Monday, January 6, 2014

The Secret Life of Walter Mitty (1947)

The Secret Life of Walter Mitty (1947)
seen on TV @ TCM

Imagination is a great thing to have. I had talked here once about an artist I knew named Hilda, who believed in past lives. She also believed that imagination was a kind of realm from which humanity draws ideas from. Think of the notion of the sculptor who claims that his sculpture was within the clay all along, and that all he did was bring it to the surface. Hilda's concept was similar. She believed that we don't create so much as we take from what's already within nature.

It's an idea which has fascinated me ever since, to the point where I wrote a short story inspired by the notion. It was about what happens when limits are placed on imagination as a result of man's folly and ignorance. Of course, it's set in a dystopian future - partially. 

In the story, I posited that the ability to dream, to imagine, is something that's inherent within everyone. There have been occasions throughout my life where some people have looked at my art and said things like, "Oh, I wish I could draw like that," and I always tell them that you can if you really want to. Some of the best artists I've known are self-taught. I've found throughout the years that many non-artists see what artists have as an inherent, "God-given" talent, and that's partially true... but even that spark of talent needs to be fanned into a flame. 

I have a friend who's dabbling in photographic art with her cellphone camera because she's always had a deep admiration and appreciation for art in general and now, as she's deep into middle age, she wants to see what she can do on her own. She posts her pics on Facebook. They're not bad. My point is that imagination is healthy and often leads to great discoveries.

I've never known anyone who has perpetually had their head in the clouds, though. I'm sure such people exist, but the idea always kinda struck me as a well-worn storytelling trope that was shorthand for "simple-minded." People with ADHD are known to daydream, for example, but that doesn't make them simple-minded. It's often times just a different way of thinking, in which one doesn't go from A to B to C so much as go from A to Q to K before arriving at B.

And so this brings us to the original film version of The Secret Life of Walter Mitty. (I was gonna watch both the original and the new version and compare them both in one post, but the remake is getting mediocre reviews, so I'm not gonna see it.) It's my understanding that the original short story by James Thurber was something of a cultural touchstone when it came out. I guess you just had to be there to understand, because I have a volume of Thurber stories which I've read, including "Mitty," and to coin a phrase, there's not a lot of "there" there. 

Both the Danny Kaye and Ben Stiller films go as far afield from the story as they do because it's more of a character sketch than an actual plot. While it's not bad for what it is, I imagine it must have been the right story at the right time, more than anything else. (Brief aside: although I lived in Columbus, Ohio for a year, I somehow never made it to Thurber House, a museum dedicated to the writer and artist. Don't ask me why; just one of those things. I barely knew who he was at the time, and I never read "Mitty" until after I returned to New York.)

As for the Kaye movie, apparently Thurber hated it with a passion. I realize this film is deeply loved by a lot of people - and I've already gotten reamed on Twitter for expressing this opinion - but I'm completely sympathetic with him. It's almost painfully unfunny - I laughed three, maybe four times total, and they were more smirks than outright laughs - and the songs did nothing to improve the story. Kaye had a propensity for mimickry and for slipping in and out of different characters, I grant you, but I simply didn't care about Walter in the end. I don't see the appeal at all.

Anybody wanna defend it?


  1. Rich, I love James Thurber in all his forms, including several Thurber books in our family bookshelves and of course, the 1947 film that our family loves so. Hope you don't mind if we respectfully agree to disagree; everyone's entitled to their opinion, so I'm quite at peace knowing you're not as into the Danny Kaye version. Both the short story and the film got me loving every version of Mitty because I was a shy dreamer myself, diagnosed with ADHD to boot. Sounds crazy, maybe, but it really turned my life around in surprising ways! My favorite part of the movie version was when Walter finally got fed up with his so-called friends and loved ones and gave them what-for. I especially loved the startled look on the newly bold Walter -- they looked like he was gonna shoot them all point-blank! Funny how a movie can change you life in unpredictable ways! I'm rambling now, I know, but thanks for letting me share this with you; you're a pal! :-D

    If you want to compare and contrast the film version for the heck of it, here's my post from one of my early blog posts:

  2. I have indeed read your take on 'Mitty'; I read it before I watched the movie, and I was a little worried about what you'd say if you were to read this...! But I have no problem disagreeing about it if you don't.

    I suppose I might've liked it better if someone like, say, Jack Lemmon, had played Walter instead. Kaye had a good way with imitation, but after awhile it came across as gimmicky and shallow to me. I never felt like Walter's daydreams made him that special within the context of the story, which was artificially grafted onto a very short character study. But obviously I'm in the minority here.

    Someone I deeply loved once was also diagnosed with ADHD, which is how I first learned about it. I actually did a large amount of research on the subject, so when you say being diagnosed with it turned your life around, I believe you. I'm aware of how putting a name to a condition once thought inexplicable can be liberating.

    Anyway, I'm just glad you're not mad about this post!


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