I saw the Disney movie Saving Mr. Banks yesterday, and what’s more I liked it. I am as hard to please as P.L. Travers when it comes to movie appreciation, so this is in itself a small miracle. Though the movie came out in December, it only just now appeared in my neck of the woods.
The story is about how Walt Disney and his entire script writing team, including composers and lyricists, won over the reluctant and exacting P.L. Travers and got the rights to make the movie, Mary Poppins.
To a lot of reviewers, the value of the film turns on the verisimilitude of the historical portrayal of Walt Disney, P.L. Travers and the Sherman brothers. The clothing, the sets, the period pieces are what is all about.
To me it is also about the making of a musical. I took no small interest in the songwriting process, being a lyricist myself and part of the songwriting team of Carter and Katz. The way in which the Sherman brothers came up with their songs and even how they demonstrated the newly or partially written songs was dramatized realistically.
I enjoyed the little moments, such as when Travers refused to accept made up words, or suggested that “let us fly a kite” might be more proper English than “let’s fly a kite”, but then quickly gave up that notion when she realized it didn’t scan. It was extremely amusing to see her refuse to sign the contract unless the color red were entirely removed from every scene in the movie.
But what I really went to see and was intrigued by was the story of how the character of Mr. Banks came about. To me, Mary Poppins was never about Mary Poppins. It was always about Mr. Banks and his values.
Would you believe that as a child I identified with Mr. Banks and was rooting for him and his way of life? It may seem inconceivable, but it is true. After all, Mr. Banks was a capitalist. He sang the praises of free enterprise
I knew at once that there was something fishy about the song “Feed the Birds”. Yes, it was a pretty melody, but there was something tricky and treacherous about inserting the song at just that junction in the movie.
True, feeding the birds, the homeless and the hungry, when you are using your own money is perfectly fine. But to fill the children’s heads with that idea so as to cause them to withhold their tuppence from the bankers they were going to visit that day and thereby trigger a run on the bank where their father works seems like a very cruel thing for a magical nanny to do. It’s almost as if she were brainwashing her young charges to harm their father. After all, she was the one who suggested he take them to the bank that day, and now Mr. Banks’s life is in ruins.
A man has dreams of walking with giants
To carve his niche in the edifice of time
Before the mortar of his zeal
Has a chance to congeal
The cup is dashed from his lips
The flame is snuffed aborning
He’s brought to rack and ruin in his prime
My world was calm, well ordered, exemplary
Then came this person, with chaos in her wake
And now my life’s ambitions go with one fell blow
It’s quite a bitter pill to take
In Saving Mr. Banks, I learned that Travers Goff lost his job as a bank manager not because young Helen (P.L. Travers’ real name) refused to deposit tuppence in the bank but because he had a drinking problem. In other words, he was not a diligent banker betrayed by a conniving, socialist nanny. He was a poor banker, undone by dissipated living. Unlike Mr. Banks, Mr. Goff was a dreamer who had trouble with self-discipline. He went flying kites with his daughter way too often, and that was what led to his undoing, as well as that of his wife.
At the beginning of the movie, we see the Goff family saying goodbye to their comfortable house in a nice neighborhood and to their servants, among them a nanny of the starched-cap variety. “Goodbye, Nanna!”
Mrs. Goff says “thank you” to the servants for all they have done to help her, and she is obviously sorry to leave them. The servants, in turn, are very kind to Mrs. Goff. They seem to realize the family is on its way to ruin, and they feel sorry for the lady of the house, who, without their help, will not be able to cope.
What is a 21st century audience intended to make of this scene? Does it seem strange to them that the loss of servants is the real cause of all the suffering in this movie? How many of us have servants in our home to cook and clean and take care of our children?
Today, only the very rich have servants. But it was not always this way. In the not-so-distant past, every middle class family had servants. The family could be very poor or in difficult financial straits, and still they had servants as long as it was middle class. Think about the fictional family in Little Women or of the problems of the very real Bronte sisters, forced to take up jobs as governesses — and yet still they had servants at home, helping with the chores.
Even as late as 1939, in Poland, my father had a live-in nanny. His mother was an educated woman. She had a Masters degree in mathematics, but she did not work outside the home. And yet a nanny was giving her son his baths and helping to clip his fingernails. This did not mean that my grandmother was not involved in bringing up my father. She spoke to him in Hebrew while the nanny spoke Polish. She read to him from the Bible in the original. But she did not cook or clean or do menial tasks. The presence of a nanny did not imply the absence of a mother. And no, they were not rich. They were middle class.
Fast forward to the 1960s in America, and nobody but rich people had nannies. Some mothers worked outside the home, but most had replaced the nanny and the scullery maid and the housekeeper in their middle class families. They had automatic dishwashers and washing machines, but no servants. And they were expected to dedicate their lives to having shiny floors and dusting the furniture and baking delicious pies and changing diapers, even if they had masters degrees in mathematics. Women needed to be liberated from this, the feminists felt, but actually the middle class females had been thrust into this drudgery by the “liberation” of the servants. Now all the servant class worked in factories, and their employers were not the Banks family. They worked for big corporations that could afford FICA and FUTA and health insurance for their full time employees.
P.L. Travers was not against nannies or housekeepers. She was not for women’s lib. At the beginning of the movie, we see that she had had to let her maid, Polly, go because she was in dire financial straits. After she signed the contract with Disney, Travers was able to rehire Polly. And Polly, far from being an exploited worker, was seen to be a happy person with a strong independent spirit, perfectly capable of standing up to the crotchety author and match her blow for blow in a battle of wit.
The “classless” society in Disney’s America bothered P.L. Travers. She did not like everybody being called by their first name. And she thought the idea of Mrs. Banks being a suffragette was downright silly. The scriptwriter and the Sherman brothers tried to explain that Mrs. Banks was made into a suffragette in order to explain why she needed a nanny when she didn’t have a job. Otherwise, she would have seemed like a slacker. Why didn’t she take care of her own children? Travers replied that a mother didn’t need to have a job to employ a nanny. Being a mother was a hard enough job as it was. The Americans did not understand.
The terrible thing that happened to the Goff family when their fortunes went down was not simply the loss of the father’s earning capacity. It was not just that his health declined until he drank himself to death. It was that somewhere along the line, they lost all their servants, and all the household work fell on the shoulders of the mother.
In a lower class family, where people are used to not having servants, the mother usually delegates much of the work to her many children. Some scrub floors. Some set the table. Some wash dishes. Some hang up the wash or fold it. But in the Goff family, when the mother tried to delegate some of the work to Helen, the father did not support her. He wanted Helen to keep on playing, while her mother carried the load all unaided. This created a rift between mother and daughter and ultimately led to P.L. Travers conflicted personality, at once “perfectly capable” of doing everything herself, but not really able to do anything besides writing fantasies.
In our society today, the stay-at-home mother is rare. Servants are non-existent. Both parents work, whether they are married to each other or not. All children go to school for twelve years. Some help a little at home, but because the entire command structure of society has unraveled, much of the time nobody cooks dinner, and people end up getting their nourishment at McDonalds. Obesity is the rule rather than exception, not because people are too affluent or because they eat too much, but because nobody is paid to cook except those who work at restaurants, and people eat the wrong things. Cooking is neglected. It’s not the sevants’ job, it’s not the mother’s job and it is not the children’s job. In most homes, there’s just nobody who is required to do it.
By the same token, nobody is the nanny, and nobody is the mother, and people don’t realize anymore that these roles can be different. If mom is the scullery maid in your house, she’s not going to have time to read to you. If parents both work outside the home and there is no nanny, then who is bringing up the children? These are important questions, but nobody is addressing them.
Winifred Banks liberated herself right out of having any help for all her burdens. But Mrs. Goff was not a suffragette. She was a good wife who had a less than responsible husband.
Some reviewers suggested the movie was about the clash between Disney’s capitalism and Travers’ anti-capitalism. In fact, it seemed to me that neither of them was pro-capitalism. Both of them thought money was the root of all evil.
When Disney finally wins P.L. Travers over, he does so by telling the story of his own father, Elias Disney, who had a profitable business, but was too much of a skinflint to employ paper delivery boys. So the entire burden of delivering the paper fell on the shoulders of his two underage sons. Instead of realizing that employing the poor in menial jobs like delivering papers and changing diapers was the way to relieve suffering for society at large, Disney put out a movie whose message was “feed the birds” and “let’s go fly a kite.”
In 1957 Atlas Shrugged came out. It’s too bad Disney’s daughters were not as taken in by that classic as they were by Mary Poppins. Otherwise in 1961 Disney might have been romancing Ayn Rand, instead, and Dick Van Dyke could have been playing John Galt to Julie Andrews’ Dagny. With singing penguins, no less! Now wouldn’t you like to see that?
Still, Saving Mr. Banks was a very good movie. It was funny and intelligent, and it did not short change the real people it was based on. There’s a lot more dirt on Travers in this BBC documentary:
Does the Disney movie play favorites, making Walt Disney look good while vilifying P.L. Travers? Actually, no. To some extent, this movie whitewashes the lives of both, concentrating on the matter at hand, and not overdoing the flaws of either.
Ultimately both Disney and Travers were conflicted and inconsistent. He enjoyed great business success, but put out movies that pandered to the foes of industry and free trade. She wanted to hold on to her artistic purity, but did not realize that only money could set her free to do that. All in all, it’s still a very optimistic movie. Why? Because the Sherman brothers wrote great songs! They showed both sides of the coin equally well.