Once again, it’s down to the wire. I was planning on working on this earlier in the day, but we finally received the last information we needed for our insurance claim–so I worked on that instead. However, I am a big fan of Danny Kaye and I wanted to get this blog entry completed before the deadline. Kaye’s movies must not be easy to lease, as they seem to rarely air on TCM. As of this writing, it appears that many of Kaye’s films are streaming on Amazon Prime, so now’s my chance.
For this blogathon, I am discussing 1947’s The Secret Life of Walter Mitty. It was remade in 2013 with Ben Stiller and Kristen Wiig in Kaye and Virginia Mayo’s roles, respectively. I have not seen the remake, so I refrain from commenting on it. My entry will focus solely on the original adaptation of James Thurber’s 1939 short story, titled “The Secret Life of Walter Mitty.”
I just wanted to use the above quote because it was funny. So here’s my segue—While Danny Kaye isn’t Errol Flynn, it doesn’t matter because Kaye is perfect in the role of the titular Walter Mitty, an editor working at Pierce Publishing Company in New York City. Day after day, he reads pulp fiction magazines as part of his job. He also lives at home with his overbearing, bossy mother Eunice (Fay Bainter). Eunice controls every facet of poor Walter’s life, including what he wears, who he dates, what he eats, when he goes to bed, how he drives, etc. The man can’t even breathe without his mother having an opinion on it. And if that wasn’t enough, every day Eunice gives Walter a laundry list of tasks to complete, all of which he writes down in a little black book. His notes end up getting him into further trouble, since he is prone to writing down the wrong items, because he’s only half listening and daydreaming instead. One evening, instead of bringing home a cake, he brings home a rake.
At work, his boss constantly micromanages him and steals his ideas. Walter also has to deal with his dingy fiancée, Gertrude (Ann Rutherford) and her mother (Florence Bates). With all the constant nagging, it is no wonder that Walter is nervous and prone to daydreaming. Walter descends into his dream world when feeling overwhelmed with his current life. Usually his dreams are triggered by a setting or someone’s talking. At the beginning of the film, while listening to Eunice drone on and on about his driving, Walter imagines himself at the helm of a sinking ship. Next, while at a meeting listening to his boss talk about a hospital themed story idea, Walter is a doctor performing a life saving operation. Later, while tending to the furnace, he’s a daring British fighter pilot during WWII. In Walter’s dreams, he is always the hero saving a beautiful blonde damsel in distress, each time portrayed by Virginia Mayo.
One morning while taking his usual train into New York (and probably the only peace and quiet this man has all day), Walter spots a woman that looks a lot like the woman from his fantasies. To escape a creepy man, the woman named Rosalind (Mayo) cuddles up next to Walter and pretends that he’s her beau. They get off the train and Walter realizes he is running late for work. He tries to catch a cab, but there are none available. Walter ends up spotting Rosalind in a cab and he is able to get a ride. While in the cab, Rosalind asks Walter to accompany her to meet someone at the down at the docks. He agrees, but asks to stop by his office so he can drop off some proofs.
While at the docks, a man hides a little black book in Walter’s briefcase. The man ends up being killed. Later that evening, Rosalind invites Walter to meet her uncle Peter, who is looking for the Dutch crown jewels that were hidden during World War II. Peter explains that he used to work as a curator for a Dutch museum and that he was the one who hid the jewels and had written down the locations in a little black book. It is this little black book that a criminal, named “The Boot” is trying to locate and steal. Later that evening, Walter goes to a department store and ends up finding the little black book. Scared, Walter hides it in a corset inside the modeling department.
As the film continues, the lines between Walter’s fantasy life and his real life continue to blur. Dr. Hugo Hollingshead (Boris Karloff) is introduced as a possible villain, then seems to be a legitimate doctor. As Walter is continually questioned about his actions and statements, the people in his life begin to question his sanity–thinking that he’s losing his mind. Even the facts surrounding Rosalind, Peter, the crown jewels, Dr. Hollingshead, The Boot, all start to become unclear. Walter then starts to wonder if he’s fit to be a hero.
I thought that this was a very interesting film. I’d tried watching this movie at least two or three times prior but kept falling asleep. That is definitely not the fault of the film however, I just kept falling asleep. But this time I made it all the way through. I am a fan of Danny Kaye, though I can see how he might be divisive figure. He has a very specific type of humor and seemed to perform in very specific roles. The Secret Life of Walter Mitty was the perfect role for Kaye. I cannot think of a performer that would be this adept at playing roles that require broad humor and slapstick. However, I could have done without at least half of the runtime of “Symphony for the Unstrung Tongue,” written by Kaye’s wife, Sylvia Fine. This number was interminable and got annoying really quickly.
I loved Virginia Mayo in this film. She definitely deserves to be more well known. I’m used to seeing her as James Cagney’s girlfriend in White Heat or as Gordon MacRae’s girlfriend in the film noir, Backfire. I’ve also seen her in comedic parts like in Out of the Blue where she plays a woman who agrees to model for Turhan Bay in exchange for him letting her dog breed with his prize dog. The two end up getting involved in a crazy scheme to get back at Bay’s neighbors, George Brent and Carole Landis, using the oft-fainted body of Ann Dvorak. Mayo was paired often with Danny Kaye and I would love to see more of their collaborations.
The Secret Life of Walter Mitty must have had an enormous costume and set budget, which is probably why there is some very obvious rear projection used in other non-fantasy scenes. Each of Walter’s fantasies contain different set pieces and costumes. One of Walter’s best fantasies comes on the heels of one of my favorite classic movie tropes– the random fashion show. While this fashion show is short, it is still fun. We watch as a designer unveils his latest collection of hats, each one more ornate than the last. There is a hideous black hat that looks like it was made from human hair. After the real fashion show, Walter lapses into a fantasy sequence where he unveils his latest collection of ridiculous hats, one resembling the Tower of Pisa.
I would recommend this film to anyone who enjoys fantasy-type films and/or is a fan of Danny Kaye, Virginia Mayo, Boris Karloff, and/or Fay Bainter.
WALTER MITTY: Your small minds are musclebound with suspicion. That’s because the only exercise you ever get is jumping to conclusions. You ought to be ashamed of yourselves, every one of you!Walter Mitty finally grows a backbone and tells off his mother, fiancée and boss!