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The Secret Life of Walter Mitty: James Thurber and Danny Kaye

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James Thurber

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).

Poster - Secret Life of Walter Mitty, The_08And 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.”

MSDSELI EC017The 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?

 
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Posted by on September 30, 2015 in Books, Movies

 

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The Thirteen Clocks (1950) – A Fairy Tale by James Thurber

13clocksFortunately, one is never too old for fairy tales. At least, that is what I tell myself and that seems to suffice. James Thurber is primarily known for his humorous short stories and blobby illustrations. He wrote the short story “The Secret Life of Walter Mitty.” But he also wrote several children’s books and for several months now I have had a copy of The Thirteen Clocks sitting by my bedside, waiting for an afternoon for me to sit down and read it all the way through without interruptions, which shouldn’t have been hard since it is only 124 pages of large print, with numerous pictures. But my peaceful afternoon finally came and my cat took a nap and I had a cup of tea and read through the book.

In the introduction by Neil Gaiman, he said it is the kind of book you want to read aloud, which is certainly true. The story is relatively unoriginal – princess in distress, an evil duke, a prince in disguise who must perform an impossible feat to rescue her – but the characters and the prose are not. They are quite extraordinary and delightful to read, especially the prose. It often rhymes. Here is an example of what I mean. The Duke is rather sensitive about things relating to his gloves. A traveler is talking to a prince disguised as a minstrel who called the Duke’s gloves mittens when,

A black figure in velvet mask and hood and cloak disappeared behind a tree. “The cold Duke’s spy-in-chief,” the traveler said, “a man named Whisper. Tomorrow he will die.” The minstrel waited. “He’ll die because, to name your sins, he’ll have to mention mittens. I leave at once for other lands, since I have mentioned mittens.” He sighed. “You’ll never live to wed his niece. You’ll only die to feed his geese. Goodbye, good night, and sorry.”

You almost want to read it aloud in a singsong voice. The Duke is an evil man with cold hands. “His hands were as cold as his smile and almost as cold as his heart.” All the clocks in his castle have stopped and he claims to have killed time. He also has a niece, who has the only warm hands in the castle and whenever a suitor entreats her warm hand in marriage, he assigns an impossible task that they are guaranteed to fail in, like cutting a slice of the moon off or hunting the thorny Boar of Borythorn, which does not exist. But when a prince arrives, disguised as a minstrel, he is assisted by the Golux, “the only Golux in the world and not a mere Device” who also has an “indescribable hat.” As unreliable as the Golux seems to be, this makes all the difference in the world. He may be forgetful and make stories up that he subsequently believes because he forgot he made them up, but as he says, “I make mistakes, but I am on the side of Good.” and “must always be on hand when people are in peril.” The prince must place his trust in the Golux, despite his frequent unease with him.

13clocks (1)Perhaps the real reason to read this story is for the language. I’ve read a surprising number of negative reviews for this book, so I think this is the kind of book where you really have to appreciate wordplay, paradoxes, whimsy, and riddles. Conveniences and coincidences and surprises abound with so much brazenness, as if Thurber were delighting in making the story as whimsically coincidental as he could. As Sonja Bollle pointed out in her article, Thurber is having fun with this when the Duke exclaims at the Golux near the end ‘”You mere Device!” he gnarled. “You platitude! You Golux ex machina!”‘

Thurber’s characters are also unforgettable. Besides the Duke and the Golux there are the Duke’s three spies: Whisper, Hark and Listen. Whisper is the spy master in chief, Hark is rather snarky, even to the Duke, while Listen is invisible. There is also Hagga, who cries tears of precious jewels. And there is the Todal, a creature that can’t be killed who is “an agent of the devil, sent to punish evildoers for having done less evil than they should.” The mere mention of his name is enough to make locks of people’s hair turn white, or even their mask turn grey.

There is quite a streak of dark humor in The 13 Clocks. The books ends, not with the happy couple – though they are a happy couple – but with the demise of the Duke. Quite chilling, in a funny, creative kind of way. The whole book is filled with little snippets of dark humor. One of the Duke’s methods of disposing of people is to have them fed to the geese. Children have died in his castle for trampling his camellias. Hagga’s tears/jewels of sorrow last forever, but her tears/jewels of laughter last only a fortnight (fourteen days) before turning back into tears. But perhaps all good fairy tales are actually quite dark, if you think about them.

It is such a quotable book, I can’t resist one last quote. As the Duke says,

“We all have flaws,” he said, “and mine is being wicked.”

 
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Posted by on March 11, 2015 in Children's Literature

 

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