Friday, May 31, 2024

Brothers (Somewhat) Grim: The Shermans and “Better Call Saul”

 The passing of songwriter Richard Sherman at age 95 marks the end of an era of Disney-style songwriting. Along with older brother Robert, who died in 2012, Richard was on staff at Disney starting around 1960, working in the early years directly with Walt himself. The 2013 film Saving Mr. Banks, about the filming of Mary Poppins, charmingly illustrates the cozy relationship between Disney and the two brothers (portrayed by Jason Schwartzman and B.J. Novak) he liked to call “the boys.”

 As key players in the making of Mary Poppins, the Shermans gave the world such jolly tunes as “A Spoonful of Sugar,” “Step in Time,” and "Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious,” winning one of their multiple Oscars for “Chim Chim Cher-ee." They were also responsible for Walt’s own favorite, the tender ballad, “Feed the Birds.” In addition they wrote ditties for scores of other Disney movies, while also contributing to the soundtrack of the Disney theme parks such international earworms as “It’s A Small World (After All).” Personally, I don’t think I’ll ever forget the perky theme song for Tomorrowland’s long-defunct Carousel of Progress (“There’s a bright new beautiful tomorrow/ Shining at the end of every day”).  Talk about optimism!

 Though at work Richard and Robert Sherman were an unbeatable team, they were not always the best of friends in their private lives. According to Richard, there was never any serious falling out between the two, but their personalities were such (Richard was a life-of-the-party type, while his brother would rather read a book) that they didn’t mesh well on social occasions. That’s why they stayed clear of one another when not working, to the point that in later years Robert took up residence in England, while Richard stayed put in SoCal. That fact shouldn’t entirely surprise us. Take a look at, for instance, the Bible, where it’s rare to come upon a pair of brothers whose relationship reflects true “brotherly” love. Or check out the very different men sired by the same father in Dostoevsky’s masterwork, The Brothers Karamazov.  

 In movieland, there’s a highly similar dynamic. I could come up with many examples, but let’s start with the film adaptation of John Steinbeck’s 1952 novel East of Eden, in which brothers Cal and Aron (deliberately reflecting the tension between Cain and Abel in the Book of Genesis) vie—with disastrous results—for their father’s approbation and the love of the same girl.

 I’ve been thinking about pairs of brothers a lot lately, because (as a latecomer to the joys of cable television) I’m deep into season three of Better Call Saul, the complex lead-up to Breaking Bad. In Better Call Saul, we see the evolution of the shady lawyer Saul Goodman (played by Bob Odenkirk) from his beginnings as Jimmy McGill, a natural grifter from Chicago who ends up (following a law school education via correspondence course through the University of Western Samoa) as an attorney in Albuquerque, New Mexico. Jimmy is smart enough to be successful, but his every move turns out to be blocked by his older brother Chuck (Michael McKean), a once-distinguished barrister with severe psychological issues and a longstanding envy of Jimmy’s natural charisma. Jimmy loves and admires Chuck, in his way, but will never allow Chuck to bring him down.  Chuck, we sense, has always hated his kid brother, ever since he figured out that Jimmy was their mother’s favorite.

  (Yup, it sounds like a much more serious version of the Smothers Brothers, another filial pair we’re in process of losing. Tommy Smothers—whose signature line was “Mom always liked you best!”—died on December 26, 2023.)


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