In many ways, it seems short stories are the best sources for feature-length films because they allow the narrative to take the spark of an idea and extrapolate and mold it into something new and hopefully ingenious in its own right.
Author James Thurber didn’t seem to think that was the case with this adaptation of his short story plucked from the pages of The New Yorker in 1939 and turned into a vessel of lavish Hollywood entertainment by Samuel Goldwyn. Reading his story, in itself, gives a fascinating insight into the film version. For one thing, the “pocketa-pocketa-pocketa” onomatopoeia is translated from page to screen.
However, it’s also very apparent watching The Secret Life of Walter Mitty that Goldwyn, for obvious reasons, tailored the material to his star Danny Kaye. There’s certainly no point of contention there and the story probably is better for it.
In this version, Walter Mitty is a Pulp magazine editor and being unmarried, it’s his mother, not his wife, who is constantly nagging him to stop dawdling and do his best to not be so absent-minded. If you actually think about it, the fact this homely mama’s boy is brainstorming racy detective novels, exotic love stories, and horror romances is a bit ironic. Though given his flights of fancy, it’s not all too unbelievable.
Kaye’s spry verbal acrobatics are as limber as ever finding his voice contorting, shrieking, and hiccuping in all manner of ways through all manner of dialogue, monologues, and songs. He also progressively plays up his nervous shtick as he goes clunking around offices, with pigeons flying about, continually fearing for his life while also receiving the ire of his conceited boss.
These developments come with the acquisition of a little black book that very much resembles the one he uses to maintain his daily regimen. Except this one is very important to a beautiful woman named Rosalind van Hoorn (Virginia Mayo) as she attempts to acquire some priceless Dutch jewels.
The best elements of the narrative, plucked from the fanciful comic short story, have Mitty swimming in and out of daydreams. And of course, alluring Mayo plays the grateful damsel in every scenario, cast as his dream girl and later found in the flesh when they cross paths for the first time.
His imagination has him taking on all sorts of occupations from a captain on the high seas to a world-class surgeon in the operating room of a hospital. Then, it’s a daring Air Cadet in the RAF with impressive impersonation abilities. The persona of the Riverboat Gambler made me realize Snoopy has a bit of Walter Mitty’s whimsy in him. It’s not too far a stretch to surmise Charles M. Schultz was all too familiar with the picture. But onwards and upwards as Walter daydreams himself into being a women’s hat designer and finally a western hero. Each scenario conveniently brought to life in front of us. This is the film at its most inventive.
But the comedy of the original story, you soon realize, is that Walter Mitty really is a mundane individual. There’s nothing particularly special about him and yet he takes the banalities of daily life and turns them into something thrilling to ignite his hyperactive imagination. Maybe implicitly it’s about being stuck in the monotony but more overtly it’s simply a tale of a normal, average, everyday person who, when you pull back the curtain, has a deeply imaginative fantasy life. Perhaps there’s something neurotic about it but more so it’s simply goofy.
Although watching Danny Kaye run around with Virginia Mayo in what feels like an inept amalgamation of The Big Sleep and North by Northwest has its intrigue, you begin getting away from its true inspiration. Because the lovable peculiarity of Mitty is that he’s so very unextraordinary and his life is so menial. However, by inserting this cloak-and-dagger stuff, although the film gets more exciting, it loses something of its main conceit.
The best single scene by far finally comes at the tail-end where Mitty’s lives collide and he finally gains a backbone. Calling out all the small-minded, tiresome, annoying quibblers in his life. It’s Walter’s way of firmly sticking it to the insufferable doldrums he’s been subjected to.
But it is interesting how films or modes of media, in general, are very much indicative of their times. Take Joseph Conrad’s “Heart of Darkness” being turned into Apocalypse Now (1979) in the post-Vietnam years and most certainly the remake of The Secret Life of Walter Mitty (2013). It reflected the escape from mid-life crises that many Americans no doubt crave at a certain age. Again, it’s part of the overarching narrative but not necessarily the true essence of Thurber’s original idea. Funny how that happens.