Thursday, December 24, 2009

The Secret Life of Walter Mitty (1947)

After seeing Danny and Sylvia, the off-Broadway musical about Danny Kaye's relationship with his songwriter wife Sylvia Fine, I've been in the mood to watch his movies, and The Secret Life of Walter Mitty has always been one of my favorites. Drawn from James Thurber's eponymous short story (though he was seriously against the final cut of the film), it centers on Walter Mitty (Danny Kaye), a clumsy chronic daydreamer who works for a pulp fiction magazine and lives with his domineering mother (Fay Bainter). He's engaged to Gertrude (Ann Rutherford), the airhead daughter of his mother's friend, but fantasizes about being a dashing hero to a mysterious blonde (Virginia Mayo).

After taking a late train to work one morning, he finds himself sitting next to the woman in his dreams, Rosalind Van Horn, who asks his help after he witnesses her elderly friend get stabbed to death. Her uncle was the keeper of Dutch art treasures hidden during WWII, and an evil German group known as The Boot is after a little black book with the secret locations of these treasures. Soon Mitty finds himself in possession of the book, and hunted down by scary men. His family assumes it's all part of some delusion from too much daydreaming and pulp novels, and he becomes unsure what's real or imagined.

This was made as a vehicle for star Danny Kaye, a talented singer, tongue-twister, impersonator, and all-around entertainer. He captures the innocence and shyness of Mitty perfectly, allowing us a few glimpses of the wannabe brave hero within. He's always a very likable actor, and he infuses the character with this easy affability and inept charm, and is definitely the heart of the film. I also really love Virginia Mayo, who made several films with Kaye. She carries herself with this dignity and grace, but still radiates a palpable warmth. Fay Bainter is also pretty good as the pushy, nagging mother, reminiscent of Josephine Hull's performance as the uptight sister in Harvey. And of course, there's Boris Karloff, playing a scary bad guy/psychiatrist who elicits one of the best lines from Mitty: "No one can look as much like you do as you do!" Good one.

The script is quite funny, aided by Kaye's natural abilities, but sharp and clever on its own merit. The different fantasy scenes (some are right out of the short story, but many are made up for the film) are inventive and fun- from a Southern riverboat card player to a medical/technical genius, Mitty's alter-ego's are funny and referential. The real-life story is a little poorly plotted and structured, but still enjoyable and I really love the premise of a daydreamer thrust into a dangerous thriller but unable to separate reality and imagination. And of course, several great songs are peppered throughout, including "Anatole of Paris", one of Sylvia Fine's best.

The Secret Life of Walter Mitty always makes me think of a line from Amelie: "Times are hard for dreamers", a lovely sentiment that really evokes a sort of sadness within the comic character of Walter Mitty. Surrounded by domineering, judgmental, and self-absorbed people, he is never really understood by anyone. He slips into day dreams as a means of escape from the dullness and isolation of his life. The short story makes this tragic aspect a bit more obvious. The movie is more of a straight comedy, but I think this extra layer is still made apparent, mainly through Kaye's performance and that excellent speech he gives at the end. Great job, movie.


PS If anyone is interested, the British film Billy Liar has a similar premise and feel to this film. It'd make a good double feature, I'd wager.


  1. This film has drifted in and out of 'out of print' status, and it should be a must-see for all Karloff fans, too.