When James Thurber’s short story, “The Secret Life of Walter Mitty,” was adapted into a movie starring Danny Kaye in 1947, Thurber was not pleased with the results. The story had become a Danny Kaye vehicle and he loathed the tongue-twisting patter scat songs Kaye sang. Some of Thurber’s fans complained, too. But the film did well and was one of Danny Kaye’s biggest hits.
James Thurber was a humorist and cartoonist who mostly wrote for The New Yorker. The most famous of his short stories is “The Secret Life of Walter Mitty,” which I was somewhat surprised to discover is only seven pages long (approximately 200 times shorter than Tolstoy’s War and Peace). I was also surprised to discover that for being a humorist, his most famous short story is actually faintly depressing.
Appearing in The New Yorker in 1939 and anthologized in My World and Welcome To It in 1942, Thurber’s story is less a story and more a snapshot illustrating the life of a middle-class man. Absent-minded, ineffectual (can’t even put chains on his car), under his wife’s thumb, he’s on the dreaded weekly shopping trip with his wife to buy things he doesn’t care about (like overshoes). His wife is there to have her hair done.
Walter Mitty is also a daydreamer and the short story opens with him imagining that he is a daring pilot, until his wife chides him for driving too fast. As the day goes by, he continues to drift in and out of heroic dreams, incorporating what he sees in passing until he is jolted back into reality by some person. He is at turns a surgeon, a man on trial, and a bomber pilot.
A little bit of the short story does make it into the movie. Danny Kaye’s Mitty imagines he’s a surgeon (also a cowboy, a Mississippi River gambler, a fighter pilot, a ship’s captain in a hurricane). Several of James Thurber’s nonsense words (he liked to make up words; his fairy tale, The Thirteen Clocks, is brimming with them) make it into the movie, too. Whenever Mitty is dreaming, in the background can be heard ta-pocketa-pocketa and he uses other made-up words like coreopsis during the surgeon dream sequence. That’s one thing Danny Kaye and James Thurber did have in common, whether they realized it or not, though it manifested itself differently. They both made up words. Actually, it was Danny Kaye’s wife, Sylvia Fine, who made up words for many of Kaye’s nonsense songs, which provide a dazzling display of wordplay, made up words, rhymes and nonsense. The difference is irony. Both are whimsical, but Thurber is ironic and Kaye is exuberantly silly (I don’t mean that negatively).
And so Danny Kaye’s The Secret Life of Walter Mitty is fundamentally different. Instead of being ineffectual (he’s actually very good at his job working for a pulp magazine, though his boss steals all his ideas), he is a meek man who must learn to assert himself. Instead of a wife, he has a bossy mother and a fiance with a bossy mother. But in all his daydreams, he always sees the same woman (played by Virginia Mayo) and after having dreamed so much, even when a real conspiracy does fall in his lap, he can hardly tell if it’s real or not. It doesn’t help that the woman of his dreams is the same woman in the real conspiracy.
As a side note, there is a small role in the film for Boris Karloff, who plays a villainous psychiatrist and I only wish he could have been in the film more. He’s trying to convince Mitty that everything that happened was just another dream and he leans over him and asks, “Now why don’t you like me?” Mitty emerges from behind the sofa to tell him: “because you tried to push me out a window.” It’s unanswerable and cracks me up every time. If my psychiatrist looked like Boris Karloff, I’d be hiding behind the sofa, too.
But in the movie, the daydreaming is partially the source of Mitty’s creativity and what makes him so good at his job. It could be seen as an escape from being so henpecked, but not necessarily. But in the short story, Mitty’s daydreaming has an entirely different cause. He really is daydreaming as an escape from life, where he’s dismissed and not taken seriously. It’s interesting that Thurber wrote “The Secret Life of Walter Mitty” in 1939. There is even a reference in the story to a coming war. But Mitty doesn’t seem like he’ll have much part in it.
“Doesn’t it ever occur to you that I am sometimes thinking?” he asks his wife at one point, when she interrupts him. Her reply? “I’m going to take your temperature when I get home.”
The ending is particularly ambiguous. The final daydream that Thurber records happens when Mitty is assumed, again, not to have any individuality outside of his wife. He stands beside a wall and lights a cigarette, which then morphs into a fantasy about how he is bravely facing a firing squad, “Walter Mitty the Undefeated, inscrutable to the last.” You almost wonder if he’s contemplating suicide, but I suspect it is more a symbolic death. His personality or individuality has been shot (by society, by his wife, by his own ineffectuality?), but he can retain a shred of it through his dreams.
I don’t think I’ve properly dwelt on how humorously the story is written, though I found it a bit of a downer. But Thurber’s tone is light, which makes a serious story much more pointed, in some ways. If you are interested in reading Thurber’s “The Secret Life of Walter Mitty,” it can be found here. I have not seen Ben Stiller’s The Secret Life of Walter Mitty, but I would be interested in knowing what his take on Thurber’s story is. Was it inspired by the movie or the short story or a completely new creation?