Secret Life of Walter Mitty, The (1947)

“Walter, you’re getting more absent-minded each day. It’s all that daydreaming you do!

Secret Life Walter Poster

Synopsis:
A henpecked proofreader (Danny Kaye) with a wild imagination finds himself embroiled in a real-life drama when he encounters a mysterious blonde (Virginia Mayo) in a taxi cab.

Genres:

Review:
Danny Kaye is at the top of his game in this delightful comedy — loosely based upon James Thurber’s beloved short story — about a nebbishy pulp magazine proofreader who escapes his henpecked existence through a rich and varied fantasy life. The sequences in which he imagines himself a daring sea captain, a renowned surgeon, a WWII flying ace, a fey fashion designer, a Western gunslinger, and a riverboat gambler are each genuinely amusing, as are the patter songs incorporated throughout. The surrounding storyline — involving a “little black book” detailing the locations of stolen Dutch artwork, which various Bad Men want to get their hands on — eventually goes on for a little too long, and devolves into slapstick by the end; but Kaye and his supporting cast make this one well worth a look. Watch for Boris Karloff in an all-too-brief appearance as one of the parties interested in obtaining the “black book” — his opening line (“I know of a way to kill a man and leave no trace.”) remains a zinger.

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • Danny Kaye as Walter Mitty
    Secret Life Kaye
  • Virginia Mayo as Rosalind van Hoorn
    Secret Life Mayo
  • Ann Rutherford as Walter’s fiancee, Gertrude Griswold
    Secret Life Rutherford
  • Many genuinely amusing sequences
    Secret Life Professor
    Secret Life Noose
    Secret Life Gambler

Must See?
Yes, as a comedy classic.

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3 Responses to “Secret Life of Walter Mitty, The (1947)”

  1. Not a must. At one point, I thought to mark it as one for entertainment value (which can often be considerable enough to make a film a must). But, as the film continued (first time I’ve revisited in a long time), that thought left me.

    In a way, ‘…WM’ does, at various points, coast well on entertainment value (and those points are brought out in the assessment). The film looks great (thanks to DP Lee Garmes) and the production/costume design is often impressive (but those HATS!!!).

    The problems enter for me (personally) when I start comparing ‘…WM’ to ‘The Court Jester’. As I said in my ‘TCJ’ post, Kaye (tho most certainly the lead) blends in more as part of an ensemble (surrounded by much more interesting characters). The songs he sings (also largely by Sylvia Fine) are integrated into the plot better. And the humor of ‘TCJ’ relies more on genuine wit and satisfying wordplay.

    In ‘…WM’, almost every main character but Kaye is unlikable (i.e., for some reason, I smell considerable misogyny on someone’s part). Though likable, Mayo is largely a fantasy figure (even when not in the fantasy sequences); she looks nice, says little and her character has almost no personality. The problem such a cast of supporting characters creates is that all they have to work with is their one-note, one-dimensional selves and the film has very little chance to build.

    Then there are the songs: only two, but this time not sewn seamlessly into the plot. They also differ from the ones in ‘TCJ’ in that they seem to border on a ‘comic hysteria’ that almost always seems forced (and a bit unnerving) to me.

    The less said about the slapstick here, the better. One of the hardest elements to use cleverly, here it mostly consists of the variety of running into things, etc.

    I probably do like the film better in its early sequences. But soon it starts to snowball downhill for me, leaving me distanced from it.

  2. I think what sold me on this film (which I enjoyed more this time than when I first saw it years ago) were the fantasy sequences – they allow Kaye multiple chances to legitimately shine at what he was so good at (amusing characterizations), and they keep coming fast and furious. I’ll admit – they flat out had me giggling each time.

    It is a shame that the rest of the story doesn’t quite hold up, but enough of it did that it still worked for me overall.

  3. That has much to do with the early part of the film working better for me: the number of fantasy sequences, which are done well overall. They serve as a welcome escape for Mitty (and the audience), given the fact that his mother is annoying as hell and he’s on the verge of entering a godawful marriage arrangement. Once his real-life adventure kicks in 100%…the whole tone turns sour for me, with the occasional reprieve. Just couldn’t keep my enthusiasm up throughout.

    And those songs! The first one seems such a wild departure from the rest of the sequence that it’s in – kind of like, ‘Oh, let’s just let Danny be Danny!’…without a muzzle. (It did make me giggle later, when he actually *did* wear a muzzle. Private joke, I guess.) And then we get the not-so-vaguely gay hat designer: “Strictly between us – entre nous – I hate women!” Now *there’s* a dark sentiment for a frothy musical number!

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