Honey Sees From the Sky Descends an Angel

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February 1, 2014 · Posted in Notes from Above Ground 

 

NOTES FROM ABOVE GROUND

By Honey van Blossom

(Honey is a Belgian Marxist former strip-tease artiste)

 

Old people comprised most of the audience when I saw Saving Mr. Banks. They sat through the film without moving their white heads and stayed to the end of the subtitles. They were entranced. They could have read the Mary Poppins series, which began in 1934, as children. They could have read the books to their children. Everyone knows Walt Disney. His Steamboat Willy came out in 1928. Each of the old people in the audience grew up with Disney animations and with Walt on television. Disneyland in Anaheim is 58 years old. I was one of the children who went to it soon after it opened.

There were no parking structures but asphalt lots. Women wore high heels, and they got stuck in the asphalt. Real leeches floated in big clear glass containers set on the counter of the Main Street pharmacy.

Both the P.L. Travers book series and Walt Disney affected the way a lot of people saw the world when they were children. The time we spent as children seems like a very long time. The beginning of summer vacation seems like the beginning of forever with adventures still unaccomplished ahead like a vista without a horizon. The older we get, the faster life goes by, and so childhood seems to us to have been a longer period than it was, and what happens in childhood is important.

Some childhoods are not good, some are good, and some are both good and bad. Of those children with difficult childhoods, some will forget, some will remember and some will forgive. For me, books provided a way out of a childhood both good and bad. Looking back, now that I’m old, I see a lot of good came out of the early years when no one particularly cared what happened to me. I survived, after all. I had a public library card. I had a bicycle, and I rode it long distances and created pages of maps of places in Los Angeles that are now much changed. I had paper and a box of Crayola and, for one penny a lesson, I taught the neighborhood children how to draw Disney cartoons.

My guess is Disney’s Mary Poppins showed in theaters around the world. My daughters saw the film in Turkish in a theater in Istanbul when they were two and four. The Turkish title was, in translation, “From the Sky Descends an Angel.” When we returned to our apartment in Arnavutköy, the older girl found the dollhouse I had a carpenter make for her with little electric lights that worked with a tiny button. I told her Mary Poppins left it for her, and she believed me and loved Mary Poppins for saving her from the painful times we had, and she believed she was one of Mary Poppins’ children, and taken care of.

There used to be a plastic game of 3 D Tic Tac Toe. Children played on each of the four planes and also on the planes. Saving Mr. Banks is rather like that game. On one plane is the story of a little Australian girl – Lyndon in real life – whose charming Irish father is a failure in banking but he takes his daughter horse back riding on a white horse and tells the child about the horse’s adventures. He is an alcoholic, and the family leaves the city – actually, two of the house in Heritage Park off the 110 in Highland Park, and the rose garden in the Los Angeles Arboretum — to live in a dilapidated house at the end of the railway line into the country. Those scenes were shot in Simi Valley. On another tier of the game is Tom Hanks as Disney, and his effort to get P.L Travers to sell the rights to the film. Another Tier is Emma Thompson as the brittle, controlling, lonely author as a middle-aged woman. The diagonal line of marbles through the toy is references to the real lives of Travers and Disney, a diagonal that is also a clue to the film’s meaning.

The title is partly false. That quasi-truth is part of the diagonal. Walt starts off clumsily telling Travers that Mary Poppins comes to save the children. Travers takes offense – rather like Mary Poppins was quick to take offense. Walt rallies immediately and lets her know that Mary Poppins came to save the father, Mr. Banks. The insight is false. The true meaning of the Mary Poppins books is that the nanny does save the children, but one way she does it is to help Mr. Banks become a good father.

The Mary Poppins I read when I was a child was not the pretty songstress Julie Andrews. When Mary Poppins arrives, she is “a shape… in the gathering darkness,” picked up by the wind and blown to the front door: “the watching children heard a terrific bang, and as she landed the whole house shook.” She immediately slides up the banister to the nursery. She pulls all sorts of things out of her carpetbag. Mary Poppins is vain and imperious and takes offense at the mildest questioning. She leads the children into danger as often as she rescues them. Her authority is absolute: “You could not look at Mary Poppins and disobey her. There was something strange and extraordinary about her – something that was frightening and at the same time most exciting.”

In Saving Mr. Banks, Thompson-Travers conjures Mary Poppins from a memory of her aunt arriving with a carpetbag to the dilapidated house at the end of the railway line. The aunt brings medicine to save the father but she cannot, and he dies.

The secret subtext is that it is the child who wants to save her alcoholic father and cannot. In the film, Mary’s mother attempts to drown in a lake because her husband’s drinking leaves her helpless and frightened. In the true story, after the father dies, the mother attempts suicide from grief. P.L. Travers’ family called her Lyndon. Lyndon doesn’t save her mother in the true story. She wraps her sisters in a blanket and tells them about a magic white horse until their mother returns to them. The white horse in the movie represents Lyndon’s made-up horse, and the horse has adventures in the years that follow.

Mary Poppins is not a nanny, and she is not an aunt. She is Lyndon. She escaped her childhood grief through writing.

That the little Australian girl portrayed in Saving Mr. Banks grows up to be the lonely brittle woman played by Emma Thompson makes sense only if the tier made up of the Australian childhood is false. Lyndon is a writer already by seven, and if she had had magical adventures with her father, she would have been a happier woman than the Thompson-Travers.

When she a young girl, Travers read J. M. Barrie’s Peter Pan and Wendy (1911) and admired it. My friend Susana Wilson wrote: “One interesting example (of childhood stress) was of J. M. Barrie author of Peter Pan. As a child his older brother, and his mom’s favorite, died a tragic death. She went to bed. When J.M. would bring her a tray of food she hallucinated that it was his dear dead brother. He would answer that it was ‘only me.’ She told him his brother would always be her dear little boy and would never grow up. Barrie stopped growing! As an adult he remained under 5′ tall and wrote the book about the boy who never grew up.”

Barrie was Peter Pan. Disney is the mouse. Lyndon was Mary Poppins.

In Saving Mr. Banks, Walt Disney flies to London to meet with Travers one last time to convince her to sell the film rights to him. He tells her that he delivered newspapers for his father Elias. He got up in the dark from the time he was eight and went into the snow. He went to school. He ate dinner. He went out again in the dark at night to deliver the evening edition.

If he did not deliver the papers as his father wanted, Elias took off his belt and hit him with the buckle end. I don’t know if Disney went to London or if he told Travers about his own childhood. In the film, he tells her that they both make things better. He isn’t telling her a sad story to make her sympathize with him, but to see that, “It’s what we do. We’re story tellers.”

I don’t know if Walt Disney was as optimistic as Tom Hanks portrayed him in Saving Mr. Banks. It is rare to find anything the real Walt produced that was not ultimately nice, except perhaps for Donald Duck and Scrooge McDuck had their dark moments. Disney’s 1932 The Silly Symphony has a wonderful moment when the three little pigs dance around a piano singing, and on the wall is a painting of sausages and beneath it are the words, “Our Mother.”

Tom Hanks-Disney convinces P.L. Travers to accept a silly Dick Van Dyke dancing and saccharine young Julie Andrews singing, and the awful animated purple penguins cavorting in the film adaptation. Walt explains he is not telling her about his childhood to make her sad. Everyone has a sad story. He changes things, he said, “Because we are story-tellers.”

The Mary Poppins film scriptwriters create up a happy conclusion: Mr. Banks fixes the children’s kite. He is not a bad man. He also does not die.

The Disney Burbank studio is the Disney Burbank studio. Disneyland is Disneyland. Travers sees gold lettering on a window on Main Street – the street itself a recreation of Walt’s hometown. Every Disneyland has a Main Street, and the train arrives near the entrance because Elias brought his family on a train. The gold-lettered name is on a window in Disneyland. Thompson-Travers passes a photograph hung on a wall in the Disney studio showing Walt on the miniature train he had built so he could ride around his backyard. Thompson-Travers rides on the carousel. Walt got the idea for Disneyland sitting on a bench in Griffith Park watching his daughters on the merry-go-round. That bench is in an alcove on Main Street in Disneyland. All the benches in the film Disney studio look like that bench.

The locations – real and familiar places – and the real hand drawn sketches used in the film illustrate the transformational power of imagination.

 

 

 

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