07 October, 2013

The Secret Life Of Walter Mitty

           Thank you for allowing me yet another of my “Top 5 Retrospectives.”  So far we have Bob Hope and Errol Flynn.  Today we begin anew, this time with the incomparable Danny Kaye.  And if you don’t know Danny, well, I promise you’re in for a real treat.

            With this year's [2013] exhibit at The Walt Disney Concert Hall, part of his centennial celebration (Kaye was born in Brooklyn in 1913), and this Christmas’ release of Ben Stiller’s new version of the classic ‘The Secret Life Of Walter Mitty’ (and the holiday coinciding nicely with Kaye’s classic ‘White Christmas’) – I thought it a perfect time to share insights on one of our greatest performers:

            David Daniel Kaminsky --

            -- Mr. Danny Kaye.

            Though he made only seventeen films, he’s not only widely considered one of our great entertainers, but remains a fan favorite re-run after re-run. 

            As you know from my previous “Top 5s,” I’m not here to write a Biography or even (particularly) a Critique.  But if you know Mr. Kaye, you know what I’m talking about;  why he deserves a “Top 5.”  He was one of the best cabaret, vaudeville, song-and-dance, film and TV personalities of his or any other time.  And I say “personalities” very intentionally.  He was never going to be Brando;  didn’t want to be.  But watch him sing, dance, rattle-off the likes of “Symphony For An Unstrung Tongue” in our film today, or verbally spat with Bing Crosby, Angela Lansbury, Virginia Mayo, Basil Rathbone and Dinah Shore and you see him reign;  and not just in ‘Court Jester’ (yes, both that and 'White Christmas' will be in our “Top 5”). 

            After all, “these are her shoes!” 

            (We’ll get there.)

            ‘The Secret Life Of Walter Mitty’
            w Ken Englund and Everett Freeman from the Story by James Thurber
            d Norman Z. McLeod

            As I wrote in the Flynn Retrospective that ‘Robin Hood’ is his movie, this is Danny Kaye’s. 

            In our movie today he's a meek advertising literary suddenly involved in a real adventure involving the girl of his dreams (Virginia Mayo).  Kaye's milquetoast Mitty wildly fantasizes about being heroic;  be it a World War 2 Pilot, a Gunslinger, or a Riverboat Gambler.  And his rattling off Symphony For An Unstrung Tongue” and “Anatole of Paris” (both penned by his wife, Sylvia Fine; and she's one of the Goldwyn Girls in that latter number) are nothing short of brilliant.  And for a Supporting Cast?  We only have Thurston Hall as Mitty’s Publisher;  Boris Karloff as – and isn’t this a great name? – Dr. Hugo Hollingshead;  the always great Faye Bainter as his adoring but repressive mother;  Gordon Jones as his nemesis “Tubby;"  and – wait for it – Ms. Ann Rutherford – yes, of ‘Gone With The Wind’ fame – as his fiancĂ©e Gertrude.  Oh!  Fun fact:  the henchman in this, Mr. Henry Conden, would go on to voice Fred Flintstone.  The likes of a cast like that today?  We should be so lucky.

The original New York Times review (15 Aug, 1947) writes, “[The] latest Danny Kaye opus came yesterday to the Astor in a burst of fun and Technicolor … the camera stopping here and there to focus on a particular zany bit of business amidst jolly chaos … ‘The Secret Life Of Walter Mitty’ is a patchwork of dream sequences;  illusions conjured in the mind of a meek little suburbanite, burdened with domestic attachments, who daydreams himself into wonderfully heroic stature.  Even though Danny Kaye is not the mousey chap Mr. Thurber wrote about with such delightful and devastating accuracy, he is an agreeable facsimile … Mr. Kaye is an extremely energetic and resourceful comedian with an individualistic style that is difficult to moderate … All the dreams which find the irrepressible Walter Mitty performing astonishing deeds with majestic nonchalance are vastly entertaining ... [And] the tired business man will be attracted by another display by those fetching Goldwyn Girls … ‘The Secret Life Of Walter Mitty’ is a big, colorful show and a good one.”
            “And the tired business man will be attracted by another display by those fetching Goldwyn Girls.”  I love that line.

               Now a little behind-the-scenes;  you know I love the behind-the-scenes.

Our first Co-Writer, Ken Englund, started on ‘The Big Broadcast Of 1938’ – now what song did Bob Hope first sing in that? – and would also do Hope’s ‘Nothing But The Truth.’  Then he went on to toy in TV with The Great One himself, Jackie Gleason, and ‘Bewitched.’  Our second Co-Writer, Everett Freeman, got to play with Jack Benny in ‘George Washington Slept Here’ (years before its pseudo remake ‘Mr. Blandings Builds His Dream House’ which is years before its remake 'The Money Pit'), played with Hope in ‘Princess And The Pirate’ (also with Virginia Mayo) and then got to play with Lucy & Desi on TV.  And our Director Mr. McLeod?  He only got to play with The Marx Brothers, Cary Grant, Bob Hope and Rod Serling.  (And aren’t you excited to look-up where and when?  God bless IMDB.)  

               Of course, all this started with James Thurber’s Short Story.

Mr. Thurber first published “The Secret Life Of Walter Mitty” in the 18 March, 1939 issue of ‘The New Yorker.’  It’s been said he loosely based the character on his friend;  but if that friend is Walter Mithoff or Robert Benchley we’re not sure.  Mitty the character is a meek, mild man with a vivid fantasy life;  working in print advertising, he imagines himself a wartime pilot, an emergency-room surgeon, and devil-may-care killer.  The story was so popular that Mitty’s name became a colloquial.  It now refers to any ineffectual dreamer, and The British have a slang term – “Walt” – referring to someone who has aspirations of becoming a soldier.  And – my two favorite throwaways – no less than Jack Warner, referencing Errol Flynn, wrote, “To the Walter Mittys of the world [Flynn] was all the heroes in one magnificent, sexy, animal package.”  And the second?  Just Terry Gilliam who referenced his own masterpiece ‘Brazil’ as “‘1984’ meets ‘The Secret Life Of Walter Mitty.’”  Interestingly, Mr. Thurber himself hated this 1947 version, and in fact offered Samuel Goldwyn $10,000 of his own money not to make it.  Thurber “didn’t think Danny Kaye's interpretation of Mitty is at all like [he] intended the character to be.”

What else?  Thurber's love of wordplay can be seen in his coining several nonsense terms in the story, including the recurring – yep, it’s in our movie – “ta-pocketa-ta-pocketa-ta-pocketa.”  And in an unused dream sequence, Boris Karloff appears as The Frankenstein Monster, which evolves Mitty's fear of Karloff's character (test photos exist of Karloff in makeup).  Oh!  And – this movie was so popular – The Screen Guild Theater broadcast a thirty-minute radio adaptation with Danny Kaye and Virginia Mayo reprising their film roles.  (And – perhaps Mr. Thurber rests more easily? – even closer to his original story is a 1944 radio adaptation from ‘This Is My Best,’ interestingly with Robert Benchley as our daydreaming hero.)

            But just how popular was our movie today?  Well, in 1994, two little schmoes named Steven Spielberg and Jim Carrey planned a remake.

            Steven Spielberg, Ron Howard and Mark Waters all wanted to retell this story, with actors – at various times – Jim Carrey, Owen Wilson, Mike Myers, Will Ferrell and Sacha Baron Cohen as Mitty.  Producer Samuel Goldwyn Jr. – yes, son of the Mr. Goldwyn who produced our ’47 original (and all those Goldwyn girls!) – conceived the remake, and no less than Walt Disney Pictures was on board to showcase.  But Goldwyn Jr. instead chose New Line Cinema, who had a great relationship with Carrey – they had just hit home-runs with ‘Dumb And Dumber’ and ‘The Mask’ – so New Line bought the rights in 1995.  Who’d they bring on to write?  No less than Babaloo Mandel and Lowell Ganz (a great comedy team;  look ‘em up if you need to) who turned in their draft in 1997.  Unfortunately, Spielberg had moved on but Ron Howard now showed interest;  sadly – we’re now in 1998 – he moved on to ‘Ed TV.’ 

            And ‘Mitty’ was left to daydream once again.

            Then in 1999, Goldwyn Jr. & New Line hired ‘Mask’ director Chuck Russell to rewrite the script and filming was set to begin in early 2000.  We’re really going to shoot?  Yes!  Then Peter Tolan worked on rewrites and …

            … ugh … no …

            … again we’re left to daydream. 

            Then in 2001 Goldwyn Jr. filed a lawsuit against New Line over a breach of contract.  He said the studio extended their deal and wanted transfer rights and have Goldwyn Jr. surrender creative input.  In 2002, Goldwyn Jr. won the lawsuit and took our daydreamer to Paramount who greenlit and started work.  We’re really going to shoot?  Yes!  During pre-production with DreamWorks on ‘Lemony Snicket’ (starring Carrey), Steven Spielberg rekindled interest – coincidentally the duo previously considered ‘Meet The Parents’ together, that project also going to Mr. Stiller – but Spielberg & Carrey’s involvement – we’re now in 2003 – fell apart again.

            So now we’re not going to shoot?

            Not deterred, Goldwyn Jr. & Paramount announce a 2005 start-date.  Why?  Because we have no less than Will Ferrell!  Yesssss!  But then, nope, sorry, he’s on something called ‘Talladega Nights.’  (Though I would have loved to have seen him in this;  luckily we got ‘Stranger Than Fiction’ which is close.)  But wait!  Now we have Owen Wilson!  Yesssss!  Oh, no, sorry, he’s gone too.  (The Hollywood Reporter speculates, “‘Mitty’ began to falter after Paramount failed to cast a female lead opposite Wilson.”  Scarlett Johansson was the front-runner after screentesting with Wilson, but a deal was never signed.)  (I also think Wilson would have been great in this.  Sadly, this is the time Paramount also drops out.)

            So we’re never ever gonna shoot?

            Still not deterred – we’re now in 2007 – Goldwyn Jr. found new life at Twentieth Century Fox and it’s announced Mike Myers will play our daydreamer.  Success!  And Jay Kogen is hired to write, specifically tailored to Mr. Myers and this time we’re really going to --

            -- no, wait, sorry …

            … we daydream yet again.

            Now it’s 2010 and Sacha Baron Cohen is offered the role.  No slouch.  And he wants it!  Success!  And the ‘Pursuit of Happyness’ writer Steven Conrad is hired to write, with Gore Verbinski to Direct!  YESSSSS!  We’re finally – for real – a “go picture!” (They really do say that.)  But, sadly, again, no.  Why?  Because Mr. Baron Cohen drops out.  But Gore Verbinski is still on board!  So who does he want to star instead?  Only Ben Stiller.  Would he be great?  Sure, but good luck getting him!

            Wait, Mr. Stiller wants to?  Really?  Somebody get a bottle of champagne.  What do you mean, “Wait?”  WHAT NOW?  Mr. Verbinski’s dropped out, deciding to helm ‘The Lone Ranger …’

            … leaving us daydreaming yet again?

            But then … what? …  Mr. Stiller will Direct as well as Star in?!  We’re really really a go picture?  We are.  Finally we shoot.  And the rest, as they say, is history.
            You want to count all those names, all those years?  I can’t, it’s too exhausting.  But, yes, that’s how movies get made. 

            Why am I telling you all this?  Because of one thing.  I love that Mr. Goldwyn Jr. and so many talented people wanted to retell ‘The Secret Life Of Walter Mitty.’  And they kept trying.  And they eventually got ‘er done.  Because this story about our little daydreamer is that good.

            But wait!  “Her shoes!”

            (Sorry, spoiler if you haven’t seen the film.)  If you know it, you know what a great moment this is.  If you don’t, again, you’re in for a real treat.  The reason I bring it up specifically is because it punches the theme so perfectly.  As we ramp up to the film’s conclusion – Mitty’s getting married to Ann Rutherford – he finds Virginia Mayo’s shoes;  and by shoes I mean a little silver keychain.  He knows he daydreams, he’s accepted that, everyone’s accepted that, but he pulls up this little silver keychain and exclaims – realizing he’s not insane, THIS IS PROOF! – “these are her shoes!”  And while everyone in the church thinks he’s finally gone off the deep end, Mitty – and we the audience – know we’re back in the race. 

            The daydreamer is the hero.  And we keep dreaming right along with him.

            Up next?  We go back to the beginning.  Danny Kaye’s first starring picture, ‘Up In Arms.’