Wednesday, 31 July 2013

The Secret Life of Walter Mitty (1947)

Now that Ben Stiller is about to bless cinemagoers later this year with his take on the classic Danny Kaye film, I thought it would be a good time to have another look at the original. I confess to having been a fan of sorts (of Kaye, not Stiller) over the years, even if some of his output has aged badly. One remembers that Kaye, popular as he was in the 40s and 50s, ended his career horribly, warbling "Thumbelina" in second-tier nightclubs.

I'm pleased to report that the above movie still packs an entertainment punch and is quite possibly Kaye's best performance, although I shall remain faithful to "The Court Jester" as a real contender. Based on a James Thurber short story first published in the New Yorker in 1939, Mitty is the ultimate fantasist, a milquetoast of a man, literally fed soggy milk toast at a dinner party by his domineering mother (Fay Bainter). His life is further plagued by his nagging fiancée (Ann Rutherford) with her spoiled mutt Queenie, her pushy mother (Florence Bates), a boss who appropriates all of Mitty's best ideas at the pulp magazine publishing company where he works (Thurston Hall), and a so-called best friend who enjoys nothing more than humiliating him with practical jokes. As an escape from his humdrum reality, he tunes out these oppressors with fantasies of being an ace wartime pilot, a sharpshooting cowboy, an immensely skilled surgeon and the like. In all of his daydreams, he is worshipped by his dream woman (his frequent co-star Virginia Mayo) and the ta-pocketa, ta-pocketa soundtrack of various machines. Kaye is at his comic best in all of these idealised roles; for example, he operates on a hopeless patient using the miscellany of the items demanded by his mother on her daily shopping list for him, telling Mayo at the end of the procedure, "Your brother will play the violin again; I have just grafted new fingers".

Ironically Thurber hated the entire project and apparently Kaye as well, and offered producer Samuel Goldwyn $10,000 to abandon the film. His main objection was that it was unfaithful to the spirit of the original, with the scriptwriters opening out the action to create a plot where Mitty helps a real character (also played by Mayo) retrieve a little black book outlining the wartime hiding place of the Dutch crown jewels and other art treasures. He is told that his life is in danger: "The Boot wants the book" -- and his natural coward is forced to deal with a bevy of villains including Konstantin Shayne as Mayo's duplicitous uncle and Boris Karloff in full Frankenstein mode without the make-up. Space was also created for two of Kaye's trademark patter songs, which do indeed slow down the preposterous plot, but without which it would be less of a Kaye extravaganza. The public did not agree with Thurber and it was another big hit for Kaye and Goldwyn -- and it is still fine entertainment.

The two show-stopping numbers, "Symphony for an Unstrung Tongue" and "Anatole of Paris" (inspired by an overly camp hat designer whose show Mitty attends) were penned for him by his wife Sylvia Fine. Ironically the second song ends with the words "I hate women" -- rather ironic in the light of rumours that have subsequently spread about Kaye's predilections.

Sam Goldwyn himself was another Hollywood legend -- a poor immigrant made good. Losing control of his own company shortly before it was incorporated as Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer in 1924, he created his own mini-studio which he successfully ran for some 35 years and churned out a variety of great movies. Stars under contract to him at various times included Ronald Colman, Eddie Cantor, Gary Cooper, David Niven, and of course Mr. Kaye. He also created his so-called Goldwyn Girls, a home over the years for dozens of aspiring actresses -- some of whom like Lucille Ball, Paula Goddard, and Jane Wyman went on to forge successful careers, but most of whom existed only to decorate Goldwyn's films, dating from "Roman Scandals" in 1933 right through "Guys and Dolls" in 1955. The producer is also famous for his many so-called "Goldwynisms": 'Include me Out', 'In two words im-possible', and others generated by his fractured understanding of English.

His son, Samuel Goldwyn Jr. is also a successful producer, and perhaps the greatest irony of all is that he is producing the Ben Stiller re-make soon to 'grace' our screens. RIP, Sam Sr!!!
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