The Secret Life of Judge Alice Nelson is none of your damned business!
Paging Ben Stiller!
I'm just going to tell ya upfront; I am not, nor have I ever been a fan of Danny Kaye—there, I said it, and it feels good to get that off my chest. Now that that's out in the open, believe me when I tell you that I went into The Secret Life of Walter Mitty with an opened mind, hoping against hope that I would grow a deeper appreciation for the actor. I heard from several sources that this Mitty movie was good, and with the remake starring Ben Stiller (Zoolander) opening on Christmas day, I bit the bullet, took one for the team, and volunteered to review the original just for you dear readers. Well you owe me, because this film was exactly what I feared; too much Danny Kaye and not enough story; instead of a heartwarming tale about a mild-mannered man dreaming of something other than his mundane life, The Secret Life of Walter Mitty is merely a vehicle for Danny Kaye to do all the annoying performance peculiarities that propelled him to stardom. Let me tell you, all of his over his top shenanigans made for a very, very long night.
Facts of the Case
Pulp fiction proofreader Walter Mitty (Danny Kaye, White Christmas) uses his ample imagination to escape a humdrum life dominated by a nagging mother, a self-centered fiancé, and a boss who continuously steals his ideas. But Mitty is suddenly thrust into an exciting reality when he meets the beautiful and mysterious Rosalind (Virginia Mayo, White Heat), who uses Walter to help her escape from the dangerous thug who's been chasing her.
Loosely based on James Thurber's 1939 short story The Secret Life of Walter Mitty, the author himself expressed dissatisfaction as his ideas were scrapped when Samuel Goldwyn wanted the film to showcase Danny Kaye's talents. Hence his story was ditched in favor of a zanier script that plays more like a variety show with comedic skits, and far too many musical numbers featuring Kaye's patented rapid delivery song stylings while using some made up foreign accent. Top that off with those unfunny contorted facial acrobatics and you will weep for poor Mr. Thurber.
The beginning of the film shows some promise, focusing on the man that is Mitty: a nice guy who wants so much to be someone other than who he really is. But when Rosalind enters the picture, this whimsical tale turns into some kind of hybrid espionage film, wrapped up in a muddled and cartoonish farce that is never funny or suspenseful. Kaye is at his best when he's acting, not clowning—and he is a fine actor, much more interesting as the reserved and sedate Walter than he is when he dons that exaggerated comedic swagger during the dream sequences.
The Secret Life of Walter Mitty tries to form a story around Kaye's comedic eccentricities instead of making Kaye work within the realms of the story. The only thing that would've made this film worse is if it starred Jerry Lewis, whose hokey characters and nasally voice is too much to take in almost any entertainment form. The supporting cast is there merely to prop up Mr. Kaye; the experience would probably have been much the same if the cast was made up of cardboard cutouts, with someone reading the lines from off camera. Even the beautiful Virginia Mayo is forgettable here. This was a film meant to highlight Danny Kaye—and only Danny Kaye—and to the film's detriment it did just that.
Shot in Technicolor, this 1.33:1 standard def presentation looks and feels like it must've when it was released in theaters over 60 years ago. The Dolby audio is quite nice, the dialogue is easy to hear and so are the much too numerous musical numbers. The Extras can hardly be called that; the jacket cover talks about an interview with Virginia Mayo, but what's actually on the DVD is a five minute long advertisement with Mayo simply reading prepared lines that tout the virtues of the film. Also included is the original theatrical trailer—and that is all folks. James Thurber was right to be dissatisfied with this film; it's an empty and soulless effort to promote Danny Kaye with little energy put into telling Thurber's tale. Unfortunately his short story, at least up to this point, is closely associated with this Danny Kaye vehicle, but maybe Ben Stiller can redeem things in the updated version.
I like those sharp Technicolor images, the stylish dresses, and the crazy hats of the '40s, but The Secret Life of Walter Mitty is a farcical failure that proves just because a movie was made during the golden age of Hollywood, doesn't make it a classic.
Here's hoping for a much better remake. Guilty.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Warner Bros.
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