The Secret Life of Walter Mitty (1947)

Signs of modern chivalry – the protagonist lives in a world, imagines himself to be the saviour and all the adjectives that can be used to describe the man known as a ‘hero.’

Walter Mitty comes across as a simple guy laced with innocence and a penchant to escape from reality, putting himself in extraordinary situations, lost in a world woolgathering with the focus entirely on his escapades involving a woman caught in a web of helplessness.

In the event of hopelessness and adversity, Walter is their go-to man, displaying guts of a bravado, prowess in entertainment, or just about any field – he is a master of it all.

The story was presented last December to the audience repackaged, keeping in mind today’s generation. In the past week, I have the opportunity to retro-analyze this theme of Walter Mitty.

Having got impressed with Ben Stiller’s direction, I watched the 1947 version of Walter Mitty’s Secret Life. Both these movies were based on the character created by ‘James Thurber’. It all started as a short story in 1939 for a New Yorker edition, became popular with the readers, which led to few radio adaptations and a major motion film in 1947.

Watching Ben Stiller and his secret life becoming public with each scene was an unbelievable experience. I was impressed by the screenplay and the breathtaking cinematography – which captured the essence and conveyed the story effectively. He is shown in America, Greenland, Iceland, and Afghanistan – all this a real visual treat. Though the story was adapted for the present audience, it does remarkable justice to this literary creation.

Comparing two movies of the same theme sixty years apart is not fair. I would have been disappointed if the story had no difference between the two versions. The former movie suited the audience sentiments and the preference of producers post-WW II – keeping in mind movies were business in the form of entertainment to the public.

Though the business element has not changed much, the same subject’s preferential treatments across different eras have evolved immensely.

From scene one in the original movie, the storyline and characters introduced are different from the short story.

The original story’s small plot was stretched to suit the major feature film standards barring few dream sequences.

The constant connection between the book and the movie is the adjective -Mittyesque, a condition given to unrealistic flights of fancy and escapist daydreams that the title character suffers from.

This condition could be from the fact that he works as an editor for a book publishing firm.

The narration is simple, interwoven with Walter’s frequent tendencies to dream about being a heroism symbol. Captain of the sinking ship, a multi-faceted surgeon, a WWII fighter pilot, a gambler, a French designer or a rodeo – he wins the heart of all, and in particular, a ‘dream girl’ who by coincidence turns out to be real and ends up being Mrs. Walter Mitty.

The movie is an entertainer. The tandem management with scriptwriters ensures a constant supply of comedy, idiosyncratic pantomimes, and songs most suited for an actor like Danny Kaye.

Walter is frequently bossed around by his mother, Mrs. Eunice Mitty. At work, it is his idea-stealing boss Bruce Pierce. Walter’s kid-wit fiancée Gertrude Griswald, Gertrude’s loud-mouthed mother, and Tubby Wadsworth, who woos Gertrude repeatedly and shamelessly form his world.

His daily life revolves around them. Not to forget his habit of straying away to a  dreamland, lost in the thoughts and actions, creating his heroic tales only to be climaxed by his transportation back to the real world.

His mundane life takes an exciting turn when he meets a mysterious woman, Rosalind van Hoorn who coincidentally fits and resembles the girl of his dreams perfectly. Rosalind works with her uncle to recover the lost Dutch treasure from WW II, and Mitty accidentally becomes an essential part of this rescue mission. His boring life becomes exciting and adventurous – the stuff of his dreams. With all the courage previously unknown to him, he helps Rosalind and ends up marrying his ‘dream girl.’

Author James Thurber based his character Walter Mitty on his friend, writer Robert Benchley. Thurber said that he got the idea for Mitty from Benchley’s character in a series of shorts that he made for Fox and MGM, respectively, in the 1920s and 1930s.

James Thurber, the author of the short story, acted as a consultant for a brief period to contribute significantly to the plot, which ended up in a bitter fight.

The script was modified as the producer Samuel Goldwyn demanded the movie to be written to showcase Danny Kaye’s talents.

Thurber, who was unhappy, went on record saying that he hated this film and that Danny Kaye’s interpretation of Mitty is nothing at all like he intended the character to be.

How would he have reacted to Ben Stiller’s portrayal of Walter Mitty? The 2013 movie was well made, and I was mighty impressed with the subject’s treatment.

However, the 1940s was a different era, and personally, some of the dream sequences involving Danny Kaye were a bit of a drag, and the editors could have kept it short, keeping in mind this wasn’t a musical in the first place.

Nevertheless, Danny Kaye performs remarkably throughout the movie displaying his repertoire as an entertainer, while Virginia Mayo’s presence as Rosalind and as ‘dream girl’ will not go unnoticed.

If you can spare 110 minutes of your time and have a hint of inclination towards yesteryears’ musical-comedies, then I suggest this movie be entertaining, if not a masterpiece!