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Saving Mr. Banks

Saving Mr. Banks

The story of the makings of Mary Poppins shares something in common with the story of the Jewish People.


For Walt Disney, things didn’t always go so smoothly even in his own “Magic Kingdom.” For example, it took him nearly 20 years to fulfill a promise to his daughter and make a movie based on the popular Mary Poppins books that his daughter adored. That’s because the author, P.L. Travers, was a tough and cantankerous woman who abhorred the very idea of her work being “Disneyfied,” and refused the mogul’s repeated offers to buy the rights to her work.

For Walt Disney, things didn’t always go so smoothly.

In the new movie, Saving Mr. Banks, Travers finally buckles due to insurmountable financial troubles. Based on a true story but with a fair amount of dramatic license, the movie recreates the combat between Travers and Disney’s creative team: screenwriter Don DaGradi (Bradley Whitford) and songwriting brothers Richard and Robert Sherman (Jason Schwartzman and B.J. Novak), as well as Disney himself, as they scripted the movie. (In real life, Travers had already signed a contract when she came to California to meet with the team, but in the movie, she is shown as only agreeing to a two-week collaboration.)

Disney flies her from London to Los Angeles, prepared with his charm offensive. He knows he’ll need it, since Travers seems to chew nails for breakfast, her personality coiled as tight as the curls in her hair. “I won’t have her turned into one of your silly cartoons,” she insists during their first meeting about the Mary Poppins character. “You don’t understand what she means to me.”

"The last thing I would do is tarnish a story I love," Disney tries to reassure her.

Still, Travers proceeds to drive Disney and his talented team nuts, fighting them on almost every issue, such as the casting of Dick Van Dyke as opposed to a “serious” actor, and the idea of the movie as a musical. “Mary Poppins does not sing,” she pronounces archly. She also bans the color red from the movie, just because she can.

No wonder that Walt Disney needed more than a spoonful of sugar to make this bitter pill go down, and is shown occasionally downing some Scotch, using mild expletives, and smoking. Some Hollywood insiders expressed surprise that the tightly controlled Walt Disney Studios, which produced the film, was willing to show Walt Disney with as a real man and not an idol, even admitting the fact he did not invite her to the movie premier. (She showed up anyway.)

The movie also pokes gentle fun at the treacly stereotype of all things Disney. When Travers is shown her suite in the posh Beverly Hills Hotel, she is appalled to find it stuffed to the point of claustrophobia with balloons, fruit baskets, and an army of plush toys of Mickey Mouse, Donald Duck, and other Disney characters. Travers, who seems to have had a humorectomy earlier in life, is horrified, and begins shoving the toys into a closet. She turns the largest stuffed Mickey Mouse, about the size of a robust six-year-old, to face the wall, as if it is in time-out.

“You can stay there until you learn the art of subtlety,” she says.

Director John Lee Hancock, who also directed The Blind Side, credits Disney for being smart enough and brave enough to realize that a human Walt was not only a better character, but was easier to love,” as he told the New York Times in an article published October 13. Tom Hanks is superb as an affable but shrewd Walt Disney, not so patiently trying to overcome Travers’ irrational demands, but of course, eventually winning her over with his own confessions of childhood hardships, particularly of a father who disappointed him, too.

While “Saving Mr. Banks” is focused on the making of Mary Poppins against the odds, there is also the backstory of Travers’ troubled childhood in Australia, shown in many (to this viewer, too many) flashbacks. The title of the movie refers to Travers’ father, Travers Robert Goff, on whom the character of Mr. Banks in the Mary Poppins books was based, and the author’s efforts to preserve her image of him as a loving, even whimsical man, though his alcoholism and irresponsibility doomed him personally and professionally. Travers is unable to let go of this image. She also cannot let go of the image of the real-life Mary Poppins, based on her stern and unloving aunt, who cared for the family during its darkest hours. The flashbacks show the author as a child who adores her father despite his fatal flaws, a child who ultimately blames herself for not having been able to save her father from himself. Without these flashbacks, the character of P.L. Travers would have been irredeemably unsympathetic.

Oscar winners Tom Hanks as Walt Disney and Emma Thompson as P.L. Travers are fantastic in their roles. Portions of actual tape recordings of script meetings, which Travers had demanded, are played at the end of the movie and reveal how accurately Thompson recreates the chilly and antagonistic author, who is heard repeating "no, no, no!"

Despite her efforts to sabotage the omive, Mary Poppins became the greatest live action success of Walt Disney’s career, winning five Oscars, including two—Best Song (“Chim Chim Cher-ee”) and Best Music, Original Score—for the Sherman brothers, whose music makes the entire production soar.

The Torah teaches moral truths through narrative.

Like Oscar winners The Artist and Argo, this is a movie about the inside workings of the entertainment industry. But it is also a story about the power of storytelling, both the stories we tell ourselves and the power our stories have on others. As Walt Disney reminds Travers, storytellers "restore the past. We bring hope." This is a very Jewish idea.  The Torah is unique in religious literature in that it teaches moral truths through narrative, not through philosophy or myth. We connect to our history through stories of our ancestors, whose lives were dramatic but whose lives are never whitewashed. The greatest of our greats – Abraham, Jacob, Moses, Sarah, Rachel, King David – are shown as real people who have doubts, conflicts, jealousies, and frustrations. Through their human flaws their greatness looms larger.

Maybe this is one reason why Jews are famous story tellers and writers; we connect with our past through our oral history, but we don’t stay mired in the past. Our faith gives us hope in the future, and the knowledge that one day, we will understand the past. The film also shows how P.L. Travers cannot forgive herself for her imagined failures of the past. Judaism understands and encourages forgiveness, even of ourselves. Too bad Travers never knew the catharsis that came with some well-timed and earnest “Al chets” and “ashamnus” during Yom Kippur.

December 28, 2013

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Visitor Comments: 13

(10) Sheila Novitz, February 19, 2014 3:38 PM

Unwatchable movie

Noting that one of the world's most silly and ignorant anti-Semites, Emma Thompson, was starring in "Saving Mr Banks", I knew that for me the movie would be unwatchable. Thompson is so ridiculously, ignorantly anti-Israel that I knew it had to be anti-Semitism poorly disguised. Typically British, of the old school (and probably new school as well). I saw her in "An Education", an anti-Jewish movie proudly played in almost every Australian cinema, and that is when I'm afraid a cold hatred set in. Bad, I know, but I cannot help it. Ignorance and stupidity passed down through families with ancient prejudices and no accurate information are enough to set me on fire.
Emma Thompson is possibly most at home when there are anti-Semites about her, so that she can feel loved and appreciated.

(9) yehudit r, January 7, 2014 1:50 PM

Mary Poppins movie not true to the book

I read all four Mary Poppins books (several times each) as a child, and I was horrified when I saw the movie--Julie Andrews was NOT Mary Poppins. Disney had turned the Banks' governess from a magical yet no-nonsense woman into someone who was sweetness and light. When I heard P L Travers had refused to let Disney make the succeeding books into movies, my esteem for the author rose. She had invented Mary Poppins; it was her right to refuse to let Mary be transformed into the antithesis of what she was. It saddens me to hear people who only saw the movie give their opinions of Mary Poppins' character because they inevitably talk about something Mary would never had done.

(8) Anonymous, January 3, 2014 5:33 AM

Disney an anti-Semite? Not clear.

Here's how Neal Gabler, author of the definitive biography, "Walt Disney: The Triumph of the American Imagination," replied when asked in a CBS interview in 2006 whether Disney was anti-Semitic: "My answer to that is, not in the conventional sense that we think of someone as being an anti-Semite. But he got the reputation because, in the 1940s, he got himself allied with a group called The Motion Picture Alliance for the Preservation of American Ideals, which was an anti-Communist and anti-Semitic organization. And though Walt himself, in my estimation, was not anti-Semitic, nevertheless, he willingly allied himself with people who were anti-Semitic, and that reputation stuck. He was never really able to expunge it throughout his life." Similarly, the following from "Staff Report from the Straight Dope Science Advisory Board" on the Web site ""It's likely his interest in the German American Bund [a pre-World War II
pro-Nazi organization in the U.S.] sprang from a desire to forge relationships with Germany for possible film distribution there. On the other hand, there was a lot of antisemitic feeling in the Disney studio. While no one can specifically attribute bias to Disney himself, Jewish people were ready fodder for the animators' gags and Disney approved every scene in every short the studio made. In one scene in the original version of `The Three Little Pigs,' the Big Bad Wolf comes to the door dressed as a stereotypical Jewish peddler. Disney changed the scene after complaints from Jewish groups. They didn't catch them all, though. In the short `The Opry House' Mickey Mouse is seen dressed and dancing as a Hasidic Jew." Bottom line, he appears to many to have been the right-wing equivalent of what anti-communists used to call a fellow traveler -- not necessarily one of them but not uncommonly found in their midst..

(7) Anonymous, January 1, 2014 9:52 PM

Please boycott this movie, despite the praise Ms. Gruen gives it

Yikes! When I saw the headline about the movie, I assumed the angle was about Emma Thompson's misguided anti-Semitism, not a story praising the movie:
"Actress Emma Thompson is joining three dozen of her fellow actors and industry professionals to protest the participation of an Israeli theater in an upcoming Shakespeare festival in England. Thompson, a two-time Oscar winner, signed on to a letter that expresses “dismay and regret” that Tel Aviv’s Habimah theater will be a part of the Globe to Globe festival." The directors, actors and writers who signed the letter — including Thompson — allege that Habimah has “a shameful record of involvement with illegal Israeli settlements in Occupied Palestinian Territory [sic].”

(6) Marnie, January 1, 2014 6:40 PM


Great article. I too did not have knowledge of Emma Thompson participating in anti-Israel acts. I wanted to see the movie but now I'm not so sure I can. What a shame that she is such a great actress but carries much ignorance with her.

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