The Secret Life of Walter Mitty (1947)
Director: Norman Z. McLeod
Cast: Danny Kaye, Virginia Mayo, Boris Karloff
Synopsis: A clumsy daydreamer gets caught up in a sinister conspiracy.
Danny Kaye’s brand of screen humour is something of an acquired taste. Very much of a product of its era, it seems to appeal mostly to those who were exposed to his humour as children. Kaye was certainly a better singer of comic songs than he was a screen comic. His brand of humour was just too one-dimensional, his character nearly always a timid, nervous type who would inevitably overcome his apparent cowardice in the final reel in order to win the day and claim the pretty girl who unaccountably remained patiently by his side while he found himself. It works for one film, and you might just get away with it twice, but you’re never going to sustain a top-level movie career by playing the same part over and over. The only film of Kaye’s from the 1940s and early ‘50s that I know of which doesn’t adhere to this formula is his performance in Hans Christian Anderson.
Kaye plays the title character in The Secret Life of Walter Mitty, a timid, bumbling man who’s treated as a doormat by everyone who knows him. His mother (Fay Bainter — Make Way for Tomorrow) has him running an endless succession of chores during his lunch hour at his job as a proof reader for a publisher of lurid magazines. His boss (Thurston Hall) brazenly steals his ideas and claims them as his own, and his irritating fiancee (Ann Rutherford) shows more affection to her dog than she does to Walter. To escape from all these petty cruelties, he repeatedly withdraws into a fantasy world in which he is always the Alpha Male, effortlessly performing vital surgery or shooting down enemy pilots while others can only stand by and watch in awe. However, he gets the chance to play the hero for real when he becomes involved with the glamorous Rosalind van Hoorn (Virginia Mayo — The Best Years of Our Lives, White Heat) and the hunt for a missing black book which contains the whereabouts of various works of art concealed from the Nazis shortly before they marched into Holland.
The trouble with The Secret Life of Walter Mitty — and, in fact, most of Kaye’s movies — is that his reaction to each development which carries even the hint of danger is entirely predictable: a double take, a nervous jump, a tiny whimper of fear, a nervous stammer; tea cups rattle in their saucers and water coolers are toppled from their plinths. Honestly, it gets to the point where you really feel like giving him a slap and telling him to just get on with it. There’s no disputing Kaye had his act down to a tee, and it is possible to appreciate the artistry of the man even as you drum your fingers with impatience, but his act just isn’t funny.
There are a few modest pleasures to be found in The Secret Life of Walter Mitty, however. The fantasy scenes are very well staged, with sets kept to a minimum. That lack of background is a clever touch, because when we fantasise we focus on the big details, not the minor ones. Virginia Mayo looks radiant, even though her part calls for her to do little more than model a variety of fashionable gowns, and her natural beauty is enhanced by Lee Garmes’ lush Technicolor photography. Sam Goldwyn’s Goldwyn girls are also on hand to lend the project a measure of glamour.
Sadly, the plot plays second fiddle to the indulgent antics of its leading man — James Thurber, the creator of Walter Mitty, absolutely detested Kaye’s interpretation — and provides only intermittent entertainment value.
(Reviewed 26th July 2014)