From the start, I must acknowledge the Ben in the review. Not me. Though I am here. Hi there. No, I must acknowledge the other Ben. Ben Stiller. If you are a fan of Stiller – you clicked the wrong link, ‘bye now – or if you are just a fan of movies – you might have seen his 2013 version of The Secret Life of Walter Mitty, the latest reinterpretation of the 1939 short story by James Thurber. Stiller’s Mitty was good, it was, but it just couldn’t bring the same life upon arrival as the 1947 film, whose release was a nearly patriotic event; the flag raising for a wartime allegiance to Thurber’s story, which inspired airmen to form “Mitty clubs.”
Some have rightfully contested that such a masterpiece of the short story form doesn’t need to be blown up on the silver screen to begin with; bigger is not better. But neither is it worse. As Robertson Davies wrote, “The parrot-cry that simplicity is one with good taste comes from people who cannot trust their taste in anything which is not simple.” In this instance, the taste can be trusted: changes in plot, length and genre escalate the conflict, strengthen the structure and supply a larger purpose than the original story.
So I suspect those airmen weren’t disappointed with the results. 69 years later, the film can still razzle the dazzle out of anyone, with its gorgeous design and expert direction. And Walter Mitty can still stir up self-respect in us, even as he struggles to find it himself.
Walter Mitty (Danny Kaye) is a beautiful dreamer – or a bothersome one, if you’re his mother, Eunice (Fay Bainter), who is also his landlord. The woman has a dopamine addiction that can only be appeased by shopping, and Walter is her dealer, buying things and returning them with stupefying regularity, before and after his commute. That is, if he remembers; if he doesn’t, Eunice berates him repeatedly. As does everyone, actually. In response, Walter turns the other cheek, then the other, then the other. He turns all of the cheeks.
Considering the above, it’s quite natural that Walter’s 24-hours-a-daydreaming casts him as competent and irreplaceable – a doctor during emergency surgery, the captain of the air force during the war. Walter was exempt from the latter, we learn, for the poignantly appropriate reason of a “nervous stomach.” But in these hypothetical scenarios, he is the fulcrum leveraging every fiasco into triumph. Aside from that, the fantasy simply has more purpose than reality.
When not attending to Eunice’s avarice, and his repugnant fiancée, and her psychotic dog Queenie, and his imaginary lives, Walter works for a publishing company with “a great and proud list of magazines” of “good taste and good reading” that also tend to favor bloody weapons, blood-sucking and damsels in undress on their covers. What Walter doesn’t know is his life is about to resemble one of them.
Enter Rosalind van Horn (Virginia Mayo), an honest con woman who either doesn’t hear the word no, or has heard it so many times it has no meaning. Glimpsing Walter on the train, she pretends to be his wife for temporary protection from a pursuer. Soon she has implicated Walter in a colossal conspiracy: her uncle Peter was curator of a famous museum in Rotterdam, and as the Nazi menace materialized, he concealed art treasures in obscure places recorded in a little black book, which she has. And the Nazis must have it.
To those familiar with the history of World War II, or those who became familiar while writing this review, the plot is less a fanciful fabrication than a creative rearrangement of true events.* And although it is easy to be lulled by the film’s light handling of some dark material, there is a solid undergirding.
Set the Captive Free
Fantasy, like all forms of art, is frequently considered expendable – a luxury, even – and especially in hard times, when survival becomes a tyrant. The belief, explicitly or implicitly communicated, is that life is pressing and will not yield to dreams.
“[The statement that all fantasy is escapist] is shallow when made by the shallow,” writes Ursula K. LeGuin. “When an insurance broker tells you that [fantasy] doesn’t deal with the Real World, when a chemistry freshman informs you that Science has disproved Myth, when a censor suppresses a book because it doesn’t fit the canons of Socialist Realism, and so forth, that’s not criticism; it’s bigotry. If it’s worth answering, the best answer is given by Tolkien, [who] said, fantasy is escapist, and that is its glory. If a soldier is imprisoned by the enemy, don’t we consider it his duty to escape? The moneylenders, the knownothings, the authoritarians have us all in prison; if we value the freedom of the mind and soul, if we’re partisans of liberty, then it’s our plain duty to escape, and to take as many people with us as we can.”
From this perspective, fantasy is an insurgent movement to set the captive free. It is treasure that must be hidden, guarded, in locations that, perhaps, are recorded in a little black book. “Art,” writes Marjorie Garber, “is what we are saving the world for.”** And, I would add, it can save the world – by presenting an alternate vision of it.
An Inside Job
The average viewer of Mitty could be oblivious to everything I’ve observed, or invented, and maybe that’s the charm of the film. Essentially, it is the tale of an adventurer who has never had one, until now. That’s a serious deviation from the source material, which consistently delineated Walter’s fantasies and life. Yet by blurring that line, the script forces Walter to make a clear decision about what sort of man he wants to be. Extreme situations develop resistance, and Walter is astonished by his possession of it. When the danger subsides, the resistance remains, emboldening Walter to confront his boss, fiancée and mother and demand to be treated as an equal.
Ironically, Walter’s opposition to the world secures his place in it. He accepts a promotion, gets the girl and is primed for success. One could view this as compliance, but one could also view it as going undercover – a young man having visions of how to subvert the system from within. To protest reality by really living it. Imagination, after all, has always been an inside job.
*As detailed in The Monuments Men (2007) and The Rape of Europa (1994).
**In the superb apologetic Patronizing the Arts.