Wednesday, July 15, 2015

The Secret Life of Walter Mitty ( 1947 )

Shadows & Satin and Speakeasy are hosting The 1947 Blogathon featuring posts on some of the greatest films that were released in 1947. Be sure to head on over to their sites to read about all the great '47 films. But don't hurry there just yet! First, read our review on Danny Kaye's best post-war comedy The Secret Life of Walter Mitty

We all have moments when we daydream. A spoken word, an image, a song, launches us into a realm of fantasy where we place ourselves center stage in the drama. Timid magazine proofreader Walter Mitty ( Danny Kaye ) has these dreams too. As an ace pilot gunning down Nazis; a sea captain battling a fierce storm; a riverboat gambler exposing a cheat; or a square-jawed gunslinger, Mitty is always the hero with the beautiful blonde clinging to his side. With the steady thumping of "ta-pockita ta-pockita" he uses his overripe imagination to escape from his humdrum reality and his henpecking mother ( Fay Bainter ).However, Mitty finds it difficult to distinguish fantasy from reality when the beautiful damsel from his dreams ( Virginia Mayo ) appears before him in real life and pleads for his aid in a dangerous situation involving spies. The clumsy milquetoast also realizes he may not have the backbone to face the adventure he has always been seeking. 

The Secret Life of Walter Mitty was based upon a short story by James Thurber ( The Male Animal ) originally published in The New Yorker magazine in 1939 which featured Walter married to a nagging wife.


Ken Englund and Everett Freeman's took Thurber's story and rewrote Mitty as a bachelor, tied to his mother's apron-strings, and engaged to a pretty but obnoxious young woman ( Ann Rutherford ). They also reworked the story into a clever blend of comedy and intrigue centering around the theft of a little black book containing the whereabouts to priceless Dutch art treasures hidden from the Nazis. Danny Kaye is given ample opportunity to display his comedic antics and particularly shines in the non-dream sequences. While there are many highly amusing moments in the film, there are also some missed opportunities. Parts of the script are inconsistent with one scene apparently missing/cut and Walter's transformation at the end of the film seemed too sudden. Kaye's famous sing-song number "Symphony for Unstrung Tongue " ( penned by his wife Sylvia ) is too zany for our taste and halts the momentum of the picture but his second silly song "Anatole of Paris" is quite entertaining, especially since it takes place within an Irene Sharaff fashion sequence starring the Goldwyn girls. 

It's no wonder Mitty thinks he has imagined these crooks...just look at them!

 "Perhaps you are mistaking me for someone else." Dr. Hollingshead ( Boris Karloff )
 "Oh no. No one looks as much like you do as you do." Walter Mitty

The Secret Life of Walter Mitty was released on September 1, 1947 and received much praise from critics and audiences alike. It seems like the only person not amused by the film was its author. James Thurber did not enjoy seeing his story rewritten in such a slapstick Hollywood fashion and even refused to attend the premiere. He felt that Samuel Goldwyn had discarded his work and used only the basis of it as a vehicle for Danny Kaye's shenanigans, dubbing the film The Private Life of Danny Kaye. In fact, after reading the final script, Thurber offered Goldwyn $10,000 not to film his story! 

The stiff in the cab.
  "Walter, what's that awful smell?" Gertrude Griswold
 "It's that cologne you gave me for Christmas." Walter 
 "It's lovely, isn't it?" Gertrude Griswold

An interesting aspect of Englund and Freeman's screen adaptation is that while Walter Mitty often dreamed of becoming the hero who aids a woman in distress, when the opportunity arose in real life he refused to accept it; not once, but three times. In the first instance, while they are in a taxi cab, Virginia Mayo asks him for his assistance in helping retrieve the "little black book" and Mitty refuses because he is late for work. 


Then, when she asks him to assist her in helping an old man and loading the luggage in the cab, he refuses again because he is late but succumbs when she tells him that they will drop him off at work to save time. Finally, when he tells her that he hid the book in a corset, she asks if he will help her retrieve it and he refuses once more...not wanting anything to do with her or her involvement with danger. But once again, he changes his mind when he sees her tears of frustration. Walter certainly needed plenty of egging to take up the gauntlet and become a knight in shining armor to the helpless lady!

Director Norman Z. McLeod, who had filmed numerous comedies of the 1930s ( Monkey Business, Topper, It's a Gift ) took the helm and did a marvelous job directing this brisk-paced comedy. Special mention should go to art director Perry Ferguson who created a wonderful contrast between the colorful settings of Walter's dream sequences and his dark and old-fashioned home. 


The Secret Life of Walter Mitty is highly entertaining escapism and - in spite of its inconsistencies - showcases Danny Kaye at his chaotic best. The Technicolor is stunning and the film boasts a great cast of supporting players including Boris Karloff, Thurston Hall, Florence Bates, Gordon Jones, Reginald Denny, and Konstantin Shayne. 

12 comments:

  1. Thanks so much for this interesting and informative write-up! That's too bad about Thurber not liking this version, though -- I've often wondered how writers feel when their works are significantly changed. You know, I've never seen this movie, although I remember hearing about it from the time I was a little girl. I think it's time I check it out! Thank you for contributing to the blogathon!

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    1. Yes, by all means do watch it! It's an entertaining movie and it includes my favorite kind of thug - "the gangster goon"....in this case, portrayed by Boris Karloff. That final photo is from one of the best scenes, when Danny tries to contain the shaking tea cup. Thanks for hosting this blogathon! 1947 was a stellar year ( but then, weren't they all? )

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  2. Thurber could have done worse than a movie that's so well remembered, Love that line about Karloff :) Great choice, and thanks so much for joining the blogathon!

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    1. How true. In fact, I was *introduced* to Jame Thurber through this film...so there! I have yet to see the new remake but I'm rather scared too since I doubt that it would compare to this classic.

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  3. Loved this movie since I was a kid. Too bad the writer didn't. I don't know what was most surprising: that the writer was willing to pay to not have his story filmed or that he had $10,000 hanging around to offer in the first place! ;-)

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    1. The New Yorker must have paid Thurber handsomely for his short stories. It's too bad he didn't "not permit" the studio to film more of his stories, they may have become just as famous!

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  4. I think the movie is perhaps a little too long, but what would you cut? Certainly not any of the clever numbers. I think Ann Rutherford knocks it out of the park as the girl Walter shouldn't marry. Fabulous reminder of the fun to be found in 1947.

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    1. I feel that way about MANY films. "Some scenes should have been shortened" I say. But then after several minutes of thought, cannot pick any to discard! Obviously one scene was cut, because Ann and Florence Bates end up spending the night at the Mittys and we aren't told why, neither the reason that Bates claimed she didn't want Fay Bainter to spend the night alone with "him" ( referring to Walter ).

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  5. I was hoping someone would cover this film and I'm so glad it was you! Great review of a classic, I love it for and in spite of the flaws you mention. And I no it's a little long, but I'm always pretty upset when it ends!
    (Vicki, GirlsDoFilm - I can't comment with my wordpress account!)

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    1. I'm glad you enjoyed our review! It is a tad bit over the 90 minute Hollywood standard rule and if something had to go it could have been the cowboy sequence near the end. The car ride in the florist truck to the estate would have been hi-jinks enough. I particularly loved Shayne's performance as "the Boot".

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  6. There is a lot to love about this movie, not the least of which is the gorgeous colour and costumes. Such a great premise, thanks to the unhappy Mr Thurber, and Danny Kaye was the perfect choice for Walter. I'm glad you chose this one to review for the blogathon. :)

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    1. Thurber once said that he based Walter Mitty on the characters that Robert Benchley had created in his 1920s/30s short films. I'm not sure which ones he is referring to, but I can see how he was disappointed in Danny Kaye being cast when he was envisioning a tubby Benchley. But we love the fact that the screenwriters added the stolen art aspect to the story...that boosted it quite a bit!

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