“This is what we storytellers do…we restore order with imagination. We instill hope — again and again and again.” — Saving Mr. Banks

Saving Mr Banks - Peter Pan


In the late 80’s, Walt Disney Records released a soundtrack CD for Mary Poppins, and as an added bonus, the CD included a lengthy interview with the songwriters, Robert and Richard Sherman. This interview track included original demo recordings for key songs in the picture, with Bob and Dick reacting to them and relating stories as to how the songs came about. The final song they discuss is the signature ballad from the film, “Feed the Birds”, and what they had to say about it and Walt Disney’s response to it left a lasting impression — not because it was a bombshell revelation about Walt Disney, but because it felt like a piece of a puzzle…who was Walt Disney?

In Citizen Kane, the motif of jigsaw puzzles was both a device employed to show the passage of time and the boredom of Kane’s second wife, Susan Alexander — but it was also a thematic symbol of the narrative thrust of the film, the search for a complete picture of who Kane really was, why his final words were, “Rosebud”, why Kane seemed to be so many different conflicting personae inhabiting the same body. In his autobiography, Disney artist and story writer Bill Peet had this to say about Walt Disney: “I do believe I knew Walt about as well as any employee could know him, even though he was never the same two days in a row.”

The story the Shermans tell about “Feed the Birds” is this. Walt Disney cried every time he heard it. After the film became a huge success, Walt would invite the Shermans to his office, and they’d discuss projects, world events, things happening at the studio, and as the conversations ended, Walt would look at them and say, “Play it”. Walt had a piano in his office, and the Shermans would perform the song, while Walt listened, sometimes stared out of his office window, and it got to him. Every time. After Walt died, while his office was still his, Dick Sherman would go into the space, and out of tribute, play the song.

When I heard this story, some sort of internal bell started ringing…what was going on here? Why did this seemingly innocuous ballad move Walt Disney to tears, on so many occasions? I never forgot it, and later, as I began absorbing history texts on animation and the people who pioneered the art form — the Disney studios in particular — I started noticing some curious facts about Walt’s childhood experiences and his father, Elias. In Disney’s 1948 film, So Dear to My Heart, we see a page in a scrapbook with the words, “As the twig is bent, so inclines the tree.” It puzzled me that in many of the early biographies of Walt, from the official Bob Thomas bio, Walt Disney: An American Original, to Richard Schikel’s far more critical bio, The Disney Version — in both of these, you’ll see some stories about the twig being bent, but no discussion of how it shaped the tree.  Later, less famous biographies added more facts and anecdotes, but again, failed to take those childhood events into account into an appraisal of who Walt became as a man.

As I read stories about Walt the man having a nervous breakdown at age 30, having a snap temper, of being joyfully exuberant and optimistic one day, withdrawn and insular the next, constantly worrying and planning, feeling both protective of his employees and also distrustful (particularly after the union strike), taking huge risks, essentially building a shrine to his legacy in the orange groves of Anaheim like an Egyptian pharoah…one day, after seeing Mary Poppins and remembering the “Feed the Birds” story, an idea dawned on me.  Walt Disney was an abused child. Maybe not in the modern sense — Walt’s father Elias wasn’t a sexual predator or an out of control violent drunk — but bright and sensitive children can certainly feel abused, especially when belts and words and fear are employed for discipline, and suddenly things began to start adding up. There’s a story about Walt showing off his new Burbank studio to his father, with his father skeptical of the expense, and Walt lied to him and said he designed the buildings so they could be sold and repurposed as a hospital. This was total poppycock, of course, but Walt was still afraid of and deferential to his father.

There are so many stories and anecdotes along these lines — In John Taylor’s Storming the Magic Kingdom, Taylor says young Walt used to crawl into his older brother Roy’s bed, and cry, saying he didn’t think Elias was his real father — how could he be, if he used his belt on him so frequently? Bob Thomas writes that Elias hit young Walt in the head with a saw while fixing a screen door. A childhood friend said Walt would sneak out of his window to play with him because he was so afraid of his old man. And then there’s this…another piece of the Kane jigsaw puzzle I only stumbled across three years ago. My wife is a librarian, and as I was helping her with inventory, I saw Bill Peet’s autobiography on the shelves (which is wonderful, by the way — it is illustrated like a children’s book and written in simple straight-forward prose any advanced young reader could understand). I started thumbing through it, and found a page with a drawing of Walt with his head down. Peet writes:

“One day, [Walt] came into my room and slumped down in a chair with a mournful sigh. “What’s on your mind, Walt?” I asked. “It gets lonely around here,” he said. “I just want to talk to somebody.” Then, like a hurt little boy, he poured out the story of his miserable childhood, mostly about selling newspapers for his tyrant of a father, who was a distributor and kept every cent Walt made to pay for his room and board.”

This happened in the early 60’s. Elias Disney died in 1941 while Walt was in South America gathering research materials for Saludos Amigos and The Three Caballeros. 20 years after Elias’ passing, Walt was still haunted by his father. This is the same period when Disney, Da Gradi, and the Shermans were plotting out Mary Poppins and planning the songs, the same period when the Shermans wrote “Feed the Birds”. Poppins is about a father who doesn’t have time for his children and through the forces of fantasy, he is redeemed and revitalized. Is that why Walt teared up every time he heard that song — because of his relationship with Elias? Is Mary Poppins actually a deeply personal film for Walt? Is “Feed the Birds” Walt Disney’s ‘Rosebud’ moment?

Like Kane, no one story or event explains a man, but it is a piece of the puzzle of his identity and life story, and that brings me to Saving Mr. Banks. I watched John Lee Hancock’s 2013 film for a second time last night on Blu-Ray, pausing throughout to jot down notes and observations, studying the set details, ruminating on the actual film in comparison to other films “based on” true events. Here are my notes, and if you haven’t seen the film, this will spoil you rotten but it might also give you a film historian’s point of view.

To start with, in several reviews of the film from mainstream critics, the running refrain is that the film is a whitewash, a fiction, some have even used the words “a lie”, and Harlon Ellison even called the movie, “bullshit”. Isn’t it odd that these same critics don’t use such words when discussing, say, Amadeus? Like Forman’s film, Saving Mr. Banks uses historical figures from the world of the arts, and invents fictional events to explore a larger theme. Saving Mr. Banks is about the power of art to heal longstanding hurts and childhood demons, and reworks history and historical characters in service to that theme. This is no different than what we see in many similar films. Salieri did not poison Mozart with Mercury as he does in the play, nor did he secretly commission Mozart’s Requiem and then work him to death as he does in the film. Amadeus is about jealousy. Salieri is devoted to God, and pledges his chastity to God in exchange for his favor. The very title of the movie means “Love of God”. The film is a love triangle between Salieri, God, and Mozart, with Salieri feeling like a rejected suitor, and just like a scorned lover, he sets out to destroy his rival. Aside from the broad details (Salieri did feel like he “killed” Mozart by poisoning the well against him in political circles inside Emperor Joseph’s court — Salieri taught Beethoven and Beethoven wrote in his journals that his old master had gone mad claiming he killed Mozart), most of Amadeus is complete fiction. Playwright Peter Shaffer himself calls it a “bold fiction”. It isn’t historically accurate and neither were Braveheart, John Wayne’s The Alamo, Lawrence of Arabia, Spartacus — even Schindler’s List takes some liberties (Ben Kingsley’s character Itzhak Stern was a real person, the film uses him as a composite character for three different people).

The battle of Sterling was fought for control of a bridge, not on some big open plain. The Schindlerjuden attacked and hung Nazi soldiers as the Russians advanced and the Nazis gave up control of the Brinnlitz factory — they didn’t peacefully wish Oskar Schindler the best and hold a tearful goodbye event. Davy Crockett didn’t run into an ammunition bunker with a flaming torch. The Von Trapp Family did not escape the Anschluss by hiking over the Alps. Argo plays loose with facts, Spielberg’s Lincoln changes the vote counts of representatives for dramatic effect.

Saving Mr. Banks is part of this tradition. It is not a film about history, it uses historical characters to explore a theme. Both Disney and Travers were haunted by childhood trauma.The filmmakers saw that connection and ran with it. Saving Mr. Banks takes those historical characters, and crafts a fictional drama about the process of creating art and how that process can be a vehicle to exorcise those demons. Everything else is simply entertaining detail. There’s an unusual double-standard happening here — maybe we’re too close to the actual history, five decades out from Poppins premiere. Maybe some, like Meryl Streep in her regrettable regurgitation of urban legends, think they know more than they actually do.

Saving Mr. Banks is not a biography of Walt Disney — maybe someday, someone will make a full-fledged screen bio of Walt (I have some ideas if anyone wants to come calling), but that’s not what this is. There’s a central tenant of film criticism I learned from Roger Ebert, and that is to analyze a movie on it’s own terms. Review the film that was made, pay attention to what the filmmakers are doing, not what you think of a project beforehand, pre-judging a movie in what I call “critical prejudice”. This happens far more often than I’d like, so often I can’t even say I’m immune from it. But I’m aware of it, and I try to guard against it.

So…onto my notes, which again, I jotted down as I watched Saving Mr. Banks last night. Having just spent the last few paragraphs stating that historical deviations happen all the time in film, and without them, we’d have missed out on some great drama, and criticisms of historical inaccuracy of Saving Mr. Banks are, in a sense, hypocritical and in some cases, specious and shallow…well, here I go with a film historian’s point of view on what you see.

* Signing the Rights. Walt Disney had already obtained the rights to Mary Poppins before Travers came to Hollywood. She was promised a consulting role, with script approval, but Walt had final cut approval, which trumped her “script approval” clause, and Travers may not have been aware Walt really had final say. Her visit was welcome, but proved to be more of a sideshow pain in the ass for everyone involved. The filmmakers invent the “Walt doesn’t have the rights” thing to create story tension and drama.

* 4/2/61. The film sets the clock early, but this creates one of the first history puzzles. Inside Travers’ hotel room, there are Winnie-The-Pooh dolls that use the character models from the animated short, “Winnie the Pooh and the Honey Tree”. Travers’ laments, “Poor A. A. Milne”, but Disney didn’t produce a Pooh short until “Winnie the Pooh and the Honey Tree” in 1966, five years after the events of the film, the year of Walt’s death.

* Walt and Tink. The film re-creates a sequence from a Disney TV episode, with Walt sprinkled with Pixie dust and levitating and trying to dust himself off. You can see the actual sequence in the bonus features on the Blu-Ray for Peter Pan. It’s shot-for-shot dead on.

* Robert Sherman Using a Cane. Robert Sherman served in World War II, was shot in the knee by German soldiers while charging up a hill and received the Purple Heart, and was one of the first American soldiers to discover the Nazi atrocities at Dachau. He was only 19 years old. Of the two Sherman Brothers, he was far more serious and introspective, the balance to his more bubbly and gregarious brother, Dick.

* Don Da Gradi. Played by West Wing alum Bradley Whitford, Da Gradi was instrumental in creating the “jack of all trades” character for Bert, expanding him from Travers’ depiction and providing a vehicle for Dick Van Dyke. You may notice he doesn’t sport a wedding ring. Da Gradi never married.

* The Apology Oscar. In Walt’s office, you’ll see a recreation of the 1939 Oscar given to Walt Disney for the production of 1937’s Snow White. The Oscar is famous, the story behind it less so. Snow White debuted in 1937, qualified for the Oscars. In early 1938, the Academy gave the film one nomination, for Best Score, which it lost. A year later, in 1939, after wild critical acclaim and the film breaking box office records, the Academy presented Walt a special achievement Oscar — one Oscar and seven little ones.  No, the Academy doesn’t call it the “apology Oscar”. I do.

* Audio Recordings.  In Saving Mr. Banks, Travers demands the studio create audio recordings of the story sessions. These exist to this day, and you’ll even hear excerpts of the real-life story sessions during the credits. This was not rare or unique in the Disney experience, as Walt had stenographers record story discussions on films like Snow White, Fantasia, Pinocchio, and Bambi, so that afterwards, no one could be confused on what was said and what he wanted. On the audio commentary tracks for the Blu-Rays of Bambi and Fantasia, you’ll hear modern voice artists read these like a script, to give listeners an approximation of what it was like in those story sessions.

* “Call me Walt, you gotta call me Walt, Mr. Disney is my old man.” An early clue of Walt’s issues with his father, a breadcrumb to what comes later.

* Hostess Ding Dongs. One of the serving trays brought into the story sessions contains a platter of pastries rolled up in tin foil. These are Hostess Ding-Dongs, something I had forgot even existed, but were a staple of a 70’s kids snack cuisine.

* Mr. Banks’ Moustache. Walt insists on this in the film — another early tip of the hat regarding his father issues, and a suggestion he’s projected his own father onto the character of George Banks.

* The Color Red. Travers insists they not use the color red in the film. There is a lot of red in Mary Poppins, but the most important is the scene where George Banks is discharged. The room with the banking partners is comlpetely dark, save for a downlight which illuminates a huge swath of red carpet. It is striking, and memorable. Travers may have had a point.

* “And things…and things…” Classic Waltism. Walt used to explain future attractions mixing detail with vague words, such as:  “Over here, we’re going to have a dinosaur eating some plants and things, and all around it we’ll have rocks and things and some rain and smoke and things.” The screenwriters did their homework.

* Spoonful of Sugar. The solution to solving the melody of the song was not invented on the spot, it took days and days. When Bob Sherman first proposed the idea of “Spoonful of Sugar”, the brothers were working on a song that could express Poppins character, but were unsatisfied with examples from the actual text. Bob told Dick his son came home from school, and had a vaccine. Bob asked his son, “Did it hurt?” His son said, no, they gave them a sugar block to help and it was nothing, hence — a spoonful of sugar helps the medicine go down. Bob said they should try that. Dick said it was the stupidest idea he’d ever heard, but they explored it until it “sprang to life” in music. The film compresses events.

* “Man is in the Forest!” Bradley Whitford’s character, Don Da Gradi, shouts out a warning to the story team after hearing a trademark cough coming down the hallway, “Man is in the Forest!” This was a line from Bambi, of course, but it was a classic code for artists working on the Disney lot that Walt was about to visit. Walt would often cough on purpose to let people know he was in the hallway and about to enter a room so as not to embarrass them if they were screwing around. Another code — if the security guard saw Walt in a bad mood as he drove onto the lot, he’d phone up to the secretaries and as a warning, saying “Bear Suit”.

* Elias’ Window. While walking down Main Street at Disneyland, Walt takes a glance at one of the specialty windows above the stores, reading, “Elias Disney: Contractor”. This is a tribute Walt’s father, and it is there to this day, but again, it is a set-up for the revelation at the end of the film.

* Pat Powers and Mickey Mouse. They barely scratch the surface of the intrigue between Walt Disney and Pat Powers, but again, this isn’t a documentary, and even more intrigue could be mined between Disney and Charles Mintz. When I saw Pixar’s UP, and heard the villain’s name was Mintz, I read it as a nod to one of the more infamous fellows in the Disney biography. Again, this movie isn’t the Walt Disney Story…but tidbits like this whet the appetite.

* The Boys. Walt referred to the Sherman Brothers as “The Boys”. When Walt invites Travers onto King Arthur’s Carousel at Disneyland, he says he bet “the Boys” twenty bucks he couldn’t get her onto a ride. He’s referring to Bob and Dick.

* Let’s Go Fly a Kite. The Sherman Brothers originally wrote a large production number for the end of the film. Walt said, “That ends the third act of a Broadway show, that does not end my movie.” They went back to the drawing board, scaled down, and that’s where this song came from — simplicity, focus, and heart.

* Foot-Tapping. Hancock pays homage to the original film here, with Travers’ foot action while hearing the demo of “Let’s Go Fly a Kite”.

* Walt’s Embarrassment over Smoking. More revisionism, as Walt was frequently photographed while smoking, even at Disneyland in photos with guests and their kids. The company doesn’t want to advocate smoking, the real Walt lost his life to lung cancer, so that probably explains the strange moment in the film.

* Feed the Birds. I was waiting for the tears from Hanks’ version of Walt. It doesn’t happen. It’s such a poignant story, I think it was a missed opportunity — but I suspect they wanted to blindside audiences with Walt’s revelation at the end of the film, and so, didn’t want to ti their hand.

* “That’ll work.” Another frequent Waltism. When Walt hears, “Feed the Birds” for the first time in the movie, he says, enthusiastically, “That’ll work.” Walt rarely gave overt compliments, either as a strategy to motivate his artists to try and please him, or simply because Walt wasn’t skilled with interpersonal politics. Chuck Jones admired Walt Disney, even carried around in his wallet a letter of encouragement that Walt sent him early in his career.  Jones later wrote: “Walt had the political acumen of a squid, but he’s the patron saint of all animation.”

* Fictional Flight. Walt met with Travers at her home, but it was before the whole affair began. The meeting of the minds to conclude the emotional thrust of the film is a fiction. However, for many, it’s the first time they’ve ever heard of Walt’s childhood pain regarding his father, and while the event is a fiction, the fact that Walt talked about these issues calls back to his meeting with Bill Peet. Other than sequences with Paul Giamatti and Colin Ferrel, it’s the highlight of the movie for me. Not true in the event, but true in the fact that Walt did divulge such personal matters.

* Cadence. Hanks plays Walt in a genial fashion, you rarely get a sense of “Bear Suit” in the film. But Hanks absolutely nails Walt’s cadence, riding up and down the scale of vocal melody. Walt was famous for his natural gifts as an actor, and he had a gift for vocal perormance. Imagine Keanu Reeves saying, “I know Kung Fu.” Imagine Walt saying it. Hanks doesn’t look like Walt, doesn’t imitate him, but in his vocal understanding of Walt, he channels the guy in a way that is almost uncanny.

* “This is what we storytellers do…we restore order with imagination. We instill hope — again and again and again.” That’s the point of the movie. We suffer hurt, it haunts us, but through art, we deal with it. Art and creativity can heal, can lead us, all of us, to better places, to reconciliation, to forgiveness. And a simple song about feeding pigeons and how it moves us can say a lot about who we are.

— Ernest Rister