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Not saving Mr Banks [Jan. 17th, 2014|10:46 pm]
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As I understand it - on the basis of having seen the trailer, plus whatever additional clips were included in the television programme which set me off on this journey - the film Saving Mr Banks argues that P.L. Travers was eventually won over to Walt Disney's version of Mary Poppins by its treatment of Mr Banks, the father of the family. Like her own father, George Banks works in a bank, and the film adds scenes in which he encounters problems there; but unlike her own father, he is ultimately rescued, redeemed. There is no basis for any of this in the chapter in the book in which the children are taken into the City to have tea with their father.

Mr Banks's request that Jane and Michael* call for him at the Office, and take him out to Tea and Shortbread Fingers, as a Treat. I am charmed the mixed registers of this invitation. On the one hand, the plaintive tone: "and it's not often I have a Treat." is typical of the depictions of Mr Banks as in some ways the youngest and most indulged of the Banks children; on the other, Shortbread Fingers are quite an adult treat - no raspberry jam cakes for Mr Banks. Perhaps it is simply kindness, to suggest that the outing is a treat for him, when he intends it as a treat for his children.

It is a treat for them, but this has nothing to do with tea and shortbread biscuits with their father; that is no more than a pretext to bring them into the City** where they can meet the real star of the chapter, the Bird Woman. The chapter opens with Michael's anxious words "Perhaps she won't be there," and Jane's reassurance that she will, "she's always there for ever and ever," and she is saying, as she always is, the magic words: she satisfies the children's desire for permanence and predictability which Mary Poppins will never indulge.

But then, this chapter isn't about Mary Poppins, either. She is present, of course, wearing her new hat and looking very distinguished, referring to the birds as 'sparrers' (a rare dialect pronunciation for her) because all birds are alike to her***. But she doesn't make the magic happen - if there is, indeed, any magic except in the telling; she doesn't lead the children into unfaniliar and enchanted territiory, for they know the Bird Woman already; and she doesn't get the last word. It is Jane who Michael asks for the story, and they tell it to each other; at the end, Michael asks if it is true, and Mary Poppins says no, because she always says no, but Jane says yes, and Jane always knew everything... The story, with its soothing description of the birds' bed-time ritual, ought to lead to the children asleep in the nursery, but they have not yet reached their father's Office, and their arrival there is never described.

In Mary Poppins Comes Back, Mary leads the children to a Park entrance they have never seen before, where they find the Balloon Woman, who urges them to choose carefully, because there are "Balloons and balloons" in Mary Poppins Opens the Door, Miss Caliuco sits by the Park railings with her peppermint horses. The Bird Woman foreshadows these street vendors, but their stories develop in a very different direction.

* This is one of those chapters in which Mary Poppins is accompanied only by the two elder children; who, if anyone, is looking after the Twins?

**The location is quite precise: they walk up Ludgate Hill to Saint Paul's "which was built a long time ago by a man with a bird's name", which is why it is home to so many birds, and to the Bird Woman. Travers may have disliked Disney's whimsy, but this is whimsical by any standards.

It also places Cherry Tree Lane, with its High Street shops and its small-town or suburban neighbourliness, very close to the City - not just the centre of London, but the business and financial centre (the map in the endpapers of Mary Poppins in the Park shows Cherry Tree Lane skirting one side of the Park, and St Paul's tucked into the far corner, at one end of the High Street.

***They are not sparrows, but doves and pigeons, in a variety of colours. An internet search on 'London' and 'pigeons' brings up mostly sites about pest control. And it is illegal to feed pigeons in Trafalgar Square.

[User Picture]From: steepholm
2014-01-18 09:48 am (UTC)


Off topic, but I couldn't help notice when I watched the 2004 film of Peter Pan that they totally lifted the scene at Mr Darling's place of work from the film of Mary Poppins. I can only conclude that it satisfies some deep fantasy of men in desk jobs.
[User Picture]From: shewhomust
2014-01-18 04:04 pm (UTC)


I haven't seen the Peter Pan film, and have only the haziest recollection of the Mary Poppins film - but I'm sure you're right!
[User Picture]From: vschanoes
2014-01-18 01:28 pm (UTC)


It struck me the first time I taught this book how much of the magic in it is simply story-telling--Mary Poppins tells the story of the Red Cow, Jane tells the story of the Bird Woman. In a book with only five chapters (if I recall correctly), that's a significant percentage. And it tells us something about the relationship between magic and story-telling, I think, and what it is that makes magic.

And DO NOT GET ME STARTED on Saving Mr. Banks. Just for starters, I find it so obnoxious that in discussing a story about a magical woman, a figure of the feminine divine if ever there was one (check out the illustration of Mary Poppins holding the snakeskin in the air and compare it to the figurines of what was thought of as the Minoan snake goddess/priestess), written by a woman, in which fathers are of no significance whatsoever, that movie somehow makes it all about the wisdom of the studio patriarch in divining that the story should really be about a patriarch.
[User Picture]From: shewhomust
2014-01-18 04:13 pm (UTC)


So what you're saying is that the Disney Studios are telling a story in which their God-the-Father defeats the representative of the Goddess in a story-telling contest? Because this is not what happened, but by telling the story that way they can magically make it so? Well, that figures... (Have you actually seen the film? Because I am bluffing here).

There are twelve chapters in the first Mary Poppins book (and fewer, longer chapters in each of the three that follow). It is more varied than you recollect - or at least, I found it more varied than I recollected, and I suspect we each choose which chapters we will remember, and which we will blank out as not fitting the book in our head.