A lot of people went to see the latest Walter Mitty movie, which saw the character propelled into the 21st century in the form of Ben Stiller. Having also seen it, I realised it was time to dig out my copy of the 1947 version of “The Secret Life of Walter Mitty” which was sitting still in cellophane in the cupboard at home. I had seen it once many moons ago, but could hardly recall it, so this was pretty much like a first viewing. Just go to say here how much I like the chapter menus on this DVD, where each chapter title is a different book cover, reminding us maybe that Mitty thinks up all sorts of stories for his job at a publishing company….but perhaps also reminding us that The Secret Life of Walter Mitty was originally a (very) short story, before it ever made it to the big screen.
With both Walter Mitty films still fresh in my mind, I think the older movie is certainly the more charming of the two, and there is also a more gradual merge between Mitty’s overactive imagination and the real-life adventures taking places around him. Ben Stiller’s Walter Mitty undergoes a life changing experience but it is largely down to a decision that he make himself; to go travelling and searching for his photographer friend. Danny Kaye’s Walter Mitty is pretty much a bumbling daydreamer, who unwittingly finds himself swept up in a criminal underworld he had much rather avoid. It’s his good moral conscience which makes him a hero at the end of the day, as he does his best to rescue a real life damsel in distress.
With Danny Kaye as Mitty, the film is acts as a vehicle for his skills as both a singer and a comic. My favourite moments are certainly those where he embodies the characters of a sea captain, a WWII British soldier and a Mississippi top-class poker player.
These characters are certainly reminiscent of heroes that people may have read about or seen in movies back in the 1940s, whereas the Walter Mitty of 2014 was surely inspired by modern superhero films judging by the way he takes on his boss out on the city streets. Kaye’s heroic alter egos definitely more charismatic, and they are downright funny at times too.
Kaye is supported by a memorable cast. Virginia Mayo is perfect as Mitty’s dream girl, even if it turns out that she is as real as the nose on your face. And no better man than Boris Karloff as the villain of the piece.
This older film probably stays true to the short story in that most of the goings on do take place inside Mitty’s head, and his real life adventure in the film is almost an extension of this. He doesn’t need to travel to Iceland or meet Sean Penn halfway up a mountain to grow as a character; he just needs some self belief and the encouragement of at least one other person (Mayo’s Rosalind is always appreciative of his potential to be a courageous man), in order to upturn his life for the better. So for anyone out there sitting around and wishing they could be elsewhere in the world, just try putting your imagination to use and see where it gets you.