, the human brain just doesn’t have the perceptive power to navigate that fast.

Unless, of course, the brain also ran as fast as the body, but that would up the energy requirements even more, and it would probably be physically impossible for anyone to consume enough calories to power that.

Super strength? Year, sure, maybe — if we replace the calcium in your bones with iron, which weighs 40% more. But then we also have to do something about your joints, particularly knees and elbows, so that they don’t blow apart, so you’d need something stronger than cartilage which would also likely be much, much stiffer. Finally, you don’t want to rip a ligament on every power move, so those things would need to be made of something stronger as well and, likewise, less stretchy.

So you’d probably wind up super strong, but also super slow and clunky

If you could switch two movie characters, what switch would lead to the most inappropriate movies?

This was a fun question, and I came up with a few fun pairs. Strap in and enjoy.

Annie Wilkes (Misery) and Mary Poppins (Mary Poppins)

To refresh your memory, Annie Wilkes was the crazed fan who inadvertently ends up taking in her favorite author Paul Sheldon (James Caan) after he has a car accident near her home. She proceeds to keep him prisoner and terrorize him and brutalize him because, after he lets her read the draft of his latest Misery book, she is outraged by the profanity in it, not to mention that he dares to kill off the character.

Meanwhile, Mary Poppins is a nanny in Edwardian England, hired by a banker who doesn’t exactly know how to deal with his kids — although, interestingly enough, watching the film as an adult, Ms. Poppins is actually kind of a bitch.

On the other hand, she never intentionally smashes someone’s ankles with a sledge hammer, and she probably would have taken Sheldon on a series of adventures to colorful, animated places.

The Banks family, on the other hand, would probably not have fared as well.

Patrick Bateman (American Psycho) and Forrest Gump (Forrest Gump)

This one could get messy. Patrick Bateman (Christian Bale) never met anyone he didn’t despise, and while the argument could be made that the killing spree in the book and movie is entirely in his head, he’s still a pretty vicious person at heart.

The imaginary spree angle isn’t specious, by the way. American Psycho was, above all, a critique of the “Go-go” Reagan era in which greed trumped everything. Bateman was just the embodiment of that attitude, and the murders real or imagined in the book are targeted at everything Republicans were taught to hate in that era and still do — the poor and homeless, the LGBTQ+ community, women, and people of color.

Meanwhile, we have Forrest Gump (Tom Hanks) who, while being a completely despicable character in a really bad movie for entirely different reasons, also seems to have never met anyone he didn’t like — and he met everyone.

And this is where it gets messy. Forrest wouldn’t last five minutes in the power-suited, high stakes world of New York wheeler-dealers of the 1980s. At the same time, Patrick Bateman would suddenly meet absolutely everyone, and the path of death and destruction he would cut through the rich and famous, assuming he actually did, would be devastating.

Aileen Wuornos (Monster) and Mia Thermopolis (The Princess Diaries)

The former character was a female serial killer, which in itself is a rarity, although she did seem to only target men who were really shits to women. Meanwhile, the latter was a normal American teenage girl who suddenly finds out that she is actually heir to the throne of one of those obscure made-up movie countries that is vaguely somewhere in a non-controversial corner of Europe.

The princess would not fare well in Wuornos’ sleazy world. Meanwhile, drop the patriarchy-hating serial killer in a land that still has monarchs and, presumably, what’s actually a patriarchy in waiting only temporarily stalled by a lack of heirs with a Y chromosome and, yeah. Heads are gonna roll.

Caligula (Caligula) and Dave Kovic (Dave)

Caligula is one of my favorite guilty pleasure movies, because it has an all-star cast, a script by Gore Vidal, and is a pretty accurate rendition of events told in The Twelve Caesars by Suetonius. Thanks to having been produced by Bob Guccione of Penthouse fame, it’s also full of hardcore porn and very graphic violence. That’s what makes it such a romp.

Meanwhile, Dave is the Kevin Klein vehicle in which a comic who impersonates the current president is enlisted to actually pretend to be that president, due to the real deal having had a stroke while banging his mistress and winding up in a coma.

I think you can see where the fun is going here, especially if you transport the plot of Dave into both movies.

Dave Kovic would be out of his depth in Rome, and probably poisoned secretly or assassinated openly within months. Meanwhile, as soon as Caligula realized that he was essentially in charge of the planet’s greatest super-power, and what kinds of weapons and military forces he controlled, then it would be game over, because he would probably proceed to invade the shit out of every other country, friend or foe.

Hannibal Lecter (Hannibal Rising) and Julia Child (Julie & Julia)

For this one, I specifically chose the movie that tells young Hannibal’s origin story with the background of Nazi Germany because… Julia Child happened to have been a resistance fighter at the time, and quite a badass one. Why do you think she’s so good with kitchen knives.

But, the swap is just so wrong and so right. Julia gets to go on to get revenge on Nazis. Meanwhile, Hannibal would definitely be cooking up some really odd meals on that TV show. Bon(e) appétit!

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