Trying to Recapture Movie Magic
By Mark SHELTON
As the old saying goes, “This is not your father’s Walter Mitty.” For those who remember and treasure the classic 1947 “Secret Life of Walter Mitty” that, like the 2013 version, was based on the James Thurber short story, be prepared for something only marginally similar in theaters today.
Director, producer, and star Ben Stiller stated that he was going to try and stick to the original short story, not make a film that was similar to or tried to top the original as there was no way to top that classic. In this regard, he succeeded tremendously.
While the lead character, Walter, loses himself in grandiose daydreams of heroism and daring-do (just like in the original), Stiller’s Walter Mitty thrusts himself into an adventure of grand proportions to the point where the audience is confused if they are witnessing one of his daydreams or watching his new-found adventurous prowess that comes from who knows where. Instead of reacting to the circumstances in which he is placed, this Walter takes the bull by the horns and creates his own adventure. The result is a loss of the charm, innocence and naïveté that was the heart and soul of not only the 1947 version but also the book by Thurber.
Special effects and digital magic do here what so many other movies of late are guilty of: taking the forefront of the story rather than servicing it. As with most boy-meets-girl romance arcs, there is nothing special or unpredictable about Walter and his pursuit of love with Cheryl Melhoff (Kristen Wiig). But where similar stories have an element of personal danger that ups the stakes, this adventure is based not on Walter losing his job but the pursuit of a certain “macguffin” (a phrase coined by Hitchcock), an item that is integral to the carrying forward the story. While some very clever uses of transitions, graphics, credits, and other directorial techniques help keep the 114-minute running time from seeming too laborious, the story makes it hard for the audience to invest itself too much into the outcome.
Performances by Stiller and Shirley McLaine are good; the obligatory girlfriend role is not much for Wiig to sink her teeth into (she fares much better in the also current “Anchorman 2”) and the tech credits are pretty average for today’s crop of films.
Although I am a die-hard sci-fi fan, “The Secret Life of Walter Mitty” tops my list of favorite movies. I remember seeing it, as a kid, on the Saturday matinee movies on television. There was something sweet, innocent and honest about the film.
Danny Kaye portrayed Walter Mitty and he definitely put his spin on the story. There were plenty of musical numbers and silly comedy, but there was also something so sweet about his portrayal. In the book, Walter was a beaten, married man who escaped a constantly nagging wife via his imagination. In Kaye’s version, that nagging came from his mother, fiancé and future mother-in-law. Walter used his imagination to escape his reality, becoming a life saving surgeon, heroic cowboy and Air Force hero. But it wasn’t those characters that made the 1947 film work. It was Walter himself. These were not fantasies he chose to imagine, but dreams. And with those dreams came a dream girl. Though Walter had never met this beautiful girl, portrayed by Virginia Mayo, she was present in every dream.
And then, without planning, without warning, she was there. The girl of his dreams was sitting next to him on a train. Kaye’s Walter was scared, shocked. Audiences could see him wondering if this was reality or a dream. Before he has time to react, she kisses him – a ploy to avoid a bad guy – but Walter doesn’t know this at the time.
This one scene is why this movie was so special. When reality sits down next to you and doesn’t slap you in the face, but kisses you – it’s just as shocking. Kaye didn’t portray this as a comedic scene, but as a man struggling with reality and his dream world. It wasn’t over the top, just honest.
From there the film takes off on a war-time crime plot with a murder victim and Walter in danger that is no longer imagined. The audience shares his growth from taking life as it is dished out to taking hold of his own destiny.
Especially when there are so many remakes of movies, it’s nice to sit back and watch the original. The 1947 SLoWM is definitely worth the watch.