Saturday, January 4, 2014

Stubs – The Secret Life of Walter Mitty (1947)

The Secret Life of Walter Mitty (1947) Starring: Danny Kaye, Virginia Mayo, Boris Karloff. Directed by Norman Z. McLeod. Screenplay by Ken Englund, Everett Freeman, Philip Rapp. Based on the shorty story The Secret Life of Walter Mitty by James Thurber. Run Time: 110 minutes. U.S.  Color. Musical, Comedy

Hollywood is always looking for a good story, even a short story. In 1939, James Thurber, a popular humorist of his day, published a short story in The New Yorker magazine, about a man who has five distinct daydreams inspired by his surroundings while his wife visits a beauty parlor and he runs errands.

Samuel Goldwyn, one of the great independent producers of the studio era, bought the film rights to the story in 1945 and saw the need to change and expand on the plot-less tale. He hired two screenwriters, Ken Englund and Everrett Freeman, to adapt the short story into a screenplay. But Goldwyn rejected the screenplay and sent Englund to work with Thurber on a new one, but that collaboration only lasted ten days. Thurber was not happy about the process or the work they were doing. While Goldwyn would consult with Thurber, he didn’t take any of the writer’s suggestions.

With Danny Kaye set to star, the story moved away from the original short story and was customized to fit the strengths of the musical comedy actor. The original story was altered so much that Thurber referred to it as “The Public Life of Danny Kaye.” Goldwyn must have thought along similar lines, since he briefly changed the title to “I Wake Up Dreaming”, a play on the 1941 novel by Steve Fisher and the film made from it the same year, I Wake Up Screaming. But protests from Thurber fans forced Goldwyn to change it back.

No longer a married man, Walter (Danny Kaye) is instead a proof reader at Pierce Publishing in New York working on a group of pulp fiction magazines. On the way to the train station, Walter is driving with his mother, Eunice (Fay Bainter), when we see him have his first of many daydreams. When his mother asks him to bring home Sea Drift soap chips, Mitty sets off as a swashbuckling hero until his mother reminds him to watch where he’s going. Eunice has a list of things she wants Walter to do while he’s in town, some of which Walter manages to write down in a little black book he carries with him. That doesn’t prevent him from hearing cake, but writing rake, which he’ll bring home instead.

His boss, Bruce Pierce (Thurston Hall), is not above stealing Walter’s ideas, this one a monthly publication called Hospital Love Stories. This doesn’t prevent Walter from daydreaming about being a famous brain surgeon, who can't help but impress a lovesick nurse.

Walter's boss, Bruce Pierce (Thurston Hall), doesn't like
Walter's daydreaming, but he likes to steal Walter's ideas.

That night, Walter returns home in time to get ready for dinner with his fiancée, Gertrude Griswald (Ann Rutherford), her mother (Florence Bates) and Gertrude’s dog, Queenie, which doesn’t seem to like him.

Gertrude (Ann Rutherford) was one of the first pet parents.
Here, Queenie, her dog, gets a place at the dinner table.

When he goes to stoke the furnace, he briefly escapes the henpecking and fantasizes he’s a pilot in the RAF, fighting the Nazis by day and wooing a French bar maid by night. It is during this sequence that Walter breaks out into song, parodying a music teacher he and some of the other pilots had back at school.

Showcasing Danny Kaye's singing talents are detrimental to the movie.

The next morning on his train ride, glamorous Rosalind Van Hoorn (Virginia Mayo) attempts to escape from a suspicious-looking man, Hendrick (Henry Corden), by having Walter pretend to be her sweetheart. Walter recognizes Rosalind as the girl he keeps seeing in his fantasies and he agrees to go along. But once off the train, Walter is late for work and tries to catch a cab, but they’re all taken. He sees Rosalind in one and they pick up their conversation. Rosalind notices Hendrick and asks Walter to accompany her to meet a friend at the docks. He agrees, but becomes nervous about being late to work and jumps out when the cab passes by his office. But Walter leaves his briefcase with his proofs for Pierce in them.

He grabs another cab and follows her to the docks to get it back. Rosalind's friend, Karl Maarsdam (Frank Reicher), sensing things are dangerous, hides a notebook in Walter’s briefcase before returning it to him. Maarsdam then invites Walter to share their cab, but as soon as the driver takes off, Maarsdam collapses, dead. Walter and Rosalind race to the police station, but as he goes to tell his story to the police, the cab and Rosalind disappear.

That evening, Rosalind reappears at his office and convinces Walter to meet her uncle, Peter Van Hoorn (Konstantin Shayne). Peter tells Walter that he is the former curator of the Royal Netherlands Museum and when they hid all the national treasures prior to the Nazi invasion, he recorded their whereabouts in a black notebook, which a criminal called The Boot is trying to steal.

Frightened, Walter leaves, but as soon as he enters a department store, he finds the notebook in his pocket and spies Hendrick following him. He runs into the models' salon and hides the notebook in a corset, which is promptly packed up and delivered to a Mrs. Follinsbee (Doris Lloyd). Walter hurries back to work. With the elevators full, he takes the stairs, but tires on his way up. When he hears the footsteps of a charwoman, he thinks it’s Hendrick. Unable to get into the backdoor of Pierce Publishing, he goes outside on the window ledge, crawling to Pierce’s office, where he happens to be stealing another of Walter’s ideas, a pocket sized version of their magazines. One of The Boot's henchmen, Dr. Hugo Hollingshead (Boris Karloff), comes to Walter’s office under the guise of offering story ideas for one of Pierce’s magazines, but when he sees a notebook fall from Walter’s pocket, Hollingshead takes it and forces Walter out the window. Walter escapes by again crawling along the ledge and into Pierce's office, which infuriates his boss again.

At home, Walter’s romantic rival for Gertrude, Tubby Wadsworth (Gordon Jones), embarrasses him in front of her with a joke first edition that sprays Walter in the face. Humiliated, Walter escapes into a new fantasy. In this one, he’s a famous riverboat gambler who wins Rosalind's heart.

The next day, Rosalind again appears and convinces Walter to help her retrieve the notebook. They look up everyone with Follinsbee as a last name and stake them out. A deliveryman from the department store arrives at one such residence, but Walter has already upset the woman’s very jealous husband to the point that he punches out the deliveryman when he brings the delivery package. But instead of the corset, they find a woman’s night gown. They do eventually find the corset at a fashion show. This provides an opportunity for another song for Kaye, this one about a man who designs outrageous hats for women.

Rosalind (Virginia Mayo) convinces Walter to keep helping her.

Walter, however, immediately forgets to bring the notebook back to Van Hoorn, forcing Rosalind to sneak into the Mitty house that evening, when Gertrude and her mother are staying over. Walter alarms the other women as he attempts to hide Rosalind's presence, but manages to sneak off to Van Hoorn's with her to deliver the notebook to him.

There, Rosalind grows suspicious when she sees that Van Hoorn has Marsdaam's passport in his possession, and hides the notebook in Van Hoorn's desk without informing anyone that it is there. Soon after, she spots Van Hoorn's oversized shoe and realizes he must be The Boot, after which he abducts her and administers a sleeping pill to Walter.

When Walter wakes, Van Hoorn has gathered Mrs. Mitty and Pierce, and lies to them that Walter has been wandering around the grounds incoherently, that Rosalind does not exist, and that they should take him to see Hollingshead, a psychiatrist he recommends. Although Walter recognizes the doctor as his attacker, Hollingshead soon convinces him that everything has been a daydream. Even convincing Walter that he has other ailments, including one in which he sees all women as wearing swim suits. (Thurber was so bothered by this scene that he was once quoted as saying it “will haunt me all the days of my life.”)

Dr. Hugo Hollingshead (Boris Karloff) tries to convince Walter that everything has been a daydream. 

The next day, as he is about to marry Gertrude, he finds a charm Rosalind gave him for luck, a pair of golden wooden shoes. Realizing that she is real, he runs to Van Hoorn's, stealing the floral truck delivering his wedding bouquet. On the way, he passes a cowboy on horseback advertising a rodeo show and at a traffic light becomes Mitty The Kid. Against a spare set, he rescues dream Rosalind from the clutches of Toledo (a dream Tubby).

Walter's fantasies seem to get in the way of whatever thin plot the movie has.
In this case, Walter daydreams that he's Mitty the  Kid in a very stylized Old West.

When the light changes, Mitty continues to the manor where he fights past Hendrick and discovers Rosalind, whom he awakens from her shocked state. There ensues a chase through the bowels of the house. They are finally caught and the criminals are about to try to make them talk when the police, Pierce, Mrs. Mitty, Gertrude and Tubby arrive. Their rebukes provoke Walter to finally stand up to them and display his assertiveness. Jump to the end and Walter is married to Rosalind and is the new Associate Editor for Pierce Publishing.

The film seems to almost jump cut to its conclusion. The entire issue of the Dutch black notebook is forgotten and I’m afraid impressing your boss by telling them off only works in the movies. Most likely Walter Mitty would be unemployed rather than promoted, but hey, this is supposed to be a fantasy.

While the film apparently did well at the box office and is considered by many to be a classic, I’m afraid I have to side with Thurber on this one. The film, which is supposed to be funny, unfortunately isn’t. Not sure if it’s the difference between a late 40’s sense of humor and today’s, but really good comedies don’t have that problem; they find a universal truth which is unaffected by the passage of time.

Don’t get me wrong, Danny Kaye was a very talented man. A singer, dancer and comedian, Kaye was a bit of a sensation on Broadway in the early 1940’s. Movie studios, sensing Kaye’s talent and star potential, vied with each other to sign him, but it was Goldwyn who would eventually win out. Kaye, who had previously appeared in some films in the 30’s, began a rise to stardom with his first film for Samuel Goldwyn Pictures’ Up in Arms (1944).

Sometimes showcasing one actor’s talents comes at a price. I can understand why Goldwyn would want Kaye to sing, but the songs certainly slow down this movie. Perhaps they would be better if presented in a straight musical; here they are show stoppers, but for the wrong reasons.

I watched this movie, hoping to like it, but I was sadly disappointed. There are a few funny moments, including the use of the onomatopoeia ta-pocketa-pocketa-pocketa in the fantasies to be everything from the sound a heart makes to a hospital machine to the hoof beats of a horse. (This same sound was used in the short story as well.) But there isn’t enough to carry the day. As another reviewer pointed out, the film substitutes Danny Kaye's zaniness for James Thurber’s whimsy. It’s too bad it’s not a good substitution.

The Secret Life of Walter Mitty (1947) is available at the WB Shop:

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  1. Yes, David..I agree with your overall review; I saw this a couple years ago, and although there is some fun stuff and nice art direction, the laughs just aren't there.