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Walter Mitty and Other Daydreamers

The Secret Life of Walter Mitty (1947), a Technicolor musical comedy produced by Samuel Goldwyn, casts Danny Kaye as an imaginative editor of pulp books. It is not my favorite Kaye vehicle. I recommend that, if you are in the mood for a good double feature, you get your hands on DVD’s of Kaye’s Wonder Man (1945) and The Court Jester (1956). But, even though the various elements of Mitty never cohere, the film provides a number of entertaining scenes that make it worth a spin on your DVD player.

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Critics have never had a problem summarizing the plot of Mitty in a few words. It is the story of “a daydreaming everyman” or “a little man with big dreams.”  But, despite the great popularity of the James Thurber short story on which the film was based, the Mitty character was not the original daydreamer protagonist. It was not uncommon in early comedy films to have a drudge let their thoughts drift off and imagine themselves in a fantastic situation. This was certainly the case with a 1914 Essanay comedy called Sweedie and the Hypnotist. Sweedie (Wallace Beery in drag) is a scrub woman in a theatre. Sweedie takes a break from sweeping to watch a hypnotist (Leo White) perform on stage and soon finds herself lulled into a trance. At this point, the scrub woman imagines herself in an exciting adventure in which the hypnotist and the stage manager are battling for her hand in marriage. The premise proves to be nothing more than an excuse for a slapstick melee. At one point, the stage manager gets the hypnotist out of the way by pushing him into a trunk. The daydream almost turned out to be a nightmare for White. According to a news report, the production was halted when White became trapped inside the trunk and nearly suffocated.

Even in 1914, the plot of Sweedie and the Hypnotist was trite stuff. The janitor who leans against his broom and gets a faraway look in his eyes became a familiar image in comedy films. It was due to the influence of Mark Twain’s 1889 novel A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court that most daydreamers envisioned themselves in ancient times. In Hogan’s Aristocratic Dream (1915), a tramp (Charlie Murray) dreams that he is a nobleman in pre-revolutionary France. A film that distinctly combined the two daydreaming genres, the dawdling laborer and the time-traveling fantasist, was The Knight Watch (1929), in which a movie studio janitor (Arthur Lake) watches actors perform as merry knights on a medieval set and imagines himself as a brave knight.

A Mitty-type story formed the basis of Reaching for the Moon (1917). Alexis Brown (Douglas Fairbanks), a lowly clerk in a button factory, dreams that he is royal heir, but he finds at the film’s conclusion that the moon is out of his grasp. This is how the film ends according to the TCM website: “While dueling for his life. . . , Alexis falls over a cliff and awakens to discover that he has merely tumbled out of bed. Thus disabused of his fantasies, Alexis eagerly returns to his life in the button factory, proposes to Elsie Merrill, his down-to-earth sweetheart, and eventually finds happiness as a family man in a New Jersey suburb.”  The lesson is that fantasies are bad and the daydreamer is better off keeping his feet planted firmly on the ground.

Buster Keaton explored the world of daydreams in two films. In Daydreams (1922), Keaton goes to the big city to make his fortune. He writes vague letters to his girlfriend (Renée Adorée) to mislead her about his lack of success. Adorée, hopeful that her boyfriend will make money to marry her, imagines Keaton doing well as a surgeon, a stock broker, and a police captain. Keaton elaborated on the daydreaming idea in a feature-length film, Sherlock, Jr. (1924). This time, Keaton is able to discover his inner strength when he daydreams that he is a super sleuth. This more positive perspective on daydreams established a trend in films that still persists today.

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Harold Lloyd played daydreamers in his most popular films. In Girl Shy (1924), he imagines himself as a great seducer of women. The comedian used his character’s fantasies as an opportunity to spoof romantic melodramas of the day. A scene in which he seduces a vamp parodies a scene from Trifling Women (1922) and a scene in which he seduces a flapper parodies a scene from Flaming Youth (1923). The Freshman (1925) opens with Lloyd anxiously preparing to leave home for college. He wants, more than anything, to be popular on campus. So, he dresses up like a college hero pictured on a movie poster and performs college cheers while studying his image in his bedroom mirror. The Kid Brother (1927) includes a similar scene in which Lloyd daydreams in a mirror wearing his sheriff father’s badge and hat. This is a form of self-actualization. The idea is that you can be the person that you want to be if you first visualize yourself as that person. See it, be it. This continues Keaton’s idea that daydreams can mold a person and guide them onto a path of success.

Warner Brothers’ How Baxter Butted In (1925), which was based on a 1905 Broadway musical comedy by Owen Davis, was a definite forerunner to Mitty. Baxter, a young clerk in a newspaper office, always has fantasies in which he defends his sweetheart against the villainous office manager. It is the clerk’s dreams of bravery that eventually allows him to embrace true bravery. Nothing other than his daydreams facilitate his transformation from a timid failure to a brave hero.

How Baxter Butted In was remade as The Great Mr. Nobody in 1941. The story was changed a bit to suit the times. The timid Robert Smith (Eddie Albert), known to his friends as Dreamy, fantasizes about performing heroic deeds. Dreamy makes his living selling advertisements at a newspaper. The same imagination that produces Dreamy’s fantasies also aides him in producing compelling advertisements. But Dreamy has a boss who takes credit for his best ideas. The lack of credit for his ideas denies Dreamy rewards, whether a promotion or extra pay, and this disempowers him. A person cannot be disempowered unless they have power at the start. In the end, Dreamy finds his courage, takes action, and is finally recognized for his value. He is presented as the ultimate hero when, in the final scene, he joins the military.

Key plot details of The Great Mr. Nobody could be later found in the Mitty film. Like Dreamy, Mitty had gone into an appropriate profession. The same imagination that creates Mitty’s fantasies also creates popular adventure stories for his publisher. This is very different than Fairbanks working in a button factory. Unlike buttons, advertisements and adventure stories trade in fantasy and it takes a man with an affinity for fantasy to be successful in these fields. But Mitty shares another problem with Dreamy – his boss takes credit for his ideas.

James Thurber’s story, which ran a scant two and a half pages, had no need for character development, conflict resolution, or a villainous boss. Mitty is a henpecked middle-aged husband whose sole objective in the story is to stop at a grocery store to buy puppy biscuits. In a review of Ben Stiller’s new CGI-enhanced Mitty, Peter Debruge of Variety appropriately referred to Thurber’s story as “plotless source material.”  Still, many readers identified with Mitty, which made this Thurber’s most popular work. The scriptwriters, Ken Englund, Everett Freeman and Philip Rapp, had to find a way to expand the thin story for a feature film. Their basic ideas were sound. The writers established that, as the only son of an overbearing single mother, Mitty has been stunted in his development, which has made him passive in his relationships. He is unable to stand up to his mother, his boss, and his fiancé. He escapes into fantasy whenever he is humiliated or badgered. He seeks in his fantasies the respect and excitement that he is denied in his real life. In his fantasies, he imagines himself as a fighter pilot, a ship captain, a riverboat gambler, and a Western gunfighter.

So, there we have it, an ineffectual man uses daydreams as a way of escape from his dreary existence. Should we feel glad that this common man is able to uplift himself and subvert his suppressors through his imagination?  Or, should we feel sad that this man needs to retreat to a fantasy world to find triumph?  Is his escape into a daydream a form of victory or defeat?  Keaton and Lloyd already provided the answer to that question. Now, rather than the daydreams being a way of escape, they were a way to bring to the fore the innermost power and ambition that is straining to burst loose from a man. Mitty’s purpose in the enlarged story is to act on his fantasies and fulfill his potential.

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Unfortunately, Goldwyn’s Mitty goes wrong after the first act. To start, the film provides too much gloss and glamour for a comedy. Comedy is about sweaty brows, mussed hair, and torn britches. But this isn’t the only problem with the film. The story stops cold whenever Kaye performs one of his trademark patter-songs. These boldly silly numbers, including “Anatole of Paris” and “Symphony for Unstrung Tongue,” are unsuitable business for the shy Mitty and they are entirely irrelevant to the story. It might have worked better if the musical numbers were incorporated into the fantasy scenes. Thurber thought that the musical numbers, which he termed “git-gat-giddle songs,” were “deplorable.” He especially objected to the fact that, to make room for the songs, Goldwyn had to leave out fantasy scenes, including one scene in which Mitty imagines himself as a trial lawyer and another scene in which Mitty imagines himself being led before a firing squad. In the short story, Mitty’s fantasy hero comes to a dark end before a firing squad. Sylvia Fine, Kaye’s wife and manager, strongly objected to the trial and firing squad scenes and she proved to have more authority in the matter than Thurber.

Another glaring weakness of the film is its leading lady, Virginia Mayo. No matter how pretty Mayo looks in Technicolor, she contributes little to the film with her lifeless performance. She is so stilted at times that she could be a dress dummy from Goldwyn’s wardrobe department.

By far, the biggest problem with the film is that the daydream scenes simply don’t work. The film includes five daydream scenes, three of which turn up in the first twenty minutes. The film goes on for another hour and half, during which time the remaining two daydream sequences are dropped into the action at random times. It is as if the filmmakers lost interest in Mitty’s fantasies. It is immediately funny seeing Buster Keaton as a surgeon in Daydreams, but Kaye does not look out of place as a surgeon. The dream scenes lack a parodic dimension that the viewer should expect. The scenes lack humorous touches, furnishing no gags, or pratfalls, or funny lines. Kaye’s performance needed to be more campy as a way to give a wink to the audience. The one time that the scriptwriters allowed a fantasy scene to get funny was during Mitty’s efforts at surgery. Surely, they couldn’t have allowed the surgery to be serious. Surgeon Mitty is aided by a silly-looking machine that goes “ta-pocketa-pocketa-pocketa” and he completes the procedure using a sock stretcher, a sprinkling can, a cheese grater and floor wax.

After the first twenty minutes of the film, Mitty’s daydreams can easily recede as the pulp editor’s real life has become more dynamic than his daydreams. His dangerous encounters with the spies renders the fantasy segments unnecessary. The film would function well as a spy comedy if Thurber’s daydream scenes were jettisoned altogether. Still, Kaye gets to perform some great comic business as he struggles with inanimate objects (a chair and a water cooler) and makes a desperate effort to avoid being injured by deadly spies and a burly irate husband. The husband is justifiably upset by Mitty’s interest in a corset delivered to his wife. Little does the flustered husband know that the corset is the hiding place for a notebook with information that can thwart a Nazi plot.

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Animator Chuck Jones was more successful with the daydreaming premise when he depicted an imaginative boy named Ralph Phillips in From A to ZZZ (1953) and Boyhood Daze (1957). The daydreamer protagonist has continued to be used effectively in films, including Billy Liar (1963) and Brazil (1985). Brazil was described by its director, Terry Gilliam, as “Walter Mitty Meets Franz Kafka.”  The premise was strong enough to sustain a number of television series, including The Fall and Rise of Reginald Perrin (1976–1979), The Singing Detective (1986) and Dream On (1990-1996). Snoopy of the Peanuts comic strip was no doubt in Mitty territory whenever he imagined himself to be a World War I flying ace.

The latest version of Mitty is meant to be smarter and less silly than its predecessor. I haven’t seen this remake yet, but I have read a few reviews. Debruge wrote, “Rather than channeling James Thurber’s satirical tone, [Ben] Stiller plays it mostly earnest, spinning what feels like a feature-length ‘Just Do It’ ad for restless middle-aged auds [audiences], on whom its reasonably commercial prospects depend.”  In other words, it takes the idea that fantasies are motivational to an extreme.

Daydreams can provide us with a dress rehearsal for our lives and, at the same time, they can allow us to release deeply creative ideas. Films that celebrate daydreams are worthwhile. I just wish that Goldwyn’s Mitty had focused more on that idea.

Anthony Balducci has written three books on silent film comedy. He is presently at work on a book called I Won’t Grow Up!: What Comedy Films Have to Teach Us About Maturity, Responsibility and Masculinity. He has been a devoted blogger since 2000. You can visit his current blog at http://anthonybalducci.blogspot.com/.