In Mary Poppins, Dick Van Dyke plays Bert the Chimney Sweep, using one of the worst cockney accents ever recorded for film. Friends of mine who teach acting dialects classes routinely refer to his performance as a bad example, as accent work in its worst incarnation. P. L. Travers, who wrote the novels on which the Disney film is based, thought Van Dyke was a dreadful casting mistake. And if you’ve had occasion to see Mary Poppins again recently–it was just on cable a few days ago–you’ll know that none of that matters at all. Because Dick Van Dyke gives one of the greatest comedic performances in film history in Mary Poppins. He’s an extraordinary screen presence; ebullient, kind, cheerful, wise, a delightful foil to Mary Poppins’ starchiness. In 1964, Peter Ustinov won the Oscar for Best Supporting Actor for a forgettable and forgotten caper film called Topkapi. It should have gone to Dick Van Dyke. He’s sensationally good. And the accent doesn’t matter at all.
P. L. Travers was wrong about Dick Van Dyke. She was wrong about a lot of things. In Saving Mr. Banks, Emma Thompson plays Travers as an outspoken, tart, acerbic defender of her own creation, and brings to bear her usual crackerjack wit and incomparable comic timing. But she also shows Travers’ peppery personality is a mask, that underneath it, she’s terrified. Afraid, first of all, of an ever-beckoning poverty which, due to declining book sales and massive writer’s block, hangs over her. Afraid, too, of her past. Above all, she doesn’t trust Walt Disney. She thinks he’s a vulgarian, a maker of ‘cartoons,’ which she despises. She thinks he’s going to trivialize Mary Poppins, who she loves. She loathes the idea of turning her stories into a musical. She despises the color red, she says (while wearing bright red lipstick and nail polish), and doesn’t want Mr. Banks to wear a moustache. She thinks the lyric “Let’s go fly a kite,” is bad English; it should be “let us go and fly a kite.” And she drives Walt (a wonderful Tom Hanks), and the head writer (Bradley Whitford is superb as Don DaGradi), and the songwriting team of Richard and Robert Sherman (Jason Schwartzman and B.J. Novak, respectively), completely to distraction.
Her sessions with the writers were recorded, on Travers’ insistence, on those awkward old reel to reel recorders. When the movie ended, almost nobody left the theater, because they play one of the actual recordings under the closing credits, and we get to hear the real voice of P. L. Travers.
And, again, if you see Mary Poppins again, you’ll realize that what she feared did come to pass. The film is lighter in tone than her novels. It makes light of important issues–women’s suffrage, for one thing, and the horrendous plight of children working as chimney sweeps, for another. Mary Poppins doesn’t teach children valuable lessons about the importance of house work–she uses magic to clean their room. She’s all spoonfuls of sugar, and hardly any tough medicine.
And again, it doesn’t matter. Because Mary Poppins is one of the triumphs of American popular culture. It’s a brilliant children’s film, as charming and delightful today as it was in 1964. Everything about it still works. It’s a beautiful and lasting and important piece of filmed musical theatre. Watching it again, objections melt away, and you sing along to those great tunes, to “Feed the Birds” and “Supercalifragilisticexpeladocious” and “Let’s Go Fly a Kite.”
I was expecting all that. I’d read reviews that said that Saving Mr. Banks, the film, is a valentine to Walt Disney, that it’s marginally frightening, even, in its celebration of Disney’s pop culture hegemony. That when we see Emma Thompson, as Travers, snuggled up in bed with a giant stuffed Mickey Mouse, it’s more than a little creepy. That the cultural values of Disney Inc. aren’t even subtly Borg-like–that we really will, all of us, be assimilated. All those fears came true, a little, sort of.
And none of that matters either. Because to me, this film wasn’t really about P. L. Travers and her fight to keep her vision of Mary Poppins alive against the genial threat of Walt Disney. It’s not about that at all. It’s about Helen Goff, and her life-long struggle to come to terms with her memories of her childhood. That it’s about a little girl nicknamed Ginty, and about Colin Farrell’s ravished performance as Travers Goff, her beloved, loving, imaginative, alcoholic, self-destructive father.
The film tells two stories, and one of them is pretty funny and mildly compelling. And we know who wins; heck, we’ve all seen Mary Poppins, we know the film got made and we’ve all seen it a dozen times. We know that Pamela Travers lost that fight.
But that wasn’t her real name, and she wasn’t even British. She was Australian. Half the film, in fact, is about Helen Goff, Ginty, the child who grew up to call herself P. L. Travers, (wonderfully played here by a child actor named Annie Rose Buckley). And she had two younger sisters, one a babe in arms, and her long-suffering mother, Margaret (a tremendous Ruth Wilson), desperately unhappy, suicidally depressed, in part due to Travers Goff’s inability to keep a job. And the real-life Mary Poppins was Ginty’s Aunt Ellie (Rachel Griffiths). And her father was a banker, and has, when we take up the story, been fired repeatedly, and is down to what seems to be his last possible chance, a tiny town at the very end of an Australian rail line. Which he seems intent on blowing.
It’s interesting; go on IMDB, and read the description of the film’s story-line, provided by the Disney marketing folks. It’s all about Walt and Pam Travers, and their artistic differences. It never mentions Australia once. But this is inaccurate. Half the film is told in flashback. And to me, it was far and away the most powerful, compelling, tragic story told in the film. The flashback sequences were heart breaking, watching Ginty watching her wonderful father–her romantic, charming, fun, loving father–drink himself to death.
Near the end of the film, Walt flies to England in a last-ditch effort to save the picture. He has a conversation with Travers, and tells about his own childhood, about his own troubled relationship with–in his case–a demanding and abusive father. He opens up to her. And Tom Hanks is great in that scene, and the film badly needs him to be. Because up to that point, Saving Mr. Banks was two very different films, a light comedy and a powerful tragedy, and something needed to happen to stitch them together. Hanks pulls it off, as does Emma Thompson. Because in the final scene in the film, Travers attends the film’s Hollywood premiere, and sees, in David Tomlinson’s performance as Mr. Banks, echoes of her own childhood, and her own father, and nearly collapses in cathartic tears. And just as Hanks did earlier, Thompson’s performance allows the film’s two main stories to come together, and we see that Pamela Travers was, in a very real sense, a badly damaged Ginty, trying desperately to move on, to mourn.
I haven’t even mentioned Paul Giamatti, who brings a gentle humanity to Ralph, Travers’ long-suffering Hollywood chauffeur. Nor have I said enough about B. J. Novak, outstanding as the crippled Robert Sherman, the one ‘artistic collaborator’ least interested in putting up with Mrs. Travers’ crap. I should also mention Director John Lee Hancock’s fine work here, who somehow manages to make two really good, really different films here, and find a way to tie them together in the end.
Saving Mr. Banks is tremendous, anyway, and I think it wouldn’t have been with lesser actors. Tom Hanks and Emma Thompson and Colin Farrell are all great here, and they make something powerfully affecting out of reasonably slight material. It’s something more than just a Disney film. But it also reminds us that even the flimsiest of pop culture artifacts can be, maybe a little . . . redemptive.