Danny Kaye has been a favorite actor of mine since the first time I saw White Christmas when I was somewhere around 5-years-old. I love this man for his absolute skill at being slapstick silly and being so absurdly adorable while doing it.
So I leaped at the opportunity to write a comparison post for Danny's version of The Secret Life of Walter Mitty from 1947 and the Ben Stiller version of 2013 for the "They Remade What?!" Blogathon.
Being objective, however, is going to be a struggle since I've not even seen the remake yet, and love the original. Ben Stiller and I are not buddies. I've seen, oh, maybe 4 of his movies throughout my life and been unimpressed by all of them, mainly because he's in them. But I don't want to be unfair to him and so I am giving him a sporting chance to impress me with his remake of a well-loved classic film. So I'm going to write about the original film first, which I just watched, and then give the remake a shot in the 2nd half of this post (watching it for the very first time!).
Instead, let's begin with The Secret Life of Walter Mitty, the 1947 version. Danny Kaye's Mitty works for Pierce Publishing in New York City as a proof reader and spends the better part of his days imaging himself in various scenarios. He's the captain of a ship carrying Indian spices who's in danger of going down in a whopper of a storm. He's a riverboat gambler in the Deep South, or a World War II flying ace for England, or a western gunslinger set out to save his lady love, or even a world-renowned surgeon. You name it, he's imagined it, and always with the same beautiful blonde by his side.
|The exquisite Virginia Mayo as Rosalind van Hoorn|
That, my friends, is the 1947 version of The Secret Life of Walter Mitty in a nutshell!
|The entertaining dream sequence where Walter imagines himself in the RAF|
Anyone that has seen the original TSLoWM knows exactly what I'm talking about when I say that Danny Kaye was made, literally MADE, for the role of Walter Mitty. His facial expressions are so alive, every reaction perfectly timed to whatever is happening around him. Walter is a nervous little man where real danger is concerned, and so every nuance, every fear, every panic attack, is expressively revealed in the wide eyes, gulping swallow, and shaking hands of Danny Kaye that nearly upends a teacup all over his shirtfront.
|Dude, you weren't going to just march out of the house with her!?|
Then there's Boris Karloff. I have almost no film experience with this particular actor, but I know he's highly respected for his successes in the horror genre, and so to cast him in the role of creepy doctor/psychiatrist, well, let's just say that it works.
|You and windows really are a bad combo, aren't they, Walter, old boy?|
The important thing, though, is that Walter has a moment where he pretty much declares his freedom from the nagging people in his life. It's a crucially important moment when the scared, shivering Walter grows up and decides he's not going to just sit back and let other people rule his life anymore. He takes charge, and I love that moment.
This film is very dated, but in a good way because it shows the fashion and setting of the post-war era, an era that I happen to love. For people who love Danny Kaye, or simply people who love classic comedies, you really can't get much better than The Secret Life of Walter Mitty. It's at least as entertaining as Arsenic and Old Lace with Cary Grant, and that's saying something!
So, not really a Ben Stiller fan.
Not really a fan of remakes in general.
But I LOVED the remake for The Secret Life of Walter Mitty!
I know, I know, it's crazy right, I'm just as shocked as everyone else. I think part of what totally endeared this movie to me is that it's nothing like the original, literally nothing like it. Danny Kaye was in a comedy, Ben Stiller was in a drama with some comedic moments. Danny Kaye made me laugh, Ben Stiller made me smile. Two different reactions for two different types of genres, but both are equally valuable, and both films fit into their genres perfectly.
So, the storyline for the 2013 The Secret Life of Walter Mitty is as follows. Walter works for Life Magazine in the negatives department, which means he deals with the photos that are used for the magazine. A corporate takeover has occurred, Life is going to be an online only magazine, and there's only one issue left to be released as the grand Final Issue. The photo cover for this issue is supposed to be negative 25, sent by field photographer Sean O'Connell to Walter's office. They can't find the negative anywhere and so heads are really on the line. Walter, even though he's never gone on an adventure, ever, decides to track down said negative, which means following Sean to Greenland, and then to Iceland, back to the US, and then on a trek across the Himalayas. This exhilarating journey leads Walter on an equally exciting journey of self-discovery. Oh, yeah, and did I mention that he also has a gorgeous gal that he's in love with, but halfway afraid to speak to? Yeah, well he does, and a crazy sister, and a dear, aging mother.
Story, also in a nutshell, and completely different from the 1947 film.
|Skateboarding adventure in Iceland, go Walter!|
This journey is an adventure like the ones he always dreams about, but never dares to make into a reality. This guy nearly gets eaten by a shark in Greenland! Seriously!? He skateboards down a looooooong road in Iceland to this town where he hopes to find Sean only to barely escape with his life when a volcano erupts. Thank goodness for a kindly Icelander with a car! His adventures are some of the neatest things ever and they transform, in all the best kinds of ways. He's suddenly able to talk to the guy who's making all the changes at the magazine, giving him a piece of his mind in a way that actually makes this higher-up stop and think. All of the dialogue Walter conjured in his head, he's finally able to say in real life. It's a terrific step forward for him!
Another thing I love is how close he is to his family. Never once did I ever get the vibe that Walter resented his mother, played by Shirley MacLaine, or his sister. And he could very easily have resented them for ruining his life, for taking away some of his freedom, for condemning him to a life of drudgery in the basement of the Life Magazine building. But no, that's not who he is. He did his duty as son and brother, and he took care of them because he loves them. You have to admire a guy like that.
|Walter and Sean O'Connell watching a Snow Leopard in the Himalayas|
Sean Penn, an actor I don't really like, is cast as Sean O'Connell in a very brief role, but it worked. One of those cameo type appearances, that's a little bit longer than a cameo. What would you call that? A guest appearance? Maybe, that's it. Anyway, having him as the slightly grizzled, slightly hippy photographer worked. It felt natural. Then you have Shirley MacLaine playing Walter's mom, another guest appearance. She is who she is, and while she's changed quite a bit, I'll always harbor a bit of fondness for her because of how much I loved her in The Apartment with Jack Lemmon.
Now for Kristen Wiig. Like Virginia Mayo in the original film, Kristen is the lady who shows up in many of Walter's hallucinations.. I don't know the actress, haven't ever seen one her in a movie before, but really liked her as the heroine, Cheryl Melhoff. To be honest, though, her role is only important insofar as it affects Walter's life. He loves her and so she becomes important.
|Good, a step in the right direction, actually talking to Cheryl!|
Both films are terrific, and now I think I'll be adding the 2013 The Secret Life of Walter Mitty to my collection. I'm so glad I chose these movies for this blogathon otherwise I would never have tried the 2013 movie. I watched it while deliberately keeping an open mind and was pleasantly surprised at how much I enjoyed it. Any acclaim Stiller has earned from this film, he totally deserves.