Lone Wolf Sullivan is a writer, songwriter, and studio musician.

Tuesday, June 02, 2009

The Secret Life of Walter Mitty (1947) * * *

Walter Mitty (Danny Kaye) is a daydreaming proofreader for a magazine whose overprotective mother Eunice (Fay Bainter) arranged his marriage to the beautiful but childishly dimwitted Gertrude Griswold (Ann Rutherford). He is henpecked and harassed by everyone in his life, including his overbearing, idea-stealing boss Thurston Hall (Bruce Pierce), Gertrude's obnoxious would-be suitor Gordon Jones (Tubby Wadsworth), and her loud mother Emma Griswald (Florence Bates). As he looks over the covers of magazines, Walter retreats into his fantasy world, where he is heroic, self-assured, and the master of his fate. Glancing at the cover of a western periodical, Walter imagines himself the two-gun "Perth Amboy Kid". A war magazine prompts Walter to envision himself as a fearless RAF pilot, and he also becomes a riverboat gambler, a sea captain, surgeon, and so on.

Mrs. Mitty: The clock didn't strike. I definitely heard it not strike.
Gertrude Griswold: Walter, what's that awful smell?
Walter Mitty: It's that cologne you gave me for Christmas.
Gertrude Griswold: It's lovely, isn't it?

All the daydreams are very entertaining and a few are especially appealing. Mitty becomes RAF Whig Commander Mitty, the modest hero and scourge of the Luftwaffe in North Africa, while stoking the heating boiler. He is awoken from this daydream by his mother, who orders him to come to dinner. Believing he is still a British fighter pilot, he salutes, and places a red-hot poker under his arm--only to burn a hole in his suit jacket. As Dr. Walter Mitty the eminent surgeon, he operates with the aid of instruments that look like a can opener, a sock stretcher, a sprinkling can and over-sized knitting needles. His icy-nerved Mississippi gambler is delectable too, and for his "Anatole of Paris" skit he is a fey women's milliner whose inspiration for the ridiculous chapeaus he creates is his loathing of women. The Anatole character is based on "Antoine de Paris", a women's hair-salon professional of the era, known for creating preposterous hairstyles. Lyrics to the song "Anatole of Paris" were written by Kaye's wife, Sylvia Fine, and the film includes many of Kaye's trademark patter-songs. "Symphony for Unstrung Tongue" is another fine musical number with future director Robert Altman appearing as an extra.

Walter Mitty: (singing while daydreaming that he's Anatole of Paris) And why do I sew each new chapeau with a style they must look positively grim in? Strictly between us, entrez-nous, I hate women. (giggles)

Throughout all his imaginary adventures, a beautiful mystery woman weaves in and out of the proceedings. Then his dream girl shows up in the flesh as blonde Rosalind van Horn (Virginia Mayo). She hands him a little black book. According to her it contains the locations of the Dutch crown jewels hidden from the Nazis since World War II. Rosalind is working with her uncle Peter van Hoorn (Konstantin Shayne) to help find the jewels, and is being pursued by a gang of thieves headed by Dr. Hugo Hollingshead (Boris Karloff), a clever psychiatrist who manages to convince Walter that he's simply imagining things again, and that Rosalind never existed.

Dr. Hollingshead: Perhaps you are mistaking me for someone else.
Walter Mitty: Oh, no. No one looks as much like you do as you do.

Caught up in a real-life adventure that seems unbelievable to him, Walter attempts to hide his double life from his family and friends. Eventually, he acquires the courage to stand up to those who kick him around and vows to live his life in the "now" rather than in the recesses of his mind. He rescues Rosalind from the gang's clutches, puts his mother and Gertrude in their proper places, and fast-talks his way into a better position with the publishing firm.

THE SECRET LIFE OF WALTER MITTY is a Technicolor musical comedy loosely based on the 1939 short story of the same name by James Thurber, who wasn't too happy with the film adaptation of his story. He allegedly offered producer Samuel Goldwyn $10,000 to not make the film. But it proved to be a cash cow at the box office. It's a very funny movie starring a very talented actor in a big colorful show. Maybe it's just a little too big, for it is difficult to sustain a comedy for close to two hours without a letdown every so often. Much of the flavor of the Thurber character is lost because of the lack of contrast between Walter Mitty's dream world and actual experiences. After an appropriate humdrum start as a timid proofreader, he is suddenly thrust into a melodramatic adventure involving a beautiful woman, stolen art treasures and murder, which rivals the boldest of his fantasies. This turn of the plot detracts somewhat from the effectiveness of Mitty's illusions. The character of Walter Mitty made such an impact on popular culture at the time that the name came to stand for a daydreamer. In fact, "Mittyesque" can be found in the dictionary, defined as someone who is an absent-minded dreamer.

The cast also includes: Reginald Denny (Colonel), Henry Corden (Hendrick), Doris Lloyd (Mrs. Letitia Follinsbee), Fritz Feld (Anatole of Paris), Frank Reicher (Maasdam), Milton Parsons (Butler), The Goldwyn Girls, Eddie Acuff (Wells Fargo cowboy), Ernie Adams (Flower Truck Driver), Robert Altman (Man Drinking), Sam Ash (Art Editor), Mary Anne Baird (Model with Wolf Man), Audrey Betz (Dowager), Edward Biby (Director), Ted Billings (Huckster), and many others. David Raksin composed the original music. Ken Englund, Everett Freeman, and Philip Rapp wrote the screenplay based on James Thurber's story. Norman Z. McLeod directed.

The remake of the film, or more accurately a new film adaptation of the original short story, has a troubled history. At first, producer-directors Ron Howard and Steven Spielberg, with many screenwriters, and Kevin Anderson as Mitty, were going to re-do the film but it fell through. Then it was to be made at Paramount Pictures by producers Samuel Goldwyn, Jr., his brother John Goldwyn, and Richard Vane, with director Mark Waters and Owen Wilson cast as Mitty, with a screenplay by Richard LaGravenese. It was supposed to be released in 2007. Then it was taken over by 20th Century Fox, with Mike Myers in the title role, and scheduled to be released in 2009. Probably owing to the production of this film, the DVD release of the 1947 version was withdrawn from distribution and was briefly an expensive collector's item. DVD extras have no deleted scenes, but there's a scene in the trailer with Boris Karloff and Henry Corden in a pub that is not in the film. Virginia Mayo appears in the intro and outro of the featurette with brief comments about most of her co-stars: "Ann Rutherford was delightful...Fay Bainter was a consummate actress." The Italian film SOGNI MOSTRUOSAMENTE PROBITI (1982) is based on this movie, with Paolo Villaggio playing the role of Walter Mitty.

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