I’ll see you in my dreams…
I remember reading “The Secret Life of Walter Mitty” in the eighth grade because my lit teacher, Mz. Howell was a big James Thurber fan (Yes, she spelled her “Ms.” with a “Z.” She was a fun lady.).
Anyway, the story was originally published in the March 18, 1939 issue of The New Yorker, then later in Reader’s Digest, and follows the life of its titular character, a henpecked husband who dreams of being a hero. One typical day his wife orders him to buy overshoes while she gets her hair done. Walter’s mind is only half on the overshoes, which he detests because he thinks overshoes make him old.
In between parking the car, buying the dreaded overshoes and then some puppy biscuits, Walter dreams. He’s the captain of a Navy hydroplane navigating a storm, a brilliant surgeon, a cunning lawyer, and a World War One flying ace. Every dream has something making a staccato topoketa-topaketa-topaketa sound, a driving rhythm symbolizing energy and assertiveness. In his dreams Walter is always braver and smarter, but he never channels those traits into dealing with his wife and his actual existence.
James Thurber didn’t want “The Secret Life of Walter Mitty” adapted into a feature film. In fact. legend has it he paid producer Samuel F. Goldwyn ten thousand dollars to shelve it. Naturally, Goldwyn heeded the siren call of potential box office success and didn’t listen.
Also naturally, Thurber’s fears weren’t unfounded. His six-page tale got into the movie basically intact. Like smallest-doll-in-a-matreshka-set kind of intact. Walter’s still a dreamer, but his real life isn’t dull and boring in the slightest. Add in a lot of Danny Kaye schtick and some random ditties by Kaye’s wife, Sylvia Fine, and out comes a recipe for…something.
The movie opens with Walter (Danny Kaye) and his mother (Fay Bainter) driving to the train station. She’s got all sorts of errands to run, not the least of which is returning a watering can to a hardware store in Manhattan because the holes in the spout are too small. Who knows why one would go all the way from Perth Amboy, New Jersey to Manhattan to buy a watering can, but whatever. Walter’s gotta haul this thing to the office until he can return it.
Oh, and Walter works as an editor at a magazine publisher, specializing in sensational pulp fiction of all kinds, usually featuring lurid cover art. Yep, dreaming is Walter’s life.
In fact, Walter gets his first dream while driving to the train, in which he’s the captain of a schooner guiding he and his crew through a blinding storm. Within five seconds a gorgeous blonde with perfect lipstick hangs on his arm because she’s just too afraid to stay below. Despite the driving wind and torrential rain she only looks bedraggled but never smudged.
This gorgous blonde winds up in Walter’s next dream as well, in which he’s a surgeon who repairs a blocked anesthesia machine with a fountain pen. The blonde, who’s a nurse, rapturous with delight, of course.
Meanwhile, back in reality, Walter’s home life is rather, well, controlled. His mom orders him around and treats him like a kid. His fiancee, Gertrude Griswold (Ann Rutherford) brings her dog, Queenie with her everywhere. Queenie gets her own seat at the table, her own bib,and she really doesn’t like Walter. She snaps at him every time the poor guy makes a move.
Just in case we don’t know yet that Walter is passive and retiring, his mother has to say no less than four times even when she’s sent Walter down to fix the furnace that he needs to eat his milk toast. Yep. Milk toast. I know it’s a common dish in New England, but the double meaning here is about as subtle as the Vegas Strip. That’s how Walter Mitty rolls.
One day on the train a beautiful blonde with perfect lipstick sits down next to Walter. Her name is Rosalind van Hoorn (Virginia Mayo), she’s trying to hide from someone on her way to Pier 47 and Walter is her blind. They end up sharing a cab to Walter’s office because it’s the least Rosalind can do, but Walter leaves his briefcase with all his proofs with her. Knowing his boss will kill him if he loses these proofs, Walter hightails it to the pier and finds Rosalind with Mr. Maasdam (Frank Reicher), a friend of her uncle who’s just come over from Rotterdam. They all decide to share a cab back to the office, but then Mr. Maasdam gets stabbed in the back right in the cab.
From here, Walter is thrown into a confusing world of thieves, murderers, lost crown jewels, a mysterious uncle, and a notebook belonging to the Dutch government. He tries to tell his boss and his mother about it but no one believes him so they bring in a psychiatrist, Dr. Hollingshead (Boris Karloff) who just happens to be one of the bad guys. He and Rosalind do a lot of running around trying to get away from the bad guys and keep the notebook safe. At one point they duck into a department store fashion show, where Rosalind gets mistaken for one of the underwear models and Walter has a fantasy about being Anatole, a French fashion designer.
Things don’t look great for Walter, but he may just get to be brave for once and tell certain people to go fly a kite. He also might find himself saving a certain damsel in distress for real.
OK. This movie is madcap craziness all the way through. Danny Kaye really brings it in the comedy department. The songs are cute plays on words. It’s really enjoyable in a lot of ways. 1947 audiences loved it, and on a level, it works.
The problem is that it’s a bit of a mess. Every time Kaye has a musical number, the entire narrative grinds to a halt because none of the music relates to the story in any way. That part where Walter imagines he’s a fashion designer is a particular brick wall because there’s a fashion show. With plenty of uber-stylish hats.
There are only two kinds of movies in which a fashion show can work. It’s got to be either something like The Women, which is wall-to-wall fashion and style, or a lightly integrated musical like Cover Girl or Easter Parade, where randomness isn’t going to hurt the story.
The Secret Life of Walter Mitty, on the other hand…well, the sequence is not so bad in on its own (see it here), but in context it’s pretty ludicrous.
It feels a bit like guilding the lily. Does Walter really need to go into a daydream about the Wild West while he’s rushing off to save Rosalind from the bad guys? He’s about to be brave for once. He’s living the dream. So what’s the point of daydreaming about being somewhere else? It feels redundant.
I will say this, though: Walter gives out some glorious comeuppance when all is said and done and it’s pretty satisfying.
Sometimes ignorance really is bliss, and I kinda wish I hadn’t reread Thurber’s story before rewatching this movie because it made me too biased (Variety saw my type coming from way off). I like Danny Kaye’s schtick and his chemistry with Virginia Mayo, but I prefer Thurber’s original story.
For more midsummer dreams, please see Tiffany and Rebekah at Pure Entertainment Preservation Society, a lovely blog that’s had a streak of lovely blogathons over the past several months. Thanks for hosting this, ladies–it was fun! Thanks for reading, all, and I hope you have a good weekend. A new Reading Rarity is coming up on Tuesday…
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