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Friday, March 4, 2016


With an incessantly nagging mother and a thanklessly boring job as proofreader for a company that publishes lurid pulp magazines (an occupation some might consider heavenly), it's no wonder that a constant series of outlandish fantasies make up THE SECRET LIFE OF WALTER MITTY (1947).

Danny Kaye's Mitty is an absent-minded milquetoast who tunes out his jabbering mom (Fay Bainter) and bad-tempered boss Mr. Pierce (Thurston Hall doing what he does best) by imagining himself as a courageous ship's captain, a heroic WWII flying ace, a brilliant surgeon, and even a leading fashion designer specializing in improbable hats for women.

Anything to distance himself from not only these two daily irritants but also from his mousey bride-to-be Gertrude Griswold (Ann Rutherford, GONE WITH THE WIND), her bovine mother (Florence Bates), and obnoxious "friend" Tubby Wadsworth (Gordon Jones, ISLAND IN THE SKY, MCLINTOCK!) who still fancies Gertrude for himself.  Any scene in which Walter must suffer these pushy boors with little or no protest is a study in slow-burn frustration that is relieved only when he finally tells them all to "SHUT UP!" (a major moment).

Before this breakthrough, however, Walter is going about his boring life when he inadvertently gets sucked into a situation brimming with intrigue and danger, thanks to a beautiful blonde named Rosalind van Hoorn (the ever-gorgeous Virginia Mayo) who's trying to keep a valuable notebook away from homicidal Nazi spies.

The idea of an everyman suddenly thrust unwillingly into the life of an "international man of action" and trying his best just to stay alive against a gang of ruthless, seasoned bad guys makes this seem almost like a comic variation of Hitchcock's later classic NORTH BY NORTHWEST (even the lovely Technicolor photography looks similar).  The presence of a mysterious blonde whose true intentions are unclear makes it even more so.

Here, however, we get the added benefit of enjoying Walter's vivid daydreams along with him, which give Kaye a chance to show off his remarkable versatility as a comic vocalist and performer.  He gets to sing two intricately zany songs in that trademark rapid-fire, tongue-twisting style which made his children's records so much fun to listen to when I was a wee lad.

The various alpha male characters he imagines himself as during these sequences are wonderfully arch and deadpan, a fun counterpoint to Walter's actual fumbling, jittery, bland demeanor.

The fun increases when real life becomes more exciting and scary than his wildest fantasies and he finds himself hanging out of windows high over city streets, dodging a knife-wielding killer (Henry Corden, THE BAND WAGON, THE TEN COMMANDMENTS), and dealing with none other than Boris Karloff as one of the evil spies.  In the meantime, Virginia Mayo is on hand to gorgeous things up every step of the way, making things even more watchable.

Director Norman Z. McLeod helmed two of the Marx Brothers' best Paramount comedies (MONKEY BUSINESS, HORSE FEATHERS) and is in fine form in this frothy adaptation of the James Thurber short story.  The cast is brimming with interesting supporting and bit players including Frank Reicher (KING KONG), Fritz Feld, "Three Stooges" regulars Vernon Dent, Christine McIntyre, Bess Flowers, and Dorothy Granger ("Punch Drunks"), and several more.

Danny Kaye looks so relatively normal and mild-mannered that it's always interesting to see him go off into one of his wacky musical numbers or well-practiced pratfalls.  The endearingly funny THE SECRET LIFE OF WALTER MITTY is a fine showcase for his talents, which are just as bright and fresh today as they were when it was made.

Read our review of the SAMUEL GOLDWYN COLLECTION VOL.2


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