Tuesday, December 31, 2013

Saving Mr. Banks

"Just Because It's Fiction Doesn't Make it a Lie"*
"Cavorting, Twinkling, and Prancing to a Happy Ending Like a Kamikaze"

Mary Poppins was a bitch.  That's been my joke for a long time, especially given the reputation that Disney's film of Mary Poppins (this year voted to the National Film Registry) has of being just as sugar-gooey as cotton candy in an Orange County heat wave.  It isn't.  And I've gotten several startled looks from adults who then see the film and, yes, they do see that aspect of it, despite the step-in-timing chimney-sweeps, the dancing penguins, and the moments of larkiness. It's not all a jolly 'oliday with Mary. In the end, it's a little bittersweet, and she ascends into a Peter Ellenshaw matte painting of London that isn't dabbled in sunlight, but is a melancholy smearing of smoke and darkening skies.

That's probably due more to Travers' own stipulations to the Disney crew than to anything.  Disney could be dark—dinosaurs died and there was "Night on Bald Mountain" in Fantasia, Pinocchio had its moments jack-assery and Monstro swallowing, Bambi's mother died, and 101 Dalmations almost got skinned—and provided moments of terror and threat in its films, as long as everything turned out all right as the final song paraded people up the aisles. But, Mary Poppins would have been a slightly different movie if it hadn't been for Travers' nannying the scripters and Disney with her chalk-lines drawn in the sand.  For that, we should be grateful.

Maybe less so for Saving Mr. Banks, the Disneyfication of the Disneyfication of "Mary Poppins."  It's "based on a true story," which means (as Blake Edwards coined the phrase) it's "true except for a lie or two," and in the western parlance of John Ford, "when the truth becomes legend, print the legend."  They couldn't have made this movie without Disney and "the Disney version," so, obviously the filmmakers are going to take a charitable stand on the studio's side of things (for example, Richard Sherman, who's played by Jason Schwartzman in the film, says that, rather than, as in the film, taking a personal approach when Travers came to work with the film-makers, Disney took off for Palm Springs and didn't come back until she left).  But, the more you find out about P.L. Travers (her nom de plume), the more you realize that they're taking the edges off her, as well.  Travers was a fantasist, and her largest work was the construction of her life, ever-changing, malleable, inconsistent and to her specifications as the mood and the myth suited her. "Mary Poppins" suited her just fine, and her demands for what was and was not acceptable are well documented in the many scripts versions filled with the word "No" in the margins, and the audio tape of the back-and-forth's between her and the scripters and song-writing team (which she insisted on, and which is played as coda over the end-credits).  Emma Thompson, who listened to them all in her preparation for the role, called her "vile."**

"Two artists at the height of their powers-like two gorillas fighting:"*** 
A study in contrasts between Disney (Hanks) and Travers (Thompson)
Fascinating, complicated, but vile in the instance.  And understandable in her concerns for what she considered "family," and that is where the film is at its most charitable and lovely.  Where Saving Mr. Banks shines is in the film's presentation of Travers' carefully hidden back-story, of her growing up in Australia to a charming, but erratic alcoholic father (played by Colin Farrell...think about that, Colin Farrell in a Disney movie), a frail mother (Ruth Wilson), and a precariousness to the family that, until her father is demoted from his bank managership, she had not previously known existed.  The movie goes back and forth between the disappointing assaults on her stipulations at Disney and her memories, some of which inspired the work she fights so egregiously to defend.  Meanwhile, Disney (Tom Hanks, who pushes "folksy" mighty hard to play a role almost too familiar to play), with theme parks to build and other movies in the pipeline, is left vexed and perplexed that the "Disney magic" isn't working at all well on "Pamela."

How could it?  I remember one writer describing the movie adaptation business for one of his works as "holding the coat for the man who's assaulting your child."  Disdainful of animation and films in general and Disney's work in particular, the movie's Travers reluctantly comes to Hollywood, where she is inundated by welcoming gifts in the form of "all things Mickey" in her hotel room to the point where she feels under siege. Any pleasantries are seen with suspicion for agendas, hidden.  And for the Disney dwarves, the task is mining anthracite because they're playing to a vision of Travers from her books, but not from her history and will always come up short until they know the origin story...which she'll never tell.  

The process, by which the movie-makers back-and-forth to keep the starched corners of the character, and the tone from being perpetually giddy, would be long and tedious to sit in a movie, and so compromises have to be made. Let's just say things didn't happen the way they happen in the movie—there was no meeting of the minds and no sharing of histories; Disney was a businessman and entrepreneur who knew a good thing when his daughters saw it and Travers wanted to keep her house.  Battles were chosen; compromises were made...in Mary Poppins and Saving Mr. Banks.  That same give and take, that same grace under fire, to produce the best work regardless of the truth, permeates both films in their way.  The truth is just one more hurdle to a good story.

So, one can gripe—although Thompson is the very definition of "practically perfect in every way" here and should cause no consternation—but if one does, they're being a little bit intransigent and dealing with their own "issues," reflecting, again, the issues of the film.  It's a film that ultimately charms.  Anyone immune to it can, as everyone on both sides of the conundrum seemed to agree, "go fly a kite."

Saving Mr. Banks is a Matinee.  I'm not so sure I'd take the kids.

Julie Andrews, Uncle Walt, and Dr. Travers on best behavior

* P.L. Travers

** In one of those perfect symmetry moments, Thompson, in her satiric acceptance speech winning the Golden Globe for her adaptation of Jane Austen's "Sense and Sensibility" imagined Austen's own disregard for her just-awarded work: "P.S. Managed to avoid the hoiden, Emily Thompkinson, who has purloined my creation and added things of her own. Nefarious creature."

*** Thompson, in an interview, describing why she was drawn to the script and the story.  

Wednesday, December 25, 2013

Don't Make a Scene (Christmas Edition): It's A Wonderful Life

The Story:  First of all, Merry Christmas.  Or, as I like to call it Judaic Film Festivus—the best day of the year for going to movies.

Second of all, remember that it is Old Man Potter who steals the money, and causes all the troubles that compound in George Bailey's life in It's a Wonderful Life, and makes him contemplate suicide.  He even suggests that George is better off dead from a practical point of view (given the parameter that he lives in a world where Potter exists and is such a massive A-hole).  This makes Potter 1) a thief; 2) guilty of fraud; and 3) one sadistically sick exponent for the values of capitalism.  Flash forward 60 years (or to 2015 when they're threatening to release a sequel) and he could follow it up with "I drink your milkshake!" (a phrase I still find more pathetic than threatening).  Anyway, just to drive home the point what a vile human being Potter is.

Third, despite its latter-day reputation as a Christmas classic, it was an under-performer for RKO losing half a million dollars in its first run, competing for Holiday dollars with The Best Years of of Their Lives and Miracle on 34th Street.  Its reputation was so lackluster it was allowed to slip into the public domain, where in the 1960's, small "art" theaters would show it for Christmas, and it became a Christmas annual in the 1970's.  Capra was surprised by that. I see references to a Wall Street Journal interview where he talks about the phenomenon, but I haven't laid eyes on it, so I won't repeat anything that it "supposedly" says.  But, every film has its "season"—upon its first release, and with wonderful second and third lives in the video market.

Fourth, this is my favorite scene—the aftermath of George Bailey being confronted, nightmarishly, with the world without him, and of how his insignificance proves to be a lynch-pin in so many lives beyond his—his begging of a suddenly vanished Clarence to return him to his life, after the vision of "Potterville" and the dire consequences on his friends and family. Dare I throw out the opinion that somewhere a "George" has died and Capra's bucolic America has turned into "Potterville," for real?  Would I get any arguments?

So, a reprieve this Christmas, as George Bailey comes back to life—his life—and even his enemy gives him the best news he could ever hear: "Go on home.  They're waiting for you."

The Set-Up: George Bailey (James Stewart) has had all sorts of dreams of travelling the world and leading a romantic life, but when his father dies, it's up to him to run the Bailey Brothers Building and Loan Association in the little town of Bedford Falls. Working with his Uncle Billy (Thomas Mitchell), he's able to keep it afloat and help out a lot of people, whose alternative is to do business with the craven Henry Potter (Lionel Barrymore).  George's dreams die.  But, he marries Mary (Donna Reed), have four kids, scraping by, until just before Christmas, Billy loses some money (it's lifted by Potter, who's trying to squeeze out the Bailey B&L), and George's world starts to fall apart.  As Potter tells him when George goes to him for a little leniency: "You're worth more dead than alive!"  George wishes he was dead, and it's up to the angel Clarence (Henry Travers) to grant him a cautionary wish; he shows him what the world would be like without him, and it's a horror story.  at the last, he clobbers his cop-pal, Bert (Ward Bond) and runs out of town, back to the bridge where he first made his wish.



The same part of the bridge where George was standing before Clarence jumped in. The wind is blowing as it has all through this sequence. George comes running into shot. He is frantically looking for Clarence. 

GEORGE Clarence! Clarence! 

GEORGE Help me, Clarence. Get me back. Get me back. I don't care what happens to me. 

GEORGE Only get me back to my wife and kids. Help me, Clarence, please! Please! 

GEORGE I want to live again! I want to live again.


George leaning on the bridge railing, praying. 

GEORGE I want to live again. Please, God, let me live again. 

George sobs. Suddenly, toward the end of the above, the wind dies down. A soft, gentle snow begins to fall. 


George sobbing at the railing. The police car pulls up on the roadway behind him, and Bert comes into scene. 

BERT Hey, George! 

BERT George! You all right? 

George backs away and gets set to hit Bert again. 

BERT (cont'd) Hey, what's the matter? 

GEORGE (warningly) Now get out of here, Bert, or I'll hit you again! 

GEORGE Go on. Get outta here

BERT What the Sam Hill you yelling for, George? 

GEORGE Don't . . . George? 

George talks hopefully –– George touches Bert unbelievingly –– George's mouth is bleeding again. 

GEORGE (cont'd) Bert, do you know me?

BERT Know you? Are you kiddin'? I've been looking all over town trying to find you. I saw your car piled into that tree down there, and I thought maybe . . . Hey, your mouth's bleeding; are you sure you're all right? 

GEORGE What did . . . 

George touches his lips with his tongue, wipes his mouth with his hand, laughs happily. His rapture knows no bounds. 

GEORGE (cont'd) (joyously) My mouth's bleeding, Bert! My mouth's bleed . . . 

GEORGE (feeling in watch pocket) Zuzu's petals! Zuzu's . . . they're . . . 

GEORGE they're here, Bert! 

GEORGE What do you know about that? 

GEORGE Merry Christmas! 

He practically embraces the astonished Bert, then runs at top speed toward town. 

BERT ...Merry Christmas.


George runs away from camera yelling: 





George's wrecked car is smashed against the tree. He comes running into shot, sees the car, lets out a triumphant yell, pats the car, and dashes on. 



George sees that the POTTERSVILLE sign is now replaced by the original YOU ARE NOW IN BEDFORD FALLS sign. 

GEORGE Yaaaay! 

GEORGE Hello, Bedford Falls! 

He turns and runs through the falling snow up the main street of the town. As he runs, he notices that the town is back in its original appearance. He passes some late shoppers on the street:
GEORGE (cont'd) Merry Christmas! 

PEOPLE (ad lib) Merry Christmas! Merry Christmas, George! 



As George runs by: 

GEORGE Merry Christmas, movie house! 



as George runs by: 

GEORGE Merry Christmas, emporium! 



As George runs by: 

GEORGE Merry Christmas, you wonderful old... 

GEORGE ...Building and Loan! 



George notices a light in Potter's office window, and races across the street. 



Potter is seated working at his desk, his goon by his side. George pounds on the window. 

GEORGE (from outside) Merry Christmas, Mr. Potter! 

George runs off as Potter looks up from his work. 

POTTER Happy New Year to you –– in jail! 

POTTER Go on home –– they're waiting for you!

It's a Wonderful Life

Words by Frances Goodrich, Albert Hackett, Jo Swerling, Michael Wilson. and Frank Capra

Pictures by Joseph Biroc, Joseph Walker, Victor Milner, and Frank Capra

It's a Wonderful Life is available on DVD and Blu-Ray on Republic Entertainment, Inc.