Saturday 11 October 2008

The Secret Life of Walter Mitty (1947)

Whenever popular culture generates new words or terms of reference, we should pay a little notice, at least those whose new words weren't invented purely for a publicity campaign. Walter Mitty's name still gets mentioned today, usually when talking about someone real and generally with pleasant intent, but I've never seen the Danny Kaye film that most people are probably referencing. I have read at least some of the original material by James Thurber, probably the short story rather than the novel, but the movie has more than Thurber, it has Danny Kaye too.

Kaye is Mitty of course. He's a proofreader, working at the Pierce Publishing Company, purveyors of pulp material: Racy Detective Stories, Sensational Murder, Wild Confessions, that sort of thing. Their motto may be 'Good Taste and Good Reading for Thirty Years' but their new title is Hospital Love Stories. He's a mild mannered chap from Greater Perth Amboy who feeds the pigeons from his window with an overbearing mother (Fay Bainter), an annoying fiancee (Ann Rutherford) and a mother-in-law (Florence Bates) with airs above her station.

Small wonder then that he spends his time dreaming about being a hero. Depending on what sparks his imagination, he quickly becomes Dr Walter Mitty or Wing Commander Mitty or Gaylord Mitty, riverboat gambler: always someone heroic. Then chance brings a beautiful young lady into his life who is full of mystery and danger. She's Rosalind van Hoorn, played with the perfect balance of girl next door and exotic secret agent by Virginia Mayo. Her uncle was director of a Dutch museum whose treasures were carefully and cunningly dispersed before the Nazis could get their hands on them, and while nobody knows where they all went, all their locations were written down in a little black book.

Needless to say the race is on to find it and the good guys and the bad guys are hot on its trail. The bad guys murder the good guys but the good guys slip it into Mitty's pocket. Suddenly he's stuck right in the middle of the sort of adventure he usually dreams of, but in real life though he finds being a hero nowhere near as easy as it seems in his imagination. Then again, how would you manage when Boris Karloff enters your office with the words 'I know a way to kill a man and leave no trace'?

Kaye is excellent here and he gets plenty of opportunity to shine, not just as Walter Mitty but as Walter Mitty in his various dream guises, even an imaginary Walter Mitty doing impersonations of other people. It's quite obvious that this material was made for him or he was made for it, just as Karloff's part as psychiatrist/assassin is hardly a stretch and something that he could do with panache even if he was asleep. Then again, James Thurber hated the film and saw this version of Mitty as nothing like he had intended: he apparently offered Samuel Goldwyn $10,000 to not make the film. Mayo is excellent and in their own ways, so are everyone else in the cast. They're all one dimensional characters, of course, because this is all about Mitty and there's depth galore in his character.

In fact there are many ways you could read the entire film. Obviously it could be read straight: he's the daydream hero caught up in a real situation that calls for heroism. It could be seen how it's suggested at one point: that he's gradually going insane, perhaps by the stress of his future marriage, and his work in pulp fantasy gives him the means. Given the connections to psychiatry, it could even be read as what comes out of a long session on the couch to find the roots of his issues. Whichever way you read it, it works, and while Mike Myers, who is remaking this film in 2010, would seem to be a viable successor to Danny Kaye, I bet the film won't be anywhere near as good as this one.

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