This is something new I thought I would try. I thought I would try reviewing a few Christmas movies around this time. The first movie I thought I would do is It’s A Wonderful Life. It’s a Christmas staple, but I finally saw it in its entirety last year! Here are my thoughts.
It begins as Heaven is alerted of prayers for a George Bailey from Bedford Falls, New York. As it reaches Heaven, the angel assigned to save George is Clarence Odbody. Clarence is a second-class angel who needs to earn his wings. George is about to commit suicide and it’s up for Clarence to save him to earn his wings. Clarence needs to learn about George, so he learns more about his life. He learns that George saved his younger brother Harry from drowning in a sledding accident, but lost hearing in his left ear. Also in George’s younger years, he prevented a druggist Mr. Gower from giving away a prescription after it was accidentally poisoned.
As George enters adulthood, he plans to travel the world and visit college. He is re-introduced to Mary Hatch, his childhood crush, by Harry at his graduation party and the two hit it off. However his plans have to be put on hold after his father Peter suffers a stroke and dies. Peter was head of Bailey Brothers’ Building And Loan. George agrees to continue it, mainly to keep it from being overrun by the ruthlessly hypercompetitive banker Henry Potter.
George wants to keep the Building And Loan business a family business as he promises brother Harry a job after college, and even resorts to hiring his incompetent uncle Billy. The times pass and George is successful in keeping the Building And Loan active, but not without his challenges. He had competition from Potter to face, including a tempting deal from Potter himself, although he knew Potter’s true attempt was to shut him down. He is understand when Harry receives a bigger job offer from another place. He build Bailey Park: a neighborhood of housing for low-income people while Potter made apartments of overpriced slums. He fell in love with Mary and married, eventually fathering four children.
World War II happens. George can’t fight because of his deaf ear, but Harry joins the Navy and earns a medal of honor by shooting down a kamikaze plane. Uncle Billy causes a big blunder on the day Harry is to receive his heroes’ welcome. Billy taunts Potter with the newspaper honoring Harry. Billy places $8000 to be deposited in a newspaper only to pick up the wrong paper to give to the teller. Potter knows what happened but says nothing and sees it as a chance to get the Building And Loan once and for all.
George most feels the heat. He learns that this will face scandal and that the Building And Loan will crumble. George even faces an arrest from Potter. All George does is take out his frustration on the family and on others. Then George gets drunk at the bar and receives a punch from the husband of the woman he told off over the phone. George feels he’s worthless and he needs to kill himself. As George is about to jump, he notices a man who has landed in the river. He goes to help. He learns the man is Clarence and Clarence introduces him as his guardian angel. At first George doesn’t believe him. Clarence tries to find ways to convince George not to commit suicide but they appear to be going nowhere.
Finally George says “I wish I was hadn’t been born.” That’s the perfect opportunity for Clarence; show George life if he had never been born. He shows him that Bedford Falls would be Potterville: a dark and corrupt town with amoral people. Mr. Gower was just released from prison for manslaughter, because George wasn’t there to stop him from poisoning. The Building And Loan closed down because George was not there to take over after his father’s death. George’s mother doesn’t recognize him and says Uncle Billy was institutionalized after the Building And Loan failed. The area that was Bailey Park is a cemetery and Harry Bailey is buried there; drowned from the sledding accident because no George to save him. I addition, the soldiers from the transport ship died because Harry wasn’t there to save them. Finally he learns Mary is an unmarried librarian and screams for the police as she sees George a stranger.
It’s after seeing life had he not existed that George decides not to commit suicide. He’s finally convinced Clarence is his guardian angel and begs for his life back. Back in the full present, George goes back to his house, grateful to see Mary and his children and unafraid to face arrest. He’s happy to see his family and Uncle Billy was able to get the towns people to pay the missing $8000. Right as the sheriff is about to arrest George, he sees the amount of money raised and rips up the arrest warrant. Harry returns and toasts George as the ‘richest man in town.’ In the pile of money, George sees a novel Clarence carried. Inside the novel is an inscription from Clarence: “Remember no man is a failure who has friends.” The daughter notices the sign that an angel has earned his wings. George knows it’s Clarence.
This is a film that gets replayed Christmas after Christmas. Hard to believe when it first came out, it did not do so hot at the box office. Over time, it would become beloved for many reasons such as its Christmas setting or even how it related to how people sometimes see themselves as failures. That feeling can often trigger around Christmas time. The film shows one example of a person who sees themselves around Christmas as a failure. George Bailey did a lot of great things throughout his life and meant a lot to a lot of people, especially people who feared the mere idea of the town being overrun by Henry Potter. Then a mistake happens and Henry sees it as the perfect opportunity to get George. George actually had it good for most of his life. Some people could even argue he’s the angel of Bedford Falls. But now that George fears arrest, all of that doesn’t matter anymore and George wants to take his own life. It’s Clarence who shows him the world had he not existed that changes George.
Sometimes it leaves you thinking there would be less suicides if people saw all the accomplishments they did in their lifetime and knew how many people loved them. It’s so easy to get caught and brought down in the ‘now’ of things.
The film’s ‘beloved’ status was not immediate. It didn’t do so hot at the box office. It would be relay on television around Christmas that would lead it to become one of the most beloved Christmas movies ever. The film was nominated for five competitive Oscars including Best Picture, Best Director for Frank Capra and Best Actor for James Stewart. It was given an honorary Oscar for technical achievement for the effect of simulating falling snow. There have been numerous depictions and versions of the story redone in media from a Married With Children episode to a cartoon of The Smurfs to the Billy Joel video of “You’re Only Human.” There have been dozens and dozens of adaptations. There have even been spoofs such as one sitcom, one ‘guardian angel’ shows an oafish male how life would be if he didn’t exist… and it’s better for everyone! That’s comedy for you!
Looking back, it’s better that the film was made in 1946 than today. 1946 would be more welcoming of a story like this. Stories of people starting as down and out only to end on a happy note were quite common and quite welcome at the time. If It’s A Wonderful Life was released today, some people would think of it having a corny premise. A lot of people don’t buy into guardian angels today. Some would find the ending of the film too hokey. Even that ending where people actually give money to keep George Bailey from being arrested would seem too farfetched for today’s people to buy. Even I don’t think you’d see the same monetary support for a fallen person if what happened to George would happen to someone else today. It’s a film that came out at the right time and had what it took to go the distance all these years. Plus it’s a good reminder of past great talents and stars like James Steward, Donna Reed, Lionel Barrymore and Henry Travers. Interesting enough, Travers would retire from acting three years after the movie was released!
It’s easy to see why It’s A Wonderful Life is one Christmas movie that stands the test of time. Even if the ending seems too farfetched to happen in today’s world, it’s good it came out when it did and grew in its legendary status over the years.
Saving Mr. Banks is to be the story of how Walt Disney was able to bring Mary Poppins to the big screen. The question is not just will it bring the story to life but will it make people want to see it on the big screen?
It’s 1961 and Mary Poppins author P.L. Travers is struggling financially. Walt Disney has been trying to get Travers to agree to allow him to adapt Mary Poppins to the big screen for 20 years on account of a promise he made to his daughter. Travers finally agrees, albeit reluctantly but she’s extremely distrustful of Walt. She has stern expectations of Mary being adapted to the big screen such as no musical numbers, no Dick Van Dyke, none of the Disney frilliness and no animation.
Things do not start well for Mrs. Travers. She’s unhappy in Los Angeles with the carefree attitude of the city and by the happy ways Walt Disney, his co-workers and even Ralph the chauffeur do business. Not even Walt’s familiar manners warm up well to Travers. Things get harder as Don DaGradi does the script, the Sherman brothers compose the music and Walt designs the characters. She even has a problem with Mary Poppins being the epitome of sentiment and whimsy, believing she’s the opposite of that. That surprises the Disney crew as they’ve always viewed Poppins as fantastical and known Travers to have a fantastical childhood, as seen through flashbacks.
However things take a turn for the worse when Travers sees the depiction of George Banks. She believes he is completely off-base and leaves distraught. It’s then where the Disney studio realizes that Mary Poppins and its characters are very personal to Travers. It’s through flashbacks that we learn that Travers Goff, her father and the inspiration of George Banks, was indeed a banker but valued his imagination more than work in the real world. Things became too crushing for Travers and he would lose his job and his sanity to alcoholism. Her mother was the stern one of the family who even attempted suicide once.
The Disney team are persistent and try to work things out. Walt even offers to take Ms. Travers to Disneyland to lighten her mood. Things improve. The trip to Disneyland improves her embrace of the imagination, albeit slightly. Travers also has an unlikely friendship with Ralph the chauffeur as he tells her his handicapped daughter loves the novel. Things really improve when she walks in and hears George Banks is given a happier manner and has him singing ‘Let’s Go Fly A Kite’ at the end. But just when things seem to be working out, she learns of dancing penguins in a scene. That infuriates Travers to the point she refuses to Walt the film rites and flies back to London.
Once Disney learns that P.L. Travers is actually an Australian names Helen Goff, he departs to London for one last chance. Walt arrives at Travers’ home and opens up to her during his visit. He tells her that he too had a troubling childhood with a stern father and growing up poor. It was through his animation and his happy characters that he was able to heal and he tells Travers that having a creative imagination would also help in her healing of her disappointment with the world. She eventually agrees but she’s not invited to the 1964 premiere for fear of her panning it. Once news hits her, she shows up at Disney studios demanding to be invited. Her reactions at the premiere are unexpected but those of us who’ve seen Mary Poppins would know the movie would have a happy ending.
There have been movies before about the making some of the most famous children’s stories. I even remember seeing Finding Neverland a few years ago. The film of an adaptation of a novel to movie is not something one would call a fresh idea. Nevertheless it is unique this case of adapting the Mary Poppins novel to the big screen.
We should keep in mind that to make a film like this, it would have to be entertaining and keep audiences interested. It succeeds with some surprises. First is the personality of P.L. Travers. It’s funny that we see this uppity personally and we’re left thinking: “Are you sure this prig is the author of Mary Poppins?” Second is Travers’ feelings towards Disney’s style of creativity and how on earth it would ever be adapted. Crazy thing is we all know it was adapted. Even still the film makes you forget that and wonder if it will, even as the Sherman brothers sing the movie’s songs we all know. Third is that the biggest issue wasn’t the depiction of Mary but of George Banks. Travers designed George to be kind like her own father while Walt was in favor of a stern George Banks like his own father. You could understand how this would cause the two to collide.
The movie isn’t just of the dealmaking for the adaptation. The film is also of Travers’ own inspiration of Mary Poppins from her own childhood. We see how over time Travers had a nanny she thought as magical as her father was dying. We also see her father as a banker but one who believed in fantasy and the imagination. Even after he died, the spirit of his imagination lived on in Travers, even as she tended to her younger sisters and dealt with a troubled mother. Many of us are already familiar with Walt Disney and his fun ways. However we learn more of P.L. Travers and of her upbringing and her own imagination. That’s a good thing because I don’t think most of us ever did. None of us ever expected the author of Mary Poppins to be the stern type. However she was one who would try to come to terms with her imagination as noted in a scene where she’s in bed and confides to hugging a stuffed Pluto.
People should not be fooled too easily. There are many people who think this will be a family movie since this is done by Disney and since this a depiction of Walt trying to convince Mary Poppins to agree to let him adapt the novel to screen. However the film’s depiction of Travers’ troubled childhood as Ginty is what keeps it from being family friendly. Elements like an alcoholic father and a suicidal mother are not entirely for a family audience. It may be okay to bring older children to the film but younger ones are not a good idea.
It’s very rare for a female lead to steal a movie from Tom Hanks but Emma Thompson does just that. She was excellent in embodying P.L. Travers as an uptight prig who still harbored a love for the imagination, though only Walt knew it. She also depicted Travers as a person who still struggled with the memory of the father she cherished. We should be reminded that people that produced some of the most delightful entertainment came from troubled childhood, even Walt himself. Tom Hanks delivers a performance that is more a case of character acting than say mastering a difficult part like he did in Captain Phillips. He was very good at capturing Walt’s fun imaginative way of doing business and he made Walt seem like the Wizard Of Oz at times.
Colin Farrell also did a good job as Travers Goff, the father who was troubled by his job but valued his imagination. Paul Giamatti’s role as Ralph the chauffeur was small but he was able to get notice of his own. The other actors with smaller roles, especially those in Walt’s office, added their own pieces and elements to the movie as well. John Lee Hancock did a good job in directing but nothing that really stood out for this film year. Kelly Marcel and Sue Smith do their best in making a story for family audiences with their script. Technical items like the set design and costumes were excellently done in fitting the times they were made in. And Thomas Newman did a great job with the score.
Saving Mr. Banks is a delightful movie despite being too polished and ‘safe’ to excel amongst the top Oscar contenders of the year. It’s biggest success is the acting of its actors and the telling of the story of an author we never new. Even with scenes of the author’s troubled childhood, it succeeds in entertaining young and old.