Friday, February 11, 2011

THE SECRET LIFE OF WALTER MITTY: Beautiful Dreamers and Thurberesque Schemers

This post is being republished as part of the "For the Boys" Blogathon hosted by The Scarlett Olive from November 19th to November 20th, 2011.

Some of the otherwise knowledgeable younger classic film fans I know have barely heard of the great entertainer Danny Kaye (1913--1987). I’m here to help change all that! Director Norman Z. McLeod and screenwriters Ken Englund, Everett Freeman, and an uncredited Philip Rapp transformed one of my favorite stories by one of my favorite authors, James Thurber, into one of my favorite movies, The Secret Life of Walter Mitty (TSLoWM patience, you might find an ad before the trailer). Samuel Goldwyn transformed Thurber's classic short story into a delightful and surprisingly soulful 1947 musical comedy-thriller. This was the very first Danny Kaye movie I ever saw when I was a child growing up in the Bronx, watching it on TV on WPIX. My mom had turned me on to the film, being a fan of both Kaye and pretty clothes. I think she enjoyed watching little me ooh and aah at Irene Sharaff’s gorgeous fashions (especially the hats; Mom could rock a chapeau like nobody’s business!) as much as we both enjoyed Kaye’s zany slapstick and wordplay. Frankly, Kaye became my first celebrity crush, thanks to the miracle of movies on TV. It’s still my favorite Kaye film, as well as one of my favorite movies of all time. Such Kaye classics as Wonder Man and The Court Jester might be more consistently wacky, but TSLoWM especially appeals to me because it brings out Kaye’s vulnerable side. 
If Walter marries Gertrude, they'll have to change the title to The Dreary Life of "Walty Mittens!"
It usually drives me up the wall when I see movie characters allowing themselves to be as put-upon and henpecked as Kaye's Walter Mitty is here, but I found myself able to sympathize. In this Goldwyn version, Walter is a shy young man still living with his mother (Oscar veteran Fay Bainter) in Perth Amboy, NJ. The gentle, hapless Walter is henpecked almost to the point of emotional abuse. The poor guy gets it from all sides! His well-meaning mother treats him like a child. (Am I the only one who finds it a tad creepy when an adult parent kisses an adult child on the lips, as is done here and in many other films?)  His fiancĂ©e, Gertrude Griswold (Ann Rutherford of Gone with the Wind; Two O'Clock Courage; Red Skelton's Whistling In... comedy-mystery film series), while pretty and perky, is nevertheless a stuffed skirt who’s more concerned about appearances, her yappy dog Queenie, and her domineering mother (veteran screen battle-axe Florence Bates of Rebecca; On the Town; I Remember Mama) as she bosses Walter around in her maddeningly cutesy way. Then there’s Tubby Wadsworth (Gordon Jones of McClintock!; My Sister Eileen; You Belong to Me), who keeps proposing to Gertrude—which was fine with me, because I thought those two tiny-minded twits deserved each other (hasn’t Walter suffered enough?)! 
How to Meet Cute Shy Guys, Lesson 1: Slip a little black book listing hot jewels into Shy Guy's briefcase. It's a great little ice-breaker!
Speaking of bosses and bossing, Walter has what should be a way cool job as a proofreader of pulp fiction at the Pierce Publishing Company in New York City. Too bad boss man Mr. Pierce (Thurston Hall of Lady on a Train; Theodora Goes Wild; The Great Lie) is always belittling Walter one minute and stealing his ideas the next. Under the circumstances, who can blame Walter for living in his daydreams (nice use of the song “Beautiful Dreamer”)? That’s where he leads one heroic life and musical production number after another as a fighter pilot, ship captain, Mississippi riverboat gambler, and Western gunslinger, each daydream wittily spoofing the genre stories Walter proofreads. 
Our hero is happy to hold the Mayo!
But our hero is put to the test when lovely, wholesome Rosalind van Hoorn (frequent Kaye co-star Virginia Mayo, great together in comedies like Wonder Man, as well as Mayo's dramatic performances in White Heat; Flaxy Martin; The Best Years of Our Lives;) finds herself becoming a damsel in distress. Seems that Rosalind and her Uncle Peter from Holland (free “Dutch uncle” joke, go wild) are up against bad guys led by a no-goodnik known only as “The Boot” (not to be confused with “Das Boot”), with his cohort Dr. Hugo Hollingshead (the scene-stealing Boris Karloff) and henchman Hendrick (Henry Corden, before he became the second actor to give voice to Fred Flintstone, including a brief but memorable bit in The Asphalt Jungle). These nasty jaspers want a little black book, but this book doesn’t have fair maidens’ phone numbers; it lists jewels and art treasures hidden from the Nazis. Paranoia, adventure, hilarity, and budding romance abound. Will Our Man Mitty’s dreams of heroism come true, and will his and Rosalind’s tulips meet?

There’s a sweetness about Danny Kaye in this role that’s always had me rooting for Walter instead of merely
growling, “Oh, tell 'em all to go to hell already.” As a result, it's that much more satisfying when Walter finally does tell off his obnoxious so-called friends and loved ones (unlike such “comedies of cruelty” as, say, 1990’s Madhouse, where the last 10 minutes of Revenge Against The Oppressors was the only entertaining part of the film)!
James Thurber reportedly tried to buy off Goldwyn to keep the film from being made, and hated the finished product. With all due respect to Thurber, I think perhaps he wasn't being quite fair. First off, books and movies have different storytelling requirements, and second, the first 10 minutes are almost straight from Thurber's story, except it's Walter and his nagging mom instead of a nagging wife. 

James Thurber by Rick Geary


It’s easy to let yourself become distracted by Goldwyn’s fabulous production values—to say nothing of the fabulous Goldwyn Girls—but look sharp and you’ll catch Thurber’s sting-in-the tail wit. As Walter's literal and figurative dream girl Rosalind, Kaye's frequent leading lady Virginia Mayo was thoroughly beguiling and never looked lovelier—and hey, the radiant Mayo was a size 12 and nobody considered her a "plus size," thank you very much! TSLoWM also contains two of my favorite Danny Kaye/Sylvia Fine musical numbers: “Anatole of Paris” and “Symphony for Unstrung Tongue;” in the latter, am I the only one who finds the line “He gets so excited that he has a solo passage” to be subtly salacious? My husband Vinnie and I like to think that Uncle Peter's grand home must be located in the Riverdale section of the Bronx, where we lived for over a decade, since it reminded me of the kind of homes we used to see while strolling in the Fieldston area. Also, it didn't seem to take horrifically long for Walter and Rosalind to drive there from the Flatiron district of Manhattan; of course, that could simply be the magic of filmmaking.




Could Rosalind's Uncle Peter be Bruno Antony's neighbor?!
Incidentally, I've always thought the interior of the van Hoorn home looks a lot like the interior of evil Bruno Antony's home in Strangers on a Train; does anyone here know if these scenes might have been shot in the same house/set? I wish the few extras had included deleted scenes; there's a bit in the trailer with Karloff and Corden in a pub that I definitely don't recall seeing in the finished film. On the DVD and LaserDisc (yes, we still own the latter—good thing, too, since we can’t seem to find TSLoWM DVDs that aren’t Korean), it was nice to see the intro and outro with Virginia Mayo still alive and well at the time (and bigger than the "size 12" mentioned in the fashion show scene, but on her it was pleasant plumpness, in my opinion!), even though Mayo only had time to say one line each about her co-stars: "Ann Rutherford was delightful...Fay Bainter was a consummate actress...Boris Karloff was a true gentleman..." Anyway, if you’re not already a Danny Kaye fan, TSLoWM just might make you one!  




"That does it: from now on, I'm working from home!"

Mayo's aghast, Kaye's agape, and Karloff's a ghoul!



28 comments:

  1. Danny and Sylvia's wordplay are always the true stars of any of his films. His machine-gun tongue lays waste to the audience as he tears through the musical ammunition Sylvia feeds him. Anatole and Symphony are near perfection. Acting wise, Kaye sparkles here - he's much better playing a nervous Nelly than a smooth type.

    Karloff getting to play in a comedy is such a delight. What I wouldn't give to have gotten to see him in the stage production of Arsenic and Old Lace, where he plays Jonathan Brewster, a psychopath who undergoes plastic surgery from a drunk and defrocked doctor, and ends up looking like...well, a certain horror star.

    When Cary Grant points at Jonathan in the film and says "He looks like Boris Karloff!", it's just not as perfect a line when Jonathan is played by Raymond Massey.

    They've been discussing a remake for years, with so many names attached it's almost pointless to list them all. They might do a passable job, with all sorts of CGI to make the dreams that much more wild, but I don't think there's anyone working today who could make it as fun as Danny did.

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  2. Vin, I couldn't agree more with everything you said! IMO, Danny Kaye did his best work as funny yet sensitive guys like Walter Mitty and bookish twin Edwin Dingle in WONDER MAN (not that Kaye wasn't great fun to watch as brash ghost twin Buzzy Bellew, don't get me wrong). Forget ...WALTER MITTY remakes; I'd rather have a Criterion Collection edition of Kaye's classic version!

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  3. I'll admit, I'm a bit lacking in my knowledge of Danny Kaye. At most, I've seen three of his films -- but they are a boatload of fun and he's awfully sweet. This one sounds right up my alley. ANOTHER movie I need to hunt up for sure!

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  4. Hey, Emm, great to hear from you -- it's been a while! Danny Kaye is pretty much irresistable, and his movies are always worth seeking out, especially the ones from the 1940s and early 1950s. In addition to being available on DVD, Kaye's films often turn up on TCM, HBO, and the Fox Movie Channel. Keep an eye out for them; you'll be glad you did! :-)

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  5. Thurber has always been one of my favorite writers - simple stuff, but delightful.

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  6. Nick, I'm pleased to hear you're a Thurber fan, too! It's hard for me to choose a favorite among Thurber's works, but in addition to ...WALTER MITTY, my favorites include THE NIGHT THE BED FELL and THE CATBIRD SEAT.

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  7. (Am I the only one who finds it a tad creepy when an adult parent kisses an adult child on the lips, as is done here and in many other films?)

    Hmmm . . . Dorian, you might want to review your list of regular readers before posing questions of what we consider to be "a tad creepy" in films.

    Being an enormous Thurber fan (he's one of my writing heroes), I'm naturally drawn to any halfway decent adaptation of his works, which this movie definitely qualifies as. I keep patiently waiting for a Danny Kaye revival to occur but, unfortunately, revivals for genuine performers are in woefully short supply these days (and thank God for TCM).

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    1. Michael, at least now you and the rest of us Danny Kaye fans can now read and enjoy the terrific book DANNY KAYE: KING OF JESTERS by David Koenig, the author of MOUSE TALES: A BEHIND-THE-EARS LOOK AT DISNEYLAND. Thanks to David and Kaye's daughter Dena Fine, among others, this month has had a Kaye revival, including a 24-hour Kaye Marathon on TCM with tons of Kaye's most beloved films! Now if they'd put Kaye's films on DVD/Blu-Ray, I for one would be the happiest gal in Puppetland! :-D

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  8. Michael, I know I can always count on you for a droll riposte! :-) Like you, I patiently await the day that the scales will fall from the eyes of The Powers That Be, resulting in Danny Kaye's work getting the revival he so richly deserves. Ever see the Emmy-winning but nevertheless woefully short-lived 1969 TV series MY WORLD AND WELCOME TO IT, based on James Thurber's stories? It's allegedly supposed to come out on DVD at some point if it hasn't already, and it's well worth seeking out.

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  9. MY WORLD AND WELCOME TO IT. I loved that show. I absolutely adored it. Wonderfully dry and understated and, naturally, much too good for American television (in spite of having won two Emmys).

    I could easily fill a cable network with shows I felt were "too hip for the room". Along with MY WORLD, it'd feature THE GREAT AMERICAN DREAM MACHINE, MEETING OF MINDS, CURIOSITY SHOP, THE ERNIE KOVACS SHOW and WHAT'S MY LINE . . . and I could call it the No One's Watching Channel.

    For that matter, it'd be a great place to stick THE DANNY KAYE SHOW.

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  10. You're so right on all counts, Michael! You and Vinnie and I really must get rich and then get on the stick about taking over TV and movies and not only putting together awesome new projects, but also getting great classics like the 1950s MIKE HAMMER TV series, BOURBON STREET BEAT, and so many other all-but-forgotten hidden treasures out where the public can see them. Heck, I still wish the Disney folks would make NIGHTMARE NED available on DVD, but that's a rant for another time! :-)

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  11. I love this movie. Talked about it a few weeks ago on my blog. (Great to find other Danny Kaye fans!) WALTER MITTY seems to have slipped through the cracks even of Danny Kaye fans who knew some of his other work. My other favorite Kaye film is THE COURT JESTER which still makes me laugh out loud.

    One of my very favorite things about Danny Kaye was when he tried to play 'suave'. Nobody ever did 'suave' more hilariously. :)

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  12. Yvette, I'm delighted to see that you, too, are an enthusiastic Danny Kaye fan! More people, especially all the young classic movie fans popping up, need to get to know and love the multitalented Kaye (and his version of "suave" :-)). We must all do our bit to raise Danny Kaye awareness! :-) And thanks for reminding me about THE COURT JESTER, another Kaye classic that I intend to blog about sometime in the not-too-distant future! Thanks for joining the conversation, Yvette; come around for a virtual visit anytime!

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  13. It always cracks me up when Kaye says," Well,I guess I could handle myself in a pinch; I do a little boxing at the 'Y'..."

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  14. Java, glad to see that you're a Danny Kaye/WALTER MITTY fan, too! I always liked that line about the Y, among others. By the way, Java, I'll be "remixing" my WALTER MITTY post for The Scarlett Olive Blogathon in November, with more pizzazz and witty captions. If you haven't already decided to join to the Blogathon fun with Hilary and Katie and friends, and you'd like to, here's a link:

    http://www.thescarlettolive.com/

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  15. Whenever I hear the name Danny Kaye I'm reminded of "Christmas Vacation." I'm sure it's only because I was exposed to the Griswold's long before seeing any of Kaye's wonderful work.

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  16. StuartOhQueue, although I was exposed to the fun and frolicsome Danny Kaye's movies well before I saw Chevy Chase's VACATION movies, I know what you mean about Kaye reminding you of CHRISTMAS VACATION. Our brains make the darndest pop culture connections, don't they?

    I read your latest Undy a Hundy blog post, and I really enjoyed your reviews! Hey, everyone, if any of you aren't already familiar with Stuart's terrific blog, here's the link; enjoy!

    www.undy-a-hundy.com

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  17. Thanks so much for participating and adding us to your distractions, Dorian! Danny Kaye is definitely a good topic to write on.

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  18. You Scarlett Olive gals and your podcasts are awesome, and I was happy to be included in your terrific "For The Boys" Blogathon. Thanks for letting me and my ...WALTER MITTY post play in your garden! :-) Happy Thanksgiving and a great holiday season overall to you and yours!

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  19. It's come to my attention that the ...WALTER MITTY trailer doesn't always work, so here's the link just in case. Enjoy!

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ntATWJl6Yl0

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  20. Great blog, Dorian! Danny Kaye is hilarious - "Voila! A chapeau!" - and then dons a hat that is too big for him at the end.

    Thanks for referring this to me. I've had one of those days, and I needed a Danny Kaye fix this evening. :)

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    1. Ruth, I'm delighted that you had an opportunity to read and enjoy my SECRET LIFE OF WALTER MITTY post -- many thanks, my friend! I wholeheartedly agree with you: when you're having "one of those days," a little Danny Kaye fix (and a little Mayo on the side, for that matter -- love their chemistry!) is just what the doctor ordered -- unless he's played by Boris Karloff! :-)

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  22. Hey, gang, just wanted to let you know that there's a book by David Koenig coming out from Bonaventure Press: DANNY KAYE: KING OF JESTERS! Our friend and fellow blogger Ivan G. Shreve alerted me to this, resulting in David sending a review copy in the not-too-distant future, for which I'll be most grateful! Also, he responded to a question I've always wondered about: Konstantin Shayne's house, a.k.a. The Boot, was actually in Pasadena, CA! Thanks to both Ivan and David for their help!

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  23. Just found this post via David Koenig. Great write-up of a terrific movie, one of my favorites. As a long-time Kaye aficionado and collector, I wish that somehow that lost footage of his Irish informer dream -- stills of it are around -- and a Frankenstein sequence with Karloff were somewhere to be unearthed. In any case, the movie is a delight, and let's also give a nod to David Raksin's charming score! For some reason I particularly love the moment when Walter puts the dog muzzle on his head and walks around the department store -- absurb and hilarious! This is a comedy classic that gets NO recognition -- that needs to change! Thanks again for a great post!

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    1. Lisa, I'm always singing the praises of Danny Kaye in general and THE SECRET LIFE OF WALTER MITTY in particular, so your comments had me smiling! The pet store scene is one of my favorites, too! I wish the film's deleted scenes with the informer and the Frankenstein Monster, among others, could be found. I'm hoping perhaps when the upcoming remake hits theaters, they might at least put out a newly remastered version of ...MITTY on DVD/Blu-Ray. Let's make that happen as best we can with the help of avid fans like you and me (and our family, also Danny Kaye/WALTER MITTY fans. And of course, I'm still reading and enjoying David Koenig's wonderful book DANNY KAYE: KING OF JESTERS! Thanks a million for joining the ...MITTY conversation, Lisa, and feel free to drop by our movie conversations any time! Happy Holidays!

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  24. Update as of December 10th, 2013: Warner Bros. has just put out a swell remastered edition of the 1947 version of THE SECRET LIFE OF WALTER MITTY! I'm enjoying it already! Thanks a million to my sweet hubby for the present, and Merry Christmas to all (or any other faith you observe)! :-D

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    1. UPDATE: But wait, there's more! Today, December 26, 2013, TCM will air THE SECRET LIFE OF WALTER MITTY ( the original 1947 film version) in prime time at 8PM! If you're going to be out and about, rev up your DVRs! Either way, enjoy, and Merry Day-After-Christmas! :-D

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