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Movie Review: 'The Secret Life of Walter Mitty' (1947)

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In Greater Perth Amboy, timid, absent-minded Walter Mitty (Danny Kaye) is flustered by his overbearing mother’s continual ranting. But his wandering mind comes to the rescue when the mention of a chore – to purchase a bag of chips – results in the daydream of captaining his own ship, the Indian Queen, through a turbulent gale, with a beautiful woman in a pink dress at his side at the helm. Mitty’s mother (Fay Bainter) snaps him out of it when his driving turns reckless.

After collecting a lengthy shopping list for later, Mitty heads to his proofreading job at Pierce Publishing Company, a firm for visually risqué but “good taste” pulp magazines (including “Racy Detective Stories, “Astounding Adventure Tales,” “Wild Confessions,” “Frontier Stories,” “Exotic Love Stories,” and “Sensational Murders”). The head of the company, Mr. Pierce (Thurston Hall), conducts a meeting in which he reveals his idea for a new addition to their selection: “Hospital Love Stories.” Walter is particularly disappointed, as the concept was originally his – and now Pierce is taking the credit. The lowly employee’s mind begins to drift again, this time envisioning a surgical scene in which Dr. Mitty performs a miraculous operation on a hopeless patient – while being admired by fellow surgeons and inspired young nurses.

Walter’s fiancée Gertrude Griswold (Ann Rutherford) and her mother (Florence Bates) come to visit that evening, where once again, Mrs. Mitty pushes around her son to entertain the immature girl and her spoiled dog, Queenie. While he’s sent to the basement to tend to the furnace, he imagines once again that he’s somewhere else – now a Wing Commander of the RAF Desert Patrol with a heroic record of enemy kills. The following day, he spies the woman of his daydreams on the way to work. Rosalind van Hoorn (Virginia Mayo) is caught up in mystery, murder, and intrigue, involving Mitty in a real life pulp adventure – or so he thinks.

Walter repeats “Yes, mother” like the defeated Norman Bates would mutter years later in “Psycho.” Fortunately, he’s a much less deranged man, though his movements are clumsy and undecided, while his actions are constantly directed by the domineering old woman. Whereas Norman channels the nagging into homicidal insanity, Mitty uses it to motivate the exciting endangerments of his overactive imagination. Kaye is a whiz with goofy expressions and nervous ungainliness that occasionally transform into slapstick; he also incorporates musical comedy into the plot, with a memorably zany skit featuring nonsensically sung words (like high-pitched, rapid scatting) and jumbled instrument representations (called the “Symphony for Unstrung Tongue,” written by his wife, Sylvia Fine).

Based on the story by James Thurber, adapters Ken Englund and Everett Freeman attempt to include too much, throwing off the pacing. This is most noticeable when the ruthless assassin Dr. Hugo Hollingshead (Boris Karloff), in search of a black book that contains the whereabouts of rare, hidden Dutch art pieces secreted away long ago by museum curator Peter van Hoorn (Konstantin Shayne), attacks Mitty in his office. This is followed by Walter’s return home to a game of bridge that inspires yet another reverie – as a Mississippi riverboat gambler. The prior deadly danger has seemingly vanished. Later, the “Anatole of Paris” singing sequence also drags, showcasing fashionably exotic hats (and the Goldwyn Girls) alongside another musical rendition. The themes fluctuate from Hitchcockian conspiracy theories to romantic misadventures to comedic fantasy.

The film does have a few uniquely humorous notions, including Mitty wearing a dog muzzle as a getaway disguise, the repeated escape plan through Pierce’s office window, Karloff’s frighteningly persuasive turn as a fake psychiatrist, and the climactic decree “The only exercise you ever get is jumping to conclusions!” But the nearly two-hour running time becomes apparent as the conclusion draws nearer (itself overlong), placing dry content between the cleverer moments. It’s a story with great potential, in need of reworking to consolidate the numerous ideas at work. “Mitty” is witty (and highly original), but it’s definitely not sensational.

- The Massie Twins

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