The Secret Life of Walter Mitty (1947): Danny Kaye Does Thurber

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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.

3/5 Stars

Review: Horse Feathers (1932)

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At Paramount Pictures The Marx Brothers released a row of comedies with seemingly arbitrary names evoking fauna like Animal Crackers, Monkey Business, Horse Feathers, and of course Duck Soup.  The phrase  “Horse Feathers” is essentially a variation on “Nonsense” though it sounds rather archaic by today’s standards. That hardly detracts from any of its charms as a film.

There must be a location — a place for the brothers to be unleashed upon the world where they can belittle and bash heads all at the same time. What better place than a university campus that pantheon of learning dating all the way back to the Greeks? It commences with a perfect opening ceremony that’s quintessential Groucho.

He accepts his new post by badmouthing his eminent predecessor, pulling on the facial hair of all his eminent faculty, besmirching the reputation of his eminent institution and singing a typically cheeky diddy, “I’m Against It.”

His son played by none other than his younger brother Zeppo has been spending his idle hours outside of the classroom and off the football field in the company of a College Widow (Thelma Todd). Much like “Horse Feathers,” this might come as another antiquated term or at the very least euphemistic. It usually denotes a woman who lived near college campuses to romance male students. She was commonly known to be easy pickings. But that’s enough context. Watch the film and you’ll probably have all the context you need because Groucho wants to get in on the action too — not to mention the other brothers.

However, there’s more important business at hand. Namely the fact that Huxley hasn’t had a good football team since 1888. Even in 1932 that was still a very long time ago. As Groucho notes they’re neglecting football for education. At the behest of his son, he personally heads down to the Speakeasy to dig up some talent. It isn’t the least bit ethical so obviously, the school’s new head promptly heads straight there.

Before he can enter, however, he needs to provide the password and you guessed it the gatekeeper is the bootlegger Baravelli (Chico). Getting inside is more convoluted than you ever imagined. Of course, the actual joint is then Harpo’s personal playground and overflowing slot machine. His hat runneth over so to speak. The steady stream of gags keeps on flowing.

I was genuinely cracking up whilst Harpo stokes the fire with books in Wagstaff’s office Groucho remarks that Baravelli has the brain of a four-year-old boy, and “I bet he was glad to get rid of it.” Classic Marx Brothers.

Follow that up with an invasion of a lecture hall with Chico and Harpo taking up seats in the front row after their typical fisticuffs while Groucho stands by making snide remarks over the professor’s shoulder. Another perfect scenario capped off by Groucho taking over and getting caught in a spitball war with his two most unruly students.

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Next, it becomes grand central station in the promiscuous college widow’s pad with slabs of ice getting repeatedly chucked out the window and Groucho repeatedly breaking up the action and the fourth wall by talking to the audience. He even invites them to go out to the lobby during  Chico’s piano playing. To be honest, I was never that big of a fan. Each of the brothers pays the dame a visit as does her other beau backing Darwin while Groucho constantly makes a chore of carrying out his umbrella and rubbers before exiting the busy room.

We have the resulting romantic date on the lake with the dame conspiring to steal Huxley’s signals. Groucho’s serenade of “I Love You” is the kicker. In fact, it’s very true that everyone says I love you — including each of the brothers — each in a very different way. Meanwhile, Todd assaults Groucho with baby talk and he all but tosses her out of their dingy (in case you didn’t realize, they had Life Savers candy back in 1932).

But the finale comes on the football field and there’s no doubt that Chico and Harpo liven things up. The most storied gags are courtesy of Harpo including a football yo-yo and laying down a minefield of banana peels, and of course chariots. They have no respect for the game. What better way to sum it up than marriage Marx Brothers style. They have no respect for that institution either.

Whether or not its second tier to the likes of Duck Soup (1933) or Night at the Opera (1935) is beside the point aside from being purely dismissive. Watching the boys at work here is arguably as wild and deliriously funny as anything they ever put to film. Here is a comedy that wonderfully condenses all that these brothers stood for as far as comic hooliganism was concerned in a gag reel that never has time to run out of steam. A wonderful summation of what college might be like if the Brothers had ever had the good fortune of making it there. Regardless, it’s a joy to the very last hike and the very last frame of chaos.

4/5 Stars