Thursday, December 26, 2013

The Secret Life of Walter Mitty

James Thurber (1894–1961)
From James Thurber: Writings & Drawings

An article that appeared recently in The Columbus Dispatch (James Thurber’s hometown newspaper) considers the enduring popularity of characters like Walter Mitty, who made his creator famous after the publication of “The Secret Life” in 1939. Beaten-down underachievers had long been—and would continue to be—central to many of Thurber’s stories and drawings, but what set Walter Mitty apart from his counterparts was a series of flights into heroic fantasies—daydreams that increasingly seem to intrude on Mitty’s grasp of reality. In an interview for the Dispatch article, Jared Gardner, a professor at Ohio State University, acknowledges, “Thurber was drawing on a classic device found in some of the great comedies in American culture—in which the timid or oppressed man finds release or redemption in fantasies drawn from popular culture.”

“Though the theme was far from new,” summarizes biographer Harrison Kinney, “Thurber handles it with a greater universal application than anybody before or since.” Soon after the story’s initial appearance in The New Yorker, it was reprinted in Reader’s Digest (twice), Life, Scholastic, and This Week Magazine. The selection was also included in Thurber’s best-selling collection, My World—and Welcome to It (1942). Throughout the war, anthologies of Thurber’s writings were issued as Armed Services editions, and the story became a favorite among American soldiers. Kinney explains, “World War II flyers used ‘pocketa-pocketa’ in radio code; planes and vehicles were named ‘Walter Mitty’; airmen formed Walter Mitty clubs; troops used ‘Walter Mitty’ as passwords.” During the 1940s Charles Laughton recorded an audio version, and Robert Benchley created a radio production. And, of course, the story was adapted for the big screen, first in the 1947 film featuring Danny Kaye and, now, in an updated major motion picture released this week with Ben Stiller as director and star.

Although the 1947 film was a commercial success and has acquired the patina of a classic in its own right, Thurber was upset with the studio, which had not used any of the material he had written or approved. The movie bears little resemblance to the original story, and at one stage of production, Goldwyn Productions even considered changing the title. When the author’s dissatisfaction became public, Samuel Goldwyn released excerpts from letters Thurber had written praising various scenes from drafts of the script yet disingenuously neglected to note that none of this material had actually made it into the final film. According to Random House publisher Bennett Cerf (who thought the movie was “hilarious”), at the end of the movie’s premiere Thurber asked, “Anybody catch the name of this picture?”
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