The dark side of Disney

Anyone who has been to the cinema in the last week or so may have been intrigued by a trailer for the forthcoming film, Saving Mr Banks. The film stars the oh-so-wholesome Tom Hanks and his almost equally fragrant counterpart, Emma Thompson, but the subject matter is somewhat dark.

It purports to be the “never-before-told” story behind the making of the Walt Disney film of Mary Poppins, based on the book by the Australian writer, P L Travers.

Hanks plays Disney, while Thompson plays Travers. On hand to play the Jewish songwriting brothers Richard and Robert Sherman are Jason Schwartzman and B J Novak. Novak’s father co-wrote The Big Book of Jewish Humour and, with his wife, even established a Jewish matchmaking service; Schwartzman’s father is Jewish.

So there is a certain amount of knowingness on the part of the casting director: two Wasps playing two Wasps, one and a half Jews playing two Jews.

‘Ok Davy, off you go to work for those Jews’

From the trailer, Walt Disney is portrayed as avuncular, benevolent, twinkly, doing his utmost to win round a stroppy and recalcitrant P L Travers, who, it is well-known, hated what Walt had in mind. Eventually, Disney pretty much washed his hands of Travers and left it to the Shermans to mount a major charm offensive. Even so, Travers was famously not invited to the premiere of the Mary Poppins film and when she tried to complain again to Disney was told firmly, “Pamela, that ship has sailed.”

I can’t imagine that Saving Mr Banks reflects just how unpleasant both Disney and Travers were in their own particular ways. Despite the best endeavours of successive biographers, including, most recently, Neal Gabler, the allegations of racism and antisemitism continue to hang around Walt Disney.

Most likely he, like others of his age and background, disliked Jews more than strictly necessary: some of Disney’s early cartoons buy into deeply dodgy anti-Jewish stereotypes — Three Little Pigs features the Big Bad Wolf dressed as a Jewish pedlar — and the man himself did little to dissociate himself from the most unsavoury of his associates.

For example, animator Art Babbitt, who admittedly loathed Disney, claimed that Disney and his lawyer, Gunther Lessing, attended meetings of the German American Bund, a pro-Nazi organisation, in the late 1930s.

In 1939, Walt Disney welcomed German film-maker and Nazi propagandist Leni Riefenstahl to Hollywood to promote her film, Olympia. He had invited her before Kristallnacht, in November 1938, but didn’t bother to withdraw the invitation once it became clear what was happening in Nazi Germany. Or again, another animator, David Swift, who was Jewish, told a biographer that when in 1938, he informed Disney that he was leaving to take a job at Columbia Pictures, Disney responded — in a feigned Yiddish accent — “Okay, Davy boy, off you go to work for those Jews. It’s where you belong, with those Jews.” Charming.

Meanwhile P L Travers, who pretended very hard to be British despite being Australian, drove the Sherman Brothers mad. Robert Sherman described her as “a witch” and though the Shermans vehemently rejected the idea of Disney being antisemitic, he couldn’t say anything good about Travers.

In an interview he gave me in London, Robert Sherman recalled that Travers insisted on taping every conversation the three of them had — “more than 40 hours of tape” — and was unsurprised to learn from a biography of Travers that she wrote book reviews for the New Pioneer, an unashamedly antisemitic monthly magazine run by John Beckett, founder of the Fascist British People’s Party. Travers told the brothers: “I don’t want any of your songs. I only want Greensleeves.”

The question is, then, why, apart from a venal desire to make money, should Hollywood celebrate the lives of these two rotten individuals, and present them, through the prism of respected and probably well-intentioned actors, as though they were in any way admirable? I wonder if Disney’s or Travers’s distasteful proclivities are reflected in this film. I doubt it. But then, as the Sherman brothers so wisely advised: A Spoonful of Sugar Helps the Medicine Go Down.

Last updated: 3:02pm, January 10 2014