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Hanks on “Banks” -OR- Stepping into a Legend: How did Tom Hanks get ready?

by Rod Wheaton on August 22, 2013

 

Saving Mr Banks

Disney nerds, geeks, purists, and true believers are all counting down to the December release of “Saving Mr Banks”. The Disney community has been abuzz and aglow, and with good reason. Tom Hanks, accomplished actor and longtime Hollywood luminary, has been tapped to do what has never been done before: play American icon Walt Disney on the silver screen.

Older Disney fans remember Walt Disney as ‘Uncle Walt“, the man who came into their living room every Sunday night and hosted “The World of Disney”, who brought them the “Mickey Mouse Club“, and who invented Disneyland. Younger fans may not have had the chance to see Walt in such a personal way, yet there is still a fascination with Walt, the man who created an entire world so many hold dear to their hearts. The sheer volume of biographies about him prove it.

How could anyone step into a role so iconic and beloved? It’s for good reason that no actor ever tried it before. So how was Tom Hanks able to step into the role? There are several factors in his corner. Tom Hanks already had a sound and long standing relationship with the Disney company. He has starred in many of their biggest hits. He also, even after 20 years in Hollywood, still has earned the reputation of a genuinely good and likable guy. But what did Tom himself note were the best things he did to prepare for the role? There were two: He took several visits to the Disney Family Museum, and he personally met with Walt’s daughter Dianne Disney Miller to talk about with her about her father.

“Saving Mr Banks” is ostensibly a story about the making of “Mary Poppins“. The real story, though, is the glimpse into the complex relationship between Walt and Mary Poppins author P. L. Travers, a notoriously difficult woman. (even a cursory search on Google readily shows she was not a particularly sweet dis-positioned person). It took Walt 16 years to convince Ms. Travers to let him make her beloved Mary into a movie. She finally agreed, provided she could have script approval.

Almost from the very start, it was a contentious relationship. She seemed to hate everything: the music, the director, the script. She said the Bank’s family house was “too grand”,’ the servants “too common”, and she hated Dick Van Dyke. Even Julie Andrews, who she later called a friend, was considered “too pretty” by Ms. Travers. Some other things she hated? The animated sequences; the song “Let’s go fly a kite“; most American phrases; and the idea Mary Poppins would have a romantic attachment to a “common Chimney Sweep” like Van Dyke’s character. Production dragged, and rewrites and arguments became the order of the day. Despite this, the movie was finally able to be finished. By then, relationships had degraded to the point that Travers wasn’t even invited to the premiere. It is said that she personally appealed to Walt, and he allowed her to come. Despite the overwhelmingly pleased reaction of the audience to the film, Ms. Travers immediately strode up to Walt afterward and demanded to know when they would begin cutting the parts out of the film she didn’t like. Walt had had his fill. He informed her on the spot that her rights were for script approval, not film editing; and the film was finished.

Disney’s Mary Poppins made P. L. Travers a very rich woman, but it never softened her hostile feelings toward the Disney filmmakers. She refused to ever work with the Walt Disney Studios again. She would not discuss sequels, though the film became one of the most popular and beloved of it’s time. Even in her late years, she specified in her will that any theatre productions or future adaptations of her Mary Poppins could not involve Americans. Her last will and testament snubbed the Sherman brothers in particular (who had written the multiple award-winning music for the movie), stating they could never have anything to do with any music for Mary Poppins in the future.

Sadly, just a short time after the success and brilliance that was Disney’s Mary Poppins, Walt was hit hard and fast by the cancer that took his life. Had he lived, could he have worked his magic again? If he’d had more time, could he have softened Ms Traver’s harsh opposition and made a sequel to the universally acknowledged masterpiece? We’ll never know. But we do have a classic movie that 50 years later, still has it’s shine.

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