Sunday, July 19, 2009

"The Boys: The Sherman Brothers Story"

A new documentary, The Boys: The Sherman Brothers’ Story, makes a pretty convincing case for its heroes as major cultural figures of the latter half of the twentieth century, especially in terms of their inescapable, pervasive influence: as the only songwriters Walt Disney ever put on staff at his studio, Richard and Robert Sherman were responsible for many a tune that, in the words of John Landis, "drilled" its way into the skulls of millions. The sons of a Tin Pan Alley songwriter named Al Sherman, Robert--the older, more serious one, who now looks like Robert Morse on Mad Men--and Richard--the younger, more effusive, giddier one, who in old photos looks like Oscar Levant--began dabbling in the business in the 1950s, a period when Robert, who describes himself as a frustrated novelist, did a lot of writing with other people. The brothers cemented their partnership, and found themselves on their true career path, when they scored a hit for Annette Funicello, then a teen idol as the Mouseketeer with the rack. That got them an audience with Disney, who set them to work on a movie version of the Mary Poppins books by P. L. Travers, and who was confirmed in his suspicions that they were his boys when the Shermans got ahold of a copy of one of Travers's books and unwittingly built an outline based on the same six chapters that Disney had underlined in his own copy.

The Mary Poppins project turned out to be more of an obstacle course than the brothers expected; ever the dreamer, Disney had put a lot of thought into sweat into it before he'd made any headway in persuading Travers--who Robert Sherman describes as "a witch", his jowls trembling faintly, as if afraid that she still might be able to hear him--to sell him the rights to the material. The Shermans were just two of many Disney employees called upon to soft soap the lady, until she relented and permitted Julie Andrews to descend from the skies with an umbrella in her mitts. (At the premiere, Travers sat through the movie with gritted teeth and, at the end, turned to Disney to sweetly tell him that now she'd have to get to work reclaiming her vision. Even more sweetly, he replied, "That ship has sailed." I'd hate to think what he'd have said to Lewis Carroll or Rudyard Kipling.) By the time the Shermans picked up their Oscars for Mary Poppins, they were practically old Disney hands, having already written songs for The Parent Trap a number of less-remembered Disney features (In Search of the Castaways, The Sword in the Stone, Big Red, etc.) The morning after, they marched into Uncle Walt's office, brandishing their prizes. "Well, boys," he greeted them, "you hit a home run. Just remember the bases were loaded." It's funny how many stories about Walt Disney seem to be about how lucky he was that more of the people he engaged in conversation weren't packing heat.

The documentary is full of interview subjects who point out that the Shermans, who for Disney also scored The Jungle Book, The Happiest Millionaire, The Aristocats, and Bedknobs and Broomsticks and also wrote "It's a Small World After All", brought a musical-theater approach to his films. Another way of putting it is that they helped establish the notion that feature films for children, including if not especially animated features, had to be designed as musicals. Whatever you think of this, it turned out that when the Shermans had helped ensure a market for their work after they left Disney Studios at the end of the '60s, depressed over Walt's death and the feeling that the place was becoming less like a family and more like a factory. They found that they were much in demand by filmmakers who were looking to get a bite of Disney's market niche, starting with James Bond producer Cubby Broccoli, who hired them for Chitty Chitty Bang Bang, and including the makers of Snoopy, Come Home, The Magic of Lassie, The Slipper and the Rose, the Reader's Digest films based on Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn, and the Steven Spielberg production An American Tail. Richard even slips in the surprising information that his favorite of all their scores is the one they did for Hanna-Barbera's 1973 cartoon version of Charlotte's Web.

The Boys was directed by the Sherman cousins: Gregory V. Sherman, who's Richard's son, and Jeffrey C. Sherman, Robert's eldest boy. They appear briefly in the movie themselves, mostly to stress the unusual nature of their collaboration, which is that it's apparently unusual for members of their different clans to see each other in public and not cross the street to avoid saying hello. For as long as any of the younger Shermans can remember, when they got dragged along to public events where both brothers were likely to appear, the rule was to politely say hello and then decamp to the corner of the room farthest from whichever end the other Shermans were seated. It doesn't appear that this was the result of some calamitous break; the brothers just don't socialize, which sort of makes sense when you consider how much time they had to spend trapped in a room together when they were working. (Alan Menken, part of the team that would displace the brothers at Disney around the time of The Little Mermaid, says that he tries to choose his collaborators based on who he wouldn't mind spending a lot of time with, and marvels that anybody could do it at all with a member of their family.)

It's just that, at some point, the arrangement seems to have gotten a little nuts, to the point that Robert didn't think of informing his brother when, after the death of his wife and a lifetime spent in California, he decided to move to London. A number of people invoke Robert's war service, which included a tour of the Nazi death camps, to explain what they see as his darker nature, and there's a prickly moment when Angela Lansbury, the star of Bedknobs and Broomsticks, admits to wondering what could have been going through Robert's head when he saw the action climax to that film, in which a bunch of animated suits of armor and Ang on a flying broomstick fend off a Nazi invasion of Britain. In the end, though, some things can't be explained, just marveled at. The most telling contrast in the movie may be in the interview footage in which the cousins try to get their fathers to discuss their relationship and the nature of their estrangement. Richard tries to, tears up, and begs off, complaining that it's all too "personal." Robert can't seem to understand what there is to talk about. Family snapshots don't have to bore in to reveal a great deal.

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