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The evolution of Walter Mitty’s villains

The new film gives us a delicious opportunity to see how the culture has changed as reflected in how the story has been reinterpreted.

The 2013 film version of "The Secret Life of Walter Mitty" starred Ben Stiller as Thurber's mild-mannered protagonist.
Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation/Photo by Wilson Webb

As a young man, I laughed at, loved and devoured the short fiction of James Thurber, the great New Yorker magazine humorist. Thurber died in 1961, when I was 10, and before I became enamored with his work, but he was definitely still a name in my teens and 20s. I’m not sure my kids’ generation knows much about him. But his most famous piece, “The Secret Life of Walter Mitty,” published in 1939, still shows up in anthologies of  great American short stories.

Hollywood, which didn’t do much with Thurber’s work in general, made a film of Walter Mitty in 1947 starring Danny Kaye. That film, according to its Wikipedia page, turned up on the list of the 500 best films of all time, albeit at No. 479. (I do not endorse it for any best film list.)

Then, after apparently trying out various concepts and casts for a remake for almost 20 years, Hollywood made Mitty again last year. That one, directed by and starring Ben Stiller (co-starring Kristen Wiig), is still around in suburban theaters. I’ve seen it. It’s not bad. I don’t urge you to see it or anything. But when the same (sort of) story gets written in 1939, filmed in 1947, then filmed again in 2013, we get a delicious opportunity to see how the culture has changed as reflected in how the story has been reinterpreted.

To use the three Mittys for this purpose is almost too easy, but fun, so here goes:

Round One: Hen-pecker and hen-peckee

Thurber’s Walter Mitty (the 1939 original, print only) was a classic hen-pecked husband. It’s only a few pages long. Mitty escapes from his wife’s demeaning nagging into a fantasy world of noisy machines (all of which go pocketa-pocketa-pocketa) in which he is brave, heroic and masterful, whether piloting a submarine or an airplane or saving a patient with his world-renowned surgical skill. Then, from the middle of each fantasy, his wife hauls him back to the quiet desperation of his own life by yelling at him and giving errands to run while predicting that he will screw up even the errands. Then he disappears into another hyper-masculine fantasy.

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Especially as viewed from today’s mores, Thurber had a misogynist streak. He wrote many stories about husbands with domineering or annoying wives, so much so that in his prime there were stock characters in the culture known as the “Thurber man” (a nebbish) and the “Thurber wife” (a shrew.) Thurber clearly sympathized with the husbands. (See “The Curb in the Sky” about a man driven mad because his wife corrects everything he says.)

The modern version of the women’s movement (sometimes called “Second Wave Feminism”) is much more recent than we may recall. Ms. Magazine was a shocker when it launched in 1972. Thurber was seldom denounced in his own day for misogyny, although in today’s culture he would be.

The original Mitty story, although darkly funny and brilliantly told, is also tragic. Mitty is truly trapped in a miserable marriage and his only escape is in his imagination. It ends with his wife disparaging him one more time as he retreats into yet another heroic daydream. Yikes.

That was 1939, the year the last hope for peace was crushed, a dark time for the whole world.

Round Two: Danny Kaye

MGM bought the rights, got some advice from Thurber on how to expand the story into a two-hour film, ignored all the advice, cast Danny Kaye as Walter Mitty (which pretty much guaranteed that the dark element of the story would disappear into Kaye’s sunny silliness), added some musical numbers to play into Kaye’s multiple talents, and cast Virginia Mayo, one of then-reigning beautiful blondes, as the girl.

The film opens with a large, unpleasant, domineering  women saying to Walter/Danny exactly the things that Mrs. Thurber said in the story only now it’s not Mrs. Thurber Walter’s wife but Mrs. Thurber Walter’s mother. Aha, now we have scope for Walter to have a love interest

Like the original Thurber-Walter, Walter/Danny escapes from his mother’s bullying into a world of heroic daydreams starring himself, several of which give Danny a chance to speak and sing in funny accents. Each daydream also features a beautiful, adoring blonde played by Virginia Mayo, who was famous for her legs and who was often cast opposite Danny Kaye.

That last fact might explain why she would show up in Walter/Danny’s daydream, but nothing explains why she then shows up in Mitty’s real life and draws him into a ridiculously non-Thurberish  contretempswith a bunch of Nazis, or maybe they are just Nazi-sympathizers, who are after the great works of Dutch art that had been hidden during the Nazi occupation of the Netherlands. (One of the Nazis is Boris Karloff.) This is 1947. It’s not a war movie, but still the bad guys are Nazis.

And, of course, Walter/Danny performs heroically, prevails over the Nazis, saves the art, gets the girl and, in general, stands the whole point of Mittyishness or Mittyism or whatever on its head. In reading the TCM “notes” on the production, I ran across this:

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Goldwyn was famous for Yogi Berraish malaprops. Thurber recalled that that at one point Goldwyn warned him not to read part of the script, as it was “too blood and thirsty.” Thurber said he read whole script anyway “and I was horror and struck.”

Round Three: ‘Thurber woman’ has a sex change

The 2013 Ben Stiller version of “Mitty” completes (for now) the evolution of Walter’s troubles.

Stiller/Mitty doesn’t have a hen-pecking wife. He has a mother (Shirley MacLaine, no less), but she is nice. He doesn’t even have a girlfriend, although he develops a crush on a coworker, who is neither domineering nor a blonde bombshell but is a very warm, witty girl-next-doory divorced young woman played by Kristen Wiig. Nothing historically Mittyish going on here.

The main thing Stiller/Mitty has in common with his two Mitty predecessors is that he sometimes retreats into vivid daydreams. And, unlike the original Mitty but very much like Danny Kaye/Mitty, Stiller/Mitty starts getting into real-life adventures that aren’t just in his head. In search of the negative that is needed for the final glossy-paper issue of Life, he goes to Greenland, falls off a boat into shark-infested waters, rides in a helicopter with a drunken pilot, dodges a volcano that’s erupting well, you get the idea.

Why does he dodge volcanoes? I forgot to tell you, Stiller/Mitty’s problem is his job. (Original Walter Mitty didn’t even seem to have a job, other than driving his wife around.) Stiller/Mitty works with photo negatives for Life Magazine. Life Magazine is behind the times and is going to online-only publication. Photographic negatives are totally yesterday. Life’s employees, including Walter, are waiting to find out which of them will be laid off.

So the villain here is the guy from the company that’s taking over Life who will soon decide which Life workers will keep and which will lose their jobs, and that includes Walter. Walter goes on all those crazy mountain and ocean adventures hoping to track down the missing negative for the picture that will run on the cover of the last issue of Life. And he’s sure he will get fired if he can’t come up with it.

But this is the 20-teens, or whatever we are calling this ridiculous decade. Men aren’t troubled by their overbearing wives, nor mothers nor, for that matter, by Nazis threatening Dutch art treasures. The villain faced by Walter Mitty of today is some obnoxious, soulless bean-counting, job-axing Yuppie from corporate.