The Cult of Writer James Thurber’s The Secret Life of Walter Mitty

*contains spoilers

Writer and cartoonist James Thurber (1894-1961 blood clot on the brain) was blinded in one eye by his brother at the age of seven when an arrow was shot into his eye while they played a game of William Tell, that folk hero who could shoot an apple off the top of your head. Thurber’s brother missed.

Thurber’s eye was removed too late after the incident and his second eye went bad in sympathy, something which is a common occurrence. But he became a successful writer and cartoonist despite his disability.

The Secret Life of Walter Mitty (2013) poster
A young James Thurber
Cartoonist, illustrator and humorist James Thurber

He is probably most famous for his 4000-word short story The Secret Life of Walter Mitty which has been made into a movie on two occasions (1947 and 2013) as it tells of a fellow by the name of Walter Mitty who escapes the mundane everyday life of his marriage by imaging the most outlandish adventures. The first film version starred Danny Kaye (1911-87 AIDS and hepatitis from tainted blood supplied during a heart bypass) and he is a comedian whose antics have dated for all except the most devoted of fans. This original version of the film was made in colour and Kaye is the henpecked unmarried son of a bossy mother who works for an idea stealing boss in a publishing firm where he works as a proof-reader and editor.

Kaye’s film was a deceptively bright movie for post-WW2 America and the fact it stars peaches and cream actress Virginia Mayo (1920-2005 pneumonia and heart failure) shows it was meant for family audiences interested in musicals as opposed the cynicism and disillusionment of film noir which was gaining in popularity.

Virginia Mayo in The Best Years of Our Lives (1946)
The Secret Life of Walter Mitty (1947) poster
Dated comedian Danny Kaye’s famous quote from the movie The Court Jester (1956)

Thurber told Life magazine in a letter that he was considerably dissatisfied with the script of Walter Mitty which contained too much horror and female bathing beauties and had sadly been turned into something especially tailored for the talents of Kaye. Thurber called the film The Public Life of Danny Kaye.

The writer had already made his mark with the comic drama play The Male Animal which he co-wrote with Elliott Nugent (1896-1980). Nugent would direct the movie version of this play after hitting the heights of box office success with the Bob Hope (1903-2003 pneumonia) movies The Cat and the Canary (1939) and Nothing but the Truth (1941). He would also direct the respectable Alan Ladd (1913-64 drug and alcohol overdose) version of The Great Gatsby (1949) before being drifting into obscurity.

The Male Animal (1942) stars Henry Fonda (1905-82 heart disease) as a Thurber-like – he wears spectacles – university professor, who is not at all sporty and whose masculinity is called into question by the arrival of a former university football hero and possible alumnus played by Jack Carson (1910-63 stomach cancer). Meanwhile Olivia de Havilland (1916-2020) plays Fonda’s wife who is rekindling her past romance with the sportsman who delivers tales of his former glories through the positioning of cups and saucers on the floor of Fonda’s home which he commentates with enthusiasm.

Director Elliott Nugent
Henry Fonda looks effete in The Male Animal (1942) poster
The war between Henry Fonda and Olivia de Havilland in The Male Animal (1942)

Meanwhile Fonda must have a face-off with the “stadium builders” which are the conservative trustees of the university in that he has promised to read what amounts to be possibly a part of an anarchist’s manifesto on behalf of the himself and the students in a climactic lecture.

In between, Fonda gets drunk and tries to take on Carson, whose bear of a man has no choice but to take a swing at the out-of-control professor on a bender to stop his physical delusions of grandeur. Some people weren’t meant to take on alpha males in a physical sense. But Fonda will instead take on something mightier in the trustees and possibly the entire university…

The film which was made when America had just entered World War Two and is a pointed dig at the dangers of Fascism even in America as it shows the blind love Americans have for the sport of football, as they watch this game enthusiastically from stadiums this instead of the the then current German sport of filling stadiums to watch Adolf Hitler (1889-1945 suicide by gunshot). There is a possible weakness in the national character as a result which could be taken advantage of by certain right-wing elements … to fill stadiums of their own for fascist intentions within a weakened democracy. The Male Animal of man himself being particularly guilty of this as it all comes down to weaklings and even intelligent weaklings who can be physically or mentally bullied by so-called perfect specimens of toxic masculinity who aspire to reach the top, or be on top, one way or another. Democracy must be kept strong and honest by all and not be undermined by such characters. No name, no pack drill.

Bartolemeo Franzetti
Beware who builds and who fills your stadiums…
No contest… between Henry Fonda and Jack Carson

The Male Animal is a strong play and the ending is moving as Fonda uses a quote during his ‘controversial’ end presentation in which the trustees tell him he will lose his position on the faculty if he proceeds… These words which could lead to mob violence and anarchy, according to the trustees, are the words of Bartolemeo Vanzetti (1888-1927 executed) upon his sentencing for a murder he possibly didn’t commit along with that of his accomplice. The self-confessed anarchist faced a trial which was biased by racism against Italians and upon his sentence of death by the electric chair he spoke these words to America which is not literature but is still sincere despite his broken English:

“If it had not been for these thing… I might have live out my life talking on street corners to scorning men…. I might have die unmarked, unknown, a failure. Now we are not a failure. Never in our full life could we hope to do so much work for tolerance, for justice, for man’s understanding of man as now we do by accident. Our words, our life, our pain – nothing. The taking of our lives, the lives of a good shoemaker and a poor fish peddler – all. That last moment belongs to us, that agony is our triumph.”

So, you may legally murder another man by the electric chair or legally drive him or her to suicide… It’s not a question of guilt or innocence to read this quote but it is a reminder that ideas should not be repressed even if they are by those individuals whose personal habits and political opinions should apparently invalidate these very ideas… simply because they are drug addicts or whatever. Even those who are deemed politically incorrect are driven to a kind of legally sanctioned murder through public humiliation and ensuing suicide it would sometimes seem… often for being misunderstood or unnecessarily focussed on by the media.

Time Simply Passes (2015) trailer
A James Thurber cartoon

Vanzetti’s quote by not being as inflammatory as it was hoped seems like an anti-climax to the end of the screenplay of The Male Animal but it is still effective eighty years later. It’s very double edged-ness about an uncaring society being directly responsible is part of the humble lesson which divides the victim being put to death by toxic masters of the universe in the community of either sex or are judged by the same within the judicial system swayed by current public sentiment and opinion.

So, the end of the film doesn’t erupt into violence but ends with the heroic adulation of Fonda’s character in grand parade style as it goes to show that academia and intelligentsia, despite their faults, still educate and inform the youth in democracies and are, in part, responsible for maintaining a healthy society of that truth and justice which is missing in Fascist oriented regimes… that, and a balanced media! They still kill by capital punishment in some American states even if you are innocent. Or perhaps you are shot on the spot? Otherwise, let the media and/or the public point the finger, and the bone…

The Male Animal (1942) trailer
The remake She’s Working Her Way Through College (1952) kind of emasculated the original text

The remake of this movie entitled She’s Working Her Way Through College (1952) poetically features Virginia Mayo from the Walter Mitty movie but the presence of actor and future conservative President Ronald Reagan (1911-2004 Alzheimer’s disease and pneumonia) more or less condemns the original play’s political message which is dropped for an ‘adaptation’. In this version, university professor Reagan see the students at his college do a musical play and not one of the works of Shakespeare which is obviously being forced on them by the ‘fascist’ faculty. There’s sexual harassment and a mink coat involved but the film is a perfect example of a Technicolor yawn in more than one sense of the word as I found myself coughing almost to the point of vomiting as the cast sang annoyingly forgettable songs and the very nature of the original material is obviously discarded.

Let’s move on, and Thurber wrote many short fables such as The Unicorn in the Garden where a man reports a unicorn in the garden to his wife who tells him that’s impossible as it is a mythical creature… and what’s more, he is a booby who is due for the booby-hatch. The wife calls the police to bring a strait jacket because: “My husband saw a unicorn this morning.” When they arrive with the strait jacket, she describes the unicorn just as her husband said he saw it. When they ask the husband if he saw a unicorn, he said: “Of course not, it’s a mythical creature.” They took the wife away kicking and screaming and the husband lived happily ever after. Moral: Don’t count your boobies before they are hatched!

In 1969-70 a tv series based on Thurber’s cartoons was created entitled My World… And Welcome to It. Starring William Windom (1923-2012 congestive heart failure) as a Thurber-like cartoonist once again wearing his conspicuous glasses, the show integrated cartoons by Thurber and won an Emmy Award for Outstanding Comedy Series. However, it was cancelled after one season.

Art-work for the Thurber series My World… And Welcome to It
The War Between Men and Women (1972) poster

One of the stars of the series was child actress Lisa Eilbacher (1956-) and she was chosen to appear in, what was the big screen version of the series in a kind of way, called The War Between Men and Women (1972). Instead of Windom in the lead, we have well-respected actor Jack Lemmon (1925-2001 bladder cancer) who plays the cartoonist who gives up his so-called envied life as a bachelor and marries actress Barbara Harris (1935-2018 lung cancer) after she takes pity on the fact that he is going blind.

The title of the movie has nothing to do with, or feature any of the cartoons, created by Thurber which were entitled The War Between Men and Women. Those cartoons show in a series of illustrations the ensuing growing battle between the sexes which grows more violent and which in the end sees the women physically routed… such is the nature of the beast in terms of subjugation and violent conflict. Is there any solution? There is a surrender in the end but the cartoons show the divide between man and woman and their ensuing engagements are just as serious as any war. And a surrender just leads to another war!

One of Thurber’s The War Between Men and Women series of cartoons
And another…
Leads to this and then ‘the rout’ and then ‘the surrender’
Henpecked Thurber? With his wife towards the end of his life.

In the movie, Lemmon’s step-daughter played by Eilbacher stutters, and her stutter gets worse when her father is killed while serving as a photographer in the Vietnam War. This serves as a cue for Thurber/Lemmon to show the girl his last series of drawings known as The Last Flower. This true work by Thurber was originally published in 1939 and is a parable about man and woman and the last flower which has flourished after Armageddon. This flower is found by a young girl in a world without love and she doesn’t know what it is…

The movie ends with the curing of the girl’s stuttering by her step-father Lemmon care and interest and/or the instilling a love of art and its language. There is hope in art yet to help physical and mental suffering, especially in the young before it becomes ingrained and leads to a lifetime of further suffering.

E.B. White (1899-1985) who wrote Charlotte’s Web and Stuart Little said of The Last Flower in The New Yorker in 1961: “In it, you will find Thurber’s faith in the renewal of life, his feeling for the offbeat and fragility of life on Earth.”

It’s sad the world had to endure World War Two in its wake…

The Secret Life of Walter Mitty (1947) trailer
Ben Stiller and Kristen Wiig in The Secret Life of Walter Mitty (2013)
Behind the scenes or the secret life of The Secret Life of Walter Mitty (2013)

The War Between Men and Women is dated like much of Thurber’s works. It is probably not surprising that the remake of The Secret Life of Walter Mitty (2013) uses only the daydreams of its main character as its only link to the original story. Ben Stiller (1965-) stars as the man who collects and collates the negatives and rolls of film which arrive at Life magazine as it is transitioning from a printed publication into an online one. Stiller has worked at the magazine for well over a decade and is one of the invisible cogs in the machinery but still undeniably essential. But even he doesn’t realise this.

It is a story of dreams unfulfilled, of unused and unappreciated talents and about the longing for another person in terms of love… It is also about the creation of art and living in the present… even if that person doesn’t actually produce art itself. It means enjoying the now, even if it means giving yourself a break from even being in the now in terms of work. This is symbolised by Sean Penn’s (1960-) character as an elusive nature photographer who just watches his just as elusive prey for his camera, which is a snow leopard, high in the remote mountains of wherever… Not through the telephoto lens but just with his naked eye he watches as he lets it or nature be and enjoys the moment.

Our Walter Mitty, in this movie, had dreams of backpacking the world, something that ended with the death of his father as he must embrace a regular job and pay check and nine to five slavery and oblivion… And yet he doesn’t realise he is an inspiration and a key figure in the life of at least one other person. This film shows how chance encounters or events and miscommunication can change lives for the better and in fact lead away from a life of day-dreaming like the Walter Mitty of Thurber’s original story… The irony being that once Stiller is in a possible relationship he may end up like Thurber’s character, but that’s an intolerably unhappy ending about the end of romance and the world of serial relationships! There’s a definite ‘wink’ made in the narrative at the beginning of the movie regarding the ramifications of pursuing the opposite sex or whatever and it is the basis and beginning of the whole movie. Daring to dream or daring to pursue those dreams…

The Secret Life of Walter Mitty (2013) trailer
James Thurber makes the cover of Time magazine
The mock cover of Life sums up the 2013 movie

Instead of Mitty dreaming about being put in front of a wall and shot as in the end of the original story, Stiller rediscovers his youthful self and learns to change and recover from the effects his father’s death had on his life… The world is changing and the ideas of a person’s dreams in life as opposed to day-dreams can or must change with it, whether it is sex you day-dream all day about, or travelling to exotic destinations, or being an artist or hero… But not everyone can escape like Walter Mitty does in this remake, as many of us must exist in books, tv and movies while we endure the drudgery of inescapable everyday life… This remake of Walter Mitty is the fulfilment of the middle-class dream and is a feel-good movie which pleased critics and audiences alike. Ingeniously it serves its purpose to help us escape and that is why Thurber’s premise remains seminal.

Despite the wink in the movie, I just question the ending of the original story… The question of whether the world will end with a whimper and not a bang as a philosophical chestnut kind of relates to us all with Thurber’s Mitty, in his original story, lining himself up against a wall to be shot… As T.S Eliot’s quote continued in his poem about how the world finishes, he wrote further: “That it starts with a bang, but ends with the wind”… It is perhaps an impossible prophecy of peace for the planet as it exists today or even for Walter Mitty/Thurber himself who faces the end quite happily knowing it really isn’t the end but will lead to another beginning between moments of human suffering … I hope you can happily day-dream about that without taking it too seriously.

2 Comments

  1. jameselliotsinger
    Permalink

    Nice to read a piece about Thurber, my favorite writer during my pre-teen and teenage years. He’s forgotten today and I’d bet 999 out of 1000 Americans don’t know who he is. I’ve never watched most of the films based on his work. There’s a Peter Sellers film called Battle of the Sexes based on Catbird Seat but it’s more slapstick in the Sellers style than the dynamics of the short story. Good flick but not Thurber.

    Reply
    • cultfilmalley
      Permalink

      Yes, I remember that movie. There’s a scene where Sellers in the heat of temper with his wife reaches behind him to pull a knife out of a kitchen drawer and he pulls something like an egg beater out instead. I think even Woody Allen used the same joke again in one of his later movies.

      Reply

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