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Tuesday, July 29, 2014

THE SECRET LIFE OF WALTER MITTY (1947)

Comedian & B’way performer Danny Kaye spent his first three pics making retrofit Eddie Cantor vehicles for Samuel Goldwyn, the indie producer who brought them both to Hollywood almost two decades apart. Wildly successful at the time, the films now look awfully forced, surviving on a thread of specialty routines featuring Kaye’s musical mimicry. But this fourth film, an adaptation/expansion of James Thurber’s famous short-short story, is a good deal better. Or is until they work up a real-life adventure to augment Mitty’s fanciful daydreams. The basic idea makes Mitty a pulp fiction writer at a big publishing house where his overactive imagination finds good use; a nifty idea, and one that Thurber didn’t seem to object to.* But once they wedge Mitty into a spy/assassination tale, the whole point of the story gets lost. Worse, the plotting turns dumb & lazy. Still, the outline is there and the dream sequences are a gorgeous hoot, filmed in demonstration-worthy TechniColor by Lee Garmes, along with some amazingly convincing process/backscreen trick shots from John Fulton. And Kaye’s mastery of solfeggio (all that musical tongue-twisting) is quite astounding. Was it shot ‘live?’

DOUBLE-BILL: Ben Stiller’s recent MITTY/’13 (not seen here; a $100 mill vanity project?) didn’t catch on, instead try John Schlesinger’s BILLY LIAR/’63 (with Tom Courtenay & Julie Christie). No official connection to the Thurber, but much closer in spirit. And look for BOOK REVUE/’46 (in various Looney Tunes collections) to see a faux ‘40s animated Kaye in excelsis.

READ ALL ABOUT IT: *You can read up on scripter Ken Englund’s collaboration with Thurber in Max Wilk’s compendium, THE WIT AND WISDOM OF HOLLYWOOD. Thurber was particularly unhappy about losing two dream sequences. One involving Mitty’s death by firing squad(!) and a sort of Irish INFORMER tale with Kaye singing ‘Molly Malone’ straight. (He also recorded it ‘straight,’ and very nicely done.) Both segments apparently survive in the Goldwyn vault.

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