The triumph of Neal Gabler’s voluminous, thorough and fascinating new biography, Walt Disney: The Triumph of the American Imagination (Alfred A. Knopf, 2006), is that it so fully humanizes a figure whom many of us previously knew either from his public image, as the benign, fatherly host of his weekly television series, or as the enigmatic and sometimes dictatorial executive of later books on animation.
In fact, there is one anecdote in Gabler’s vast tome that should allow any of us in the comics business to identify with DIsney. “Walt would recall an incident that happened on the back platform of the train when he first headed west to Los Angeles. He was making conversation with a man there who asked what Walt did. . . . ‘I make animated cartoons,” Walt told him, which was met with a steely disdain that Walt never forgot and that had led him to resolve that someday his cartoons would be afforded the same respect as live features” (p. 271).
As regular readers know, I’m associated on a volunteer basis with the Museum of Comic and Cartoon Art in New York City, and one of the perks of being a museum staffer, albeit unpaid, is that I receive free admission to other museums. So last month I visited a Manhattan art museum, which shall be nameless, and presented by MoCCA ID card at the admissions desk. The man behind the counter read the name of the museum and scrunched up his face into an expression of, yes, steely disdain for the idea of a museum dedicated to, of all things, cartoons. Thanks to Gabler’s book, I can now console myself with the knowledge that even Walt Disney had to experience this prejudice against the artform. (And to be fair, last year I showed my MoCCA ID card to a woman at the admissions counter for the Whitney Museum of American Art, and she not only burst into enthusiasm, but asked if she could bring her art students to visit the museum. So, yes, the cultural climate is changing, if not as widely as I might hope.)
Back in 2005 I wrote a number of columns about Lincoln Center’s retrospective of musical animated cartoons, and commented on how various people in animation were interested in the figure of the conductor (see “Comics in Context” #109 and 110). Mickey Mouse plays that role in The Band Concert (1935), among other cartoons, and as the Sorcerer’s Apprentice in Fantasia (1940), “conducts” the seas and the heavens as if they were orchestra members. Of course, at the end of that section of Fantasia, Mickey famously shakes hands with Leopold Stokowski, two conductors united. I suggested that Walt Disney, among others, regarded the conductor as a symbol of the filmmaker, directing the creation of a work of art.
How rewarding to learn from Gabler’s book that I was right on target with Disney! “Walt himself compared the cartoons to a symphony, with him as the conductor who took all the employees–the storymen, the animators, the composers and musicians, the voice artists, the ink and paint girls–and got them to ‘produce one whole thing which is beautiful’” (p. 210).
There is a great deal to say about Gabler’s biography of Disney, but this week I want to concentrate on the light it casts on a subject I wrote about a few weeks ago: Mary Poppins, in its incarnations as P. L. Travers’ original book, Walt Disney’s 1964 film adaptation, and the new stage musical on Broadway, based on both (see “Comics in Context” #158). Last time I concentrated on Ms. Poppins herself, but this time I’m turning to a character who is barely present in the original book, but who has the principal character arc in the movie and stage musical: Mr. George Banks, the father of Mary Poppins’ charges, Jane and Michael. As Variety theater critic David Rooney referred to Mr. Banks in his review of the Broadway version (Nov. 16, 2006) as “George whose sensitization is the story’s central journey.” In the course of the movie and play he changes from what writer Caitlan Flanagan called “a martinet banker” in her Dec. 19, 2005 New Yorker article about Travers, whose signature song in the stage version is “Precision and Order,” to an emotionally open and loving husband and father.
The Mr. Banks arc is the Disney studio’s invention. Travers’ original book is episodic: Mary Poppins takes the children on one adventure after another, until finally we reach the end of the book and she leaves. The redemption of Mr. Banks gives the story of the movie and stage musical an overall structure. Moreover, through developing the character of Mr. Banks, Walt Disney and his collaborators on this family movie gave the adults in the audience someone with whose problems they could identify.
It also solved another problem. As Flanagan explains, “The story of Mary Poppins depended on the premise that it was normal for a middle-class family to employ. . .a servant to raise the children. But to a large segment of Disney’s intended audience this idea would be bewildering or, at least, cold and unpalatable.”
Travers expressed surprise at the movie’s notion that Mr. Banks was a bad father. Flanagan quotes her as writing, “What wand was waved to turn Mr. Banks . . . . from an anxious, ever-loving father into a man who could cheerfully tear into pieces a poem that his children had written?” But Flanagan earlier related that Travers’ father died when she was ten, that her mother was irresponsible, and that as a girl Travers turned instead to her unmarried Aunt Ellie, who “bossed everyone around, but her fierceness disguised a kindness she would have been embarrassed to admit” and who was the obvious model for Mary Poppins. Moreover, Flanagan asserts that “the fate of children whose parents can’t take care of them—haunted her [Travers] for the rest of her life.”
Of Travers’ Mary Poppins books, I’ve only read the first, and it gives me the impression that Mr. and Mrs. Banks pay little attention to their children and are perfectly content to let Mary Poppins take the lion’s share of raising them. The children’s adventures with Mary Poppins thus become ventures into a secret world to which their parents are oblivious. So Walt Disney’s interpretation of Mr. Banks as a rather distant father seems reasonable to me. Richard Sherman, who with his brother Robert wrote the songs for the Mary Poppins movie, worked on its story with Walt Disney, and told Flanagan they realized, “You could make the father emotionally absent.” Hence, he told her, “We made it a story about a dysfunctional family,” Sherman said. “And in comes Mary Poppins—this necessary person—to heal them”
Gabler points out that Walt Disney had been considering doing a Mary Poppins movie since the 1940s, and when the movie finally was being made, “Walt was energized. . . .It had been years since Walt was so personally invested in a film. . . he obviously connected with the film in ways that he had not connected with the studio’s recent releases” (pgs. 598-599).
How did he connect? Gabler explains that Disney’s great early feature films, like Pinocchio (1940) and Dumbo (1941) are about children achieving maturity, taking on the “hallmarks of adulthood.” In contrast, he says, “Mary Poppins was a kind of reversion to childhood before responsibility, or, rather, a reaction to it. In a household that encouraged them to suppress their antic spirits and behave like adults, Poppins taught the children joy. . . If his earlier films had spoken to young Walt Disney’s need for empowerment, Poppins spoke to the older Walt Disney’s predicament as a corporate captain burdened with duties. . . “ (p. 599).
It makes sense that as he grew older, the films that Walt Disney considered personal projects would change. I observed a similar phenomenon with George Lucas’s Star Wars movies (see “Comics in Context” #86). The original Star Wars trilogy, made by a young man, who, when he started them in 1977, was still striving for success, were about empowerment; they also embodied a young man’s optimism. The later trilogy, made by an older, successful man, who has become “a corporate captain” like Disney, reflects disillusionment, shows a new concern with mortality, and even approaches tragedy; the “New Hope” is left to the next generation, represented by the births of Luke and Leia at the end of Revenge of the Sith (2005). In contrast, Disney holds on to his optimism in Mary Poppins: the true central character, Mr. Banks, emerges from disillusionment into spiritual regeneration.
Gabler asserts that Walt Disney “could certainly identify with Mr. Banks, the stodgy banker who has a child lurking inside him, and with Mary Poppins, the magical nanny who manages to emancipate that child” (p. 599). This is certainly true, and Gabler is particularly perceptive in recognizing that Disney could identify aspects of himself with more than one character in the story.
If Walt Disney, consciously or unconsciously, molded Travers’ Mary Poppins into his own spiritual autobiography of sorts, then there are further depths to be plumbed.
As many reviewers of Gabler’s book have remarked upon, Walt Disney was unconcerned with money except as a means for financing his future projects. But he was forced to become concerned about it. Astounding as it may seem to us today, when they are all nearly universally regarded as classics of America popular culture, Pinocchio, Fantasia (1940), and Bambi (1942) were all failures in their initial releases, and the Disney studio would have gone bankrupt if not for the film projects it undertook for the government during World War II. Moreover, as the Disney studio grew, it inevitably lost the sense of community it had in its earlier days, especially after the animators’ strike of 1941. Gabler describes Disney’s “transformation from a heedless entertainer to a cautious corporate leader” (p. 442) who “even looked different. The boyish young Walt Disney had dressed casually and flamboyantly,” but now “his suits were more likely to be solid blue or gray and conservatively cut. . .” (pgs. 441-2). One reason for all this, Gabler explains, was “the need to make films without also making mistakes. The studio couldn’t afford the risk.” Gabler maintains that Disney was growing more conservative anyway, in part “possibly” due to the fact that “he was in his mid-forties and no longer a reckless young visionary” (p. 442).
Mr. Banks, of course, by Travers’ own admission, is dedicated to making money: “Now, the City was a place where Mr. Banks went every day–except Sundays, of course, and Bank Holidays–and while he was there he sat on a large chair in front of a large desk and made money” (p. 4).
As his name suggests, the movie’s Mr. Banks’s ties his sense of identity to his job. In his book Gabler shows how bankers thwarted Disney’s dreams ands ambitions in the first decades of his studio. For example, after the strike, an executive of the studio’s creditor, the Bank of America, “concerned about what he saw as Walt’s profligacy,’ “ordered the studio to restrict itself to the production of shorts,” and moreover demanded “the creation of an ‘executive committee,’ including a bank representative” to govern the studio. “In effect, the studio was no longer Walt Disney’s fiefdom, He was now under the control of the businessmen” (p. 376). Did Disney the artist feel that by increasingly conforming to the demands of the corporate world, and indeed by making himself over into a conservative corporate executive, that he had joined the enemy’s side?
Whether motivated by the need to make money or by his artistic ambitions, Disney was quite a workaholic who had trouble tearing himself away from his own figurative desk. Gabler quotes animator Ward Kimball about a train trip he took with Disney: “No matter what you were talking about, he’d get back to this goddamn studio. . . .He wanted to talk about it. This was HIM. This was his SEX! This was EVERYTHING. . .The orgasms were all here” (p. 473).
It appears that Disney was indeed sublimating his libido into his work, at the expense of his family life. Gabler makes clear that Disney was emotionally distant from his wife, though he was quite close with his daughters. “But as much as he cherished his girls, and enjoyed spending time with them, there was something solitary about him when he wasn’t at the studio–something self-absorbed and distant” (p. 462). Gabler states that “Walt seemed to realize that he was hopelessly addicted to work at the expense of family and friends” (p. 282).
There, too, is a link between Walt Disney and the movie’s Mr. Banks, who, as Sherman observed, is “emotionally absent” from his family. The stage musical goes even further. As Ben Brantley put it in his Nov. 17, 2006 review of the stage version for The New York Times, “Mr. Banks. . .learns to stop recoiling when his wife tries to kiss him and to value quality time with the kids over making money.”
I also wonder if Disney, consciously or not, saw himself in Mr. Banks, not only in Disney’s relationship with his children, but in Disney’s relationship with his employees. Gabler perceives a paternal quality in Disney’s attitude towards the people who worked at the studio. At its best, in the 1930s, “if this was paternalism, it was paternalism in service of a higher principle. . . .He wanted an organization in which everyone would be selfless and happy” (p. 241). But Gabler also shows, especially as time went on, that Disney could be a martinet who terrified his employees. In Mr. Banks, before and after his transformation, perhaps we see Disney the distant, tyrannical “parent,” and Disney the benign, caring “father” to his staff.
Gabler also tell us that Disney “always loved to forge people into a happy unit” (p. 240). That’s what Mr. Banks does at the end of the movie, when he reconciles with his family and invites them to join him in his new pastime of flying a kite. Here too is one of the links between Walt Disney and the character of Mary Poppins. Even if he didn’t do it enough, Disney loved spending time with his daughters, and Mary Poppins takes the children on one magical adventure after another. At the movie’s end, Mr. Banks, the character who more clearly represents Disney himself, takes on Mary Poppins’ role of companion to his children, and so there is no more need for her, and she departs.
As a worker of magic, which often amazes and entertains the children, Mary Poppins can also be regarded as metaphorically representing the creative artist, making yet another connection between her and Disney himself. Bert is specifically identified in both Travers’ book and in the Disney movie as an artist, and one who creates a world within his painting with characters that come to life. So Bert effectively deals in animation, like Walt Disney himself.
I also wonder if Disney, consciously or not, saw himself reflected in Mary Poppins’ characteristic sternness. Gabler shows repeatedly that Walt Disney was a difficult man to know, had few friends, did not show emotional warmth towards his employees, and, indeed, intimidated his staff, and could be cruel to people. Yet Gabler also makes clear that Disney had this “paternal” side and, at least before the strike, took unusual steps to promote his employees’ welfare and happiness. So could Disney have identified with his version of Mary Poppins, who masks her genuine caring for the children behind her forbidding facade? (Even Travers notes, when Maia, the star that took human form, parts from Mary Poppins, that Jane and Michael “could see in Mary Poppins’ eyes something that, if she were anybody else but Mary Poppins, might have been described as tears. . . ” [p. 194].) Mary Poppins’ severe demeanor could be used to rationalize always treating children sternly and never betraying emotion. So it is a relief that Disney’s Mary Poppins film ultimately depicts the transformed Mr. Banks’s open affection for his wife and children as its ideal. Mary Poppins, hiding her true feelings beneath a stern manner, was a necessary transitional figure in the family’s evolution, and is sent on her way once their “dysfunction” is cured.
There is yet a fourth figure in the movie who may resemble a side of Disney and who is missing from the stage musical: the head of the bank, Mr. Dawes, Sr., an extraordinarily ancient man who can barely stand upright. (The closing credits reveal that Dick Van Dyke, who plays the young, spry Bart, doubles in the role of Mr. Dawes, Sr.. Van Dyke is unrecognizable beneath the banker’s old age makeup, and proved far better at altering his voice in this role than he was at adopting a Cockney accent for Bert. Surely I am far from the only person who, on first seeing the movie, did not realize that Van Dyke played the elder Dawes until the closing credits.) This is a man on the brink of death, who maintains his hold on the reins of power well past the time he should have passed them on to a new generation, namely Mr. Banks’s. Death thus symbolically rules the bank, whose vast emptiness might resemble a mausoleum.
Despite Mr. Banks’s loyalty to the bank, the elder Mr. Dawes and his hierarchy show no loyalty in turn to him. In the movie Mr. Banks falls from his masters’ favor through sheer accident. When Mr. Banks brings his children to the bank and encourages Michael to open an account, Michael, understandably cowed by his surroundings, vehemently refuses. A customer overhears, leaps to the conclusion that something must be wrong with the bank, and her panic spreads, causing a run on the bank. For adults in the early 1960s who remembered the 1920s and 1930s, this sequence would conjure up the fears they felt during the Great Depression. Significantly, Frank Capra made two films that dramatized a similar situation: in American Madness (1932), a rumor foments panic and a run on the protagonist’s bank, and in It’s a Wonderful Life (1946), there is another fear-driven run on George Bailey’s savings and loan. In each of these Capra movies, the hero’s friends loyally rally to his support and prevent him from going under. In the Mary Poppins movie Mr. Dawes, Sr. and the rest of the bank’s hierarchy blames Mr. Banks for the panic and decide to fire him, or, to continue the death analogy, to terminate his employment. (Mr. Banks accepts responsibility for his children’s actions, but of course, the children were not really to blame. It’s the nameless customers who really started the panic, but they cannot be identified, and Mr. Dawes, Sr. and company apparently need a scapegoat.)
In the movie, before returning to the bank to face the judgment of his superiors, Mr. Banks morosely ponders his imminent fate: to have his career cut short while he is in his “prime.” Again, this evokes memories of the Depression for Disney’s generation. For Disney himself it may have alluded to the times when his studio nearly went bankrupt, a fate that might have put an end to his career and artistic dreams. Pointedly, on his way to the bank, Mr. Banks passes by the Bird Woman who feeds the pigeons on the steps of St. Paul’s Cathedral (which is near the “City,” London’s banking district). Gabler reports that towards the end of his life, Disney would repeatedly summon the Sherman Brothers to play the song about the Bird Woman, “Feed the Birds,” for him. “Whether Walt related to the song because he related to the old woman’s loneliness, or whether in a life of grand gestures he appreciated her small one, or whether he recognized in her his own mortality, or whether the woman simply reminded him of his own mother, he never said. . . .But hearing the song, he would always cry” (p. 618). These all seem good explanations, and Gabler’s mention of mortality fits in with the idea of the bank as the realm of death.
The Bird Woman is also a rather pathetic figure of destitution, and therefore may represent to Mr. Banks the specter of what he fears lies in wait for him once he has been terminated. Moreover, she is an icon of charity, feeding the birds despite her own poverty. Now that Mr. Banks is on the brink of financial ruin, he is himself in need of charity, but seems to realize he will find none from his judges at the bank.
Despite Disney’s reputation for sugar-coating reality, it should be no surprise that his great films include moments of disturbing darkness, from the notorious death of Bambi’s mother to Mr. Banks’s descent into despair. Gabler quotes Disney as stating that “Life is composed of lights and shadows, and we would be untruthful, insincere, and saccharine if we tried to pretend there were no shadows” (p. 398).
Clearly Disney could identify with Mr. Banks as the potential victim of a bank, just as he had been in real life. But if Mary Poppins was in part a psychodrama for Disney, then Disney may well have been the oppressor as well as the victim. Consciously or not, perhaps Disney saw part of himself in Mr. Dawes, Sr. According to Gabler, even before the studio strike, but as pressures from the Bank of America grew on him, Disney “displayed no hint of sentiment when it came to newer employees, especially as his dream of utopia faded under the glare of economic realities. . . .Walt thought nothing of firing someone who had outlived his usefulness, calling it ‘weeding out marginal people,’ or getting rid of ‘deadwood’” (p. 353). After the strike, Gabler reports, “Beyond the fear he inspired, Walt now displayed a vindictiveness occasionally even bordering on cruelty. . .” (p. 379). How bad did it get? This bad: Gabler quotes the recently deceased Richard Fleischer (who was not only a director who worked for Disney but was the son of his former rival Max) as recalling Disney telling him, “every once in a while I just fire everybody, then I hire them back in a couple of weeks. That way they don’t get too complacent. It keeps them on their toes” (p. 540). Mr. Banks identified himself with the bank until the bank turned against him. Through the elder Mr. Dawes, did Disney consciously or subconsciously recognize that his insensitivity towards employees mirrored the Bank of America’s coldness towards him?
In the movie when Mr. Banks arrives at the bank to face his reckoning, he is subjected to a parody of the expulsion of a disgraced military officer: parts of his businessman’s “uniform,” such as his bowler hat and umbrella, are ritualistically ruined. It’s funny, but there is a dark edge to the scene; the man is being humiliated and symbolically reduced to nothing.
Thus expelled from a harsh adult world, the movie’s Mr. Banks abruptly, giddily reverts to a kind of childhood, babbling “Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious,” telling a bad joke, and otherwise recapping motifs from earlier scenes involving Mary Poppins. It reminds me of Scrooge’s happy hysteria on awakening on Christmas Day, or George Bailey’s own delirious euphoria, following their respective visions. Soon Mr. Banks is rushing back home to go flying a kite with his children.
Now that I have read Gabler’s book, Mr. Banks’s new enthusiasm for flying kites makes me think of Disney’s own passion for trains. Gabler tells how in the 1940s Disney’s artistic dreams were thwarted by a combination of factors, including the commercial failures of Pinocchio, Fantasia and Bambi; the strike that wrecked the studio’s sense of community; the financial constraints imposed on the studio by the bank; and even his sense that due to high costs and lack of sufficiently talented people, he could no longer make animated films that could equal his great work of the 1930s and early 1940s. Gabler reports that Disney’s wife Lillian “once claimed that after the war Walt had come close to another breakdown like the one he suffered in 1931, because he was working too hard, she said, though the better explanation was that he was depressed from his work showing so little result. . . “ (p. 465). Gabler aptly titles this chapter of his biography “Adrift.”
But then Disney became fascinated, even obsessed, with trains: models, miniatures, and full size versions. “The train, like the animation, was to be all-consuming,” Gabler writes, “his escape from the animations, as the animations had been intended as an escape from reality” (p. 467). The trains became a substitute for animation as the object of his creative energies: “He had an object on which to lavish his affection. He had the pleasure of doing work exactly as he wanted and an opportunity to exercise the control that he had lost” (p. 467). This in turn led to Disney’s building a new house for himself, “where he could lay track for the railroad that consumed him” (p. 474). “The new house was partly a project, something to hold Walt’s attention, partly a haven to replace the studio as the trains had replaced the animation, and partly a way to secure himself against the assaults of the world by retreating to his family” (p. 474). That’s what Mr. Banks does when he is expelled from the bank: he returns to his family, who, he now recognizes, will still accept him even when the business world does not. Mr. Banks’s kite parallels Disney’s train.
In his piece about Mary Poppins for The New York Times (Nov. 20, 2006), critic Edward Rothstein contends that the Mary Poppins movie “treated adulthood as if it should be another form of childhood. . . Life would be better if parents allowed themselves to dance like chimney sweeps and fly kites in the park. They shouldn’t just pay more attention to their children; they should become more like them.”
And here is Rothstein’s key observation: “The movie’s liberatory spirit is, of course, out of the heart of the 1960s.” Now that is startling. What we think of the free-spirited Sixties is really the late Sixties. The Mary Poppins movie was released in 1964, and conventional wisdom, then and now, regarded Disney as conservative in outlook. But Rothstein’s observation fits with Gabler’s argument that “though Walt Disney was made to seem conservative–had made himself seem conservative because it fit the cultural ethos of the time–in his films, at least, he may not have been so very conservative after all, nor the barrier against the new America that he was often purported to be” (p. 615). Gabler contends that Disney’s movies “were surprisingly modern in outlook and not quite as innocuous as even Walt had declared them to be. The rock-ribbed Republican. . .also suspected authority and often questioned it, hated money and its acquisition, was wary of materialism, detested affectation. . . and all of those values had found their way into his movies and quite possibly into the mind-set of the generation who had been weaned on them” (p. 614). In the late 1960s the idea of turning one’s back on the establishment, rejecting the pursuit of materialism, and “dropping out” of the 9-to-5 life had become familiar and trendy; the movie version of Mr. Banks had already done all of this in 1964.
Back on Dec. 5 in his blog, Neil Gaiman wrote, “And of course Mary Poppins is not — in the books — actually ‘practically perfect,’ although that’s her own opinion of herself. She’s conceited, dangerous, implacable and a force of nature. She teaches the Banks children nothing as banal as moral lessons, and I don’t believe that anybody is really emotionally transformed in the books, except for a handful of lucky people in the stories who are given the ability to run away from their lives or are set free from some kind of physical imprisonment (and that occurs more in the stories that Mary Poppins tells the children than in the stories themselves).” But those stories-within-stories supply thematic justification for Mr. Banks’s emotional transformation.
Reading the first Mary Poppins book, I was taken with Mary Poppins’ tale of “The Dancing Cow” (in Chapter 5), concerning a Red Cow who “was very respectable” and who “always behaved like a perfect lady” (Odyssey paperback edition pgs. 66-67) and devotes herself to raising a succession of children. In other words it appears that she exactly lives up to society’s conventional standards of behavior for women back when P. L. Travers wrote the book: be ladylike and a good mother, and aspire to nothing else. Travers informs us further about the Red Cow that “All her days were exactly the same” and that “she felt that she could ask for nothing better than for all her days to be alike until she came to the end of them” (p. 67). It seems like a living death by boredom.
However, Travers continues, “adventure. . .was stalking” the Red Cow (p. 67). One night, to the Red Cow’s own surprise, she “stood up suddenly and began to dance. She danced wildly and beautifully and in perfect time. . . .” The abruptness strikes me as being much like the movie’s Mr. Banks’ sudden shift from despair into childlike merriment. In each case pent-up emotions that they were not even aware of burst forth. Mr. Banks had previously thought that kite flying and words like “supercalifragilisticexpialidocious”: were silly, and the Red Cow tells herself, “I always thought dancing improper, but it can’t be since I myself am dancing. For I am a model cow.” And Mr. Banks, the proper businessman, similarly finds himself flying a kite.
Moreover, just as Mr. Banks’ new euphoria verges on a hysterical lack of self-control, the Red Cow discovers that she is now unable to stop dancing. That’s the result of having repressed their inner drives for so long. I suppose that P. L. Travers made her cow red in homage to Hans Christian Andersen’s tale of “The Red Shoes,” whose wearer likewise cannot stop dancing. (So this is The Red Hooves?) It might seem as if the Red Cow will meet as tragic an end as Andersen’s heroine: in continual motion, the Red Cow cannot sleep and can barely eat. Nevertheless, she confesses, “it’s rather a pleasant feeling. . .as if laughter were running up and down inside me” (p. 73). The source of the Cow’s problem is a bright fallen star that has gotten caught on one of her horns. (Once again, the laws of science prove to be hogwash in Mary Poppins’ world.) The local King advises the Red Cow to try dislodging the star by jumping over the moon, as in the nursery rhyme. The Red Cow protests, “I am a decent, respectable animal and have been taught from my infancy that jumping was no occupation for a lady” (p. 75). Nonetheless, she overcomes her inhibitions, makes the jump, and it works: the star falls off, her dancing ceases, and she returns to her responsibility, the Red Calf, and “soon began to live her life just exactly as she had lived it before” (p. 78).
And this doesn’t work. The Red Cow “began to feel uncomfortable and dissatisfied” and realizes that she misses dancing and “the happy feeling the star had given her” (p. 78). It gets worse: she loses her appetite, “her temper was atrocious. And she frequently burst into tears for no reason at all” (p. 78). (Reminds me of Disney’s own anger and depression.) Finally, the Red Cow embarks on a quest to find another fallen star. (If Victoria Page in the 1948 The Red Shoes movie begged, “Take off the Red Shoes,” the Red Cow wants their equivalent put back on.) But this happened “long ago” according to Mary Poppins (p. 66), and the Red Cow hasn’t found another fallen star yet.
This fable may reflect Travers’ own ambiguous feelings about discipline, responsibility and propriety on one hand, and emotional release and self-expression on the other. As in “The Red Shoes,” the pursuit of pleasure to excess is destructive, but one lesson one might take from the Red Cow’s story is that once you free yourself from inhibition to follow your inner voice, it’s a mistake to go back to repression. The Red Cow’s story also suggests that you cannot count on more than one such opportunity for emotional freedom.
Mr. Banks follows this principle by seizing the day at the movie’s and the musical’s endings, and I will have more to write about both Poppins and Disney next time.
ADVERTISEMENTS FOR MYSELF
There will be another Big Apple Con (http://www.bigapplecon.com/) at the Penn Plaza Pavilion (401 Seventh Ave. at 33rd St.) in Manhattan on Friday, January 19 and Saturday, January 20. I’ll be there on Saturday, when I’m scheduled to help interview Doom Patrol co-creator Arnold Drake and She-Hulk writer Dan Slott.
-Copyright 2007 Peter Sanderson
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