Richard Sherman, Dick Van Dyke, Julie Andrews and Robert Sherman on the set of MARY POPPINS, 1964
For any lovingly indulgent parent who has suffered through the “It’s a Small World” ride at Disneyland for the benefit of their avidly repetitive toddlers, a wave of recognition will sweep over them while watching THE BOYS: THE SHERMAN BROTHERS STORY. In it, several interviewees, including John Landis and Ben Stiller refer to the song as akin to the Anti-Christ, some demonic plot to infiltrate the mind and drive one mad. One brother even recalls the time the “boys” took their wives for an early test ride and the mechanism broke down, making it necessary for g them all to merrily sing those insidious lyrics for the delectation of the other passengers.
It will then come as a shock to discover in this film that the the tale of Shermans, Robert and Richard, the only permanent staff song writers at the Disney studio, who were rare intimates of old Walt himself (who liked to have them play for him in his office every Friday) and who suffused the world with cheery ditties for MARY POPPINS, CHITTY-CHITTY BANG BANG, THE JUNGLE BOOK, THE PARENT TRAP, et al., is one of lifelong enmity and darkness, right up to the present day. Even at the recent Broadway premiere of CHITTY-CHITTY BANG BANG they barely spoke a word to each other. This doc was made by their sons, Gregory and Jeffrey, as both a tribute and attempt at understanding, who, in the film, both recall their families not seeing each other for years, although they lived mere blocks apart in Los Angeles.
The Disney studios have poured a lot of time, energy and resources into this which is a very classy affair and extremely absorbing. It’s lavishly lacd with film slips – including Robert‘s personal favorite song from my largely forgotten childhood favorite SUMMER MAGIC, the lovely, mellow “On the Front Porch.” The creation of Disneyland is covered, with the Shermans’ songs for the various rides like “Pirates of the Caribbean” cited as essential to its fantastical appeal. As a kid in the 60s, you dreamed of going there, and every Sunday night was special for that music and splashy, sparkling image of THE WONDERFUL WORLD OF DISNEY on the tube. (I remember when color television first came to Hawaii, my 7-year-old self refused to believe that our black and white set wouldn’t somehow be magically transformed to emit every hue of the rainbow and I rushed my Dad through his dinner to dash home for it. Sadly, he, of course, turned out to be right: no magic happened, but it was nice of him to let me hope.) You also see the brothers acknowledging their songwriting papa, , who wrote forgotten hits for the likes of Bing Crosby and Eddie Cantor in the Tin Pan Alley era, and the establishment of their basic characters early on.
Robert was the more serious of the two, while Richard was a blithe sort, whose hail fellow-well-met, unfailing can-do attitude evidently seriously rankled his brother throughout his life. Robert’s experienc during WWII, as one of the first US troops to see the devastation at Dachau, naturally, did nothing to lighten him up. Another clue to their estrangement – which is tantalizingly never fully explained- is an observation made by Turner Classic Movie host, Robert Osborne, who says that Abbott and Costello told the Sherman brothers something Laurel and Hardy had once told them: “Never let your wives become too friendly.” In this tell-all age when people Candy and Tori Spelling just can’t seem to keep their mouths shut about each other, it is refreshing and, indeed, very moving, to see these two guys from another, more reticent era, simply say, “I can’t discuss that,” albeit with a palpable pain in their eyes and voices.
Hayley Mills, Dick Van Dyke and other important Disney stars are interviewed, basically backing up each other’s impressions of the brothers, with Robert emerging as this handsome, ultra-sophisticated artist-gentleman, while Richard was, to bring up another Disney character, more Goofy. Julie Andrews reminisces about MARY POPPINS, the Oscar-winning [for the song, “Chim Chim Cheree”) highlight of the Shermans’ careers, after which, one of they said “Every maitre d’ in town suddenly knew who we were.” “Feed the Birds” also has a special place in their hearts, and Walt Disney’s, too – it was his favorite song and he never tired of having them play it for him.