Friday, October 9, 2015

Danny Kaye or Ben Stiller? - A Duel of Walter Mitty!

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's all well and good until the blonde herself actually materializes in real life while he's on the train into the city. She settles herself into the seat beside him and then, before departing the train, pretends to the air that they're sweethearts, leaving him blinking in astonishment. Walter's imaginary world and his real world collide, leaving him involved in an attempt to recover a little black book containing vital information regarding missing works of art that were stolen during World War II. When he's not being hunted by bad guys with really long knives in a department store, Boris Karloff is trying to push him out his office window! To make a bad situation worse, his mother won't believe him because he's always been a daydreamer, his fiance and her mother think he's nuts and sadly, Walter isn't really one for making himself clear when it comes to explanations.

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
No review can ever quite do the comedic acting chops of Danny Kaye justice, but now it is my time to try. Part of the charm of this early version of TSLoWM is simply Danny Kaye. There are about 6 daydreams Walter has during the course of this movie, each one utilizing a different persona for the actor, and each one bringing to the forefront a different talent that can only be described as uniquely Danny Kaye.

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!?
Of course, no man is an island, and so Virginia Mayo must absolutely be given her due. She had me completely charmed from the moment her character walked into one of Walter's daydreams, and then when he met the real woman he'd been dreaming about all those years, well, of course I cheered them both on with their cute and impossible little romance. Virginia Mayo is lovely and a skilled actress and while perhaps not on par with Danny Kaye for his just plain "thingness," she still comes pretty close. Her beauty alone is enough to blind the audience, just as it does Walter Mitty.

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?

I love every moment of Danny Kaye's The Secret Life of Walter Mitty. From the moment I saw it 2 years ago to my rewatch a few nights ago, my love for it has only grown. However, I do admit that for people who aren't accustomed to classic films some of the comedy bits are a little . . . absurd. All right, so Danny Kaye sings. It's what he does, and so some of the dream sequences have him singing. And then there's the fashion show. Yep, some of the classic films incorporated fashion shows into the plot in ways that make absolutely no sense, but are simply an excuse to tout some designer's line of clothing or hats or ladies' undergarments, you name it.

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!
You may be wondering what I actually like about this remake. Everything. But let me explain. Unlike Kaye's Walter who plays a lot of stuff for laughs, Stiller's Walter is a guy who literally knew how to have fun once, until his father died and he became the man of the house at age 17, had to get a job while still in high school to support the family, and had to grow up waaaaay before his time. He's your ordinary, average, everyday Joe who never had a chance to fulfill any of the dreams his teenage heart could conjure up. This is why his imagine is so vivid, something he has in common with Kaye's 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
The cast for this movie is almost as equally as impressive as the casting for the original. You have Ben Stiller as Walter Mitty, who also directed the film, I might add. I've never appreciated him as an actor before, only really seen him in The Night at the Museum movies, and wasn't impressed. I was wrong about him, and I'm glad to say it. He was stupendous in this film.

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!
What you have are two movies that are entirely unique from one another. There almost can't be a comparison because each story is charming and endearing in its own way. I love Danny Kaye and so I love his Mitty, but in terms of watching a man discover himself, I'd almost say that I love Ben Stiller's Mitty just a skooch more. Both stories have their own merit, it just depends on what you're looking for. If you want a comedy, go with Danny Kaye, hands down. If you want a dramatic story with a touch of nostalgia, go with Ben Stiller. The constant plug for EHarmony is kind of funny in the remake too, just saying.

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.


  1. I'm shocked the remake nearly edged out the original for you, but I'm delighted that you've discovered something that you love. I've never seen it, but since you're so enthusiastic about it, I might have to watch it after all (like you, not a big Stiller fan).

    1. Stiller really impressed me in the remake, something I didn't think he was capable of doing. It's really quite an excellent film and one I might end up buying.

  2. I've read the original story by James Thurber several times, but I have yet to see either movie version. I do want to, though!

    Lovely, thorough write-up for both films :-)

    1. And I've never read Thurber's story so I have no point of reference. But I did put the book on hold so we'll see what I think. :)

  3. "Mitty" is one of my favourites from Thurber, and despite my affection for Danny Kaye and the great showcase for his talents, never felt the movie did the story justice. I absolutely love Ann Rutherford's work as Walter's fiancee - very underrated.

    I have yet to be impressed by Ben Stiller (I always joke that it's too bad he didn't go into show business like his folks), but you make it sound like this "Mitty" is worthwhile and may be that one role that changes my mind totally. Adding it to the must-see list.

    1. Whatever well of talent Stiller was drawing on, I wish he would go to it more often. He proved to me that he actually could act as Mitty. That was quite a feat. Of course, it may be nothing like the original story, but I've never read it so I have no point of reference.

  4. Like you, I was surprisingly impressed by the remake. When I first heard Walter Mitty was going to be remade, I cringed a little, thinking it wouldn't be handled well. But I think the filmmakers did a good job. I am one who loves the original story and, while I don't think either movie truly does justice to James Thurber's story, I do think both are really entertaining films.

    1. Now I really need to read that story. I've heard nothing but good things about it and I'm curious to see how the movies stack up. Thanks for reading!

  5. Your description had left me wanting to give the remake a try!

    Thanks for participating!!!

    1. Watched the remake last week. Loved it!!! The cinematography was gorgeous and I really liked how it was a personal journey for him.


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