Movies
4:35 pm
Wed December 25, 2013

Another Life For The Surprisingly Multifarious Walter Mitty

Originally published on Wed December 25, 2013 8:26 pm

A short story, a radio show, a Danny Kaye vehicle — no, really — even an off-Broadway musical: James Thurber's nebbishy daydreamer Walter Mitty has had plenty of incarnations in his nearly 75 years. He's back again, this time in an expensive, effects-fueled drama from actor-director Ben Stiller, and we thought that rather than reviewing it, we'd have NPR's Bob Mondello survey the range of public lives lived by the character. Have a listen.

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Transcript

ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

Walter Mitty is back. Ben Stiller plays him in "The Secret Life of Walter Mitty," a new movie version of James Thurber's short story. The nebbishy daydreamer has been inspiring flights of fancy for almost 75 years. We asked our critic, Bob Mondello, to take a look back at the many public lives of Walter Mitty.

(SOUNDBITE OF RADIO SHOW, "THE SECRET LIFE OF WALTER MITTY")

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: (As character) We're losing altitude, Sir. We've got to turn back.

ROBERT BENCHLEY: (As Walter Mitty) Out of the question. We'll stay on the beam if it takes us straight through the center of the worst storm in 20 years of Navy history.

BOB MONDELLO, BYLINE: For 1940s radio audiences, Robert Benchley was Walter Mitty, a legend in his own mind.

(SOUNDBITE OF RADIO SHOW, "THE SECRET LIFE OF WALTER MITTY")

BENCHLEY: (As Walter Mitty) We're going through.

MONDELLO: Heroic, fearless, the bravest man in an entirely imagined universe.

(SOUNDBITE OF RADIO SHOW, "THE SECRET LIFE OF WALTER MITTY")

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: (As Mrs. Mitty) Not so fast. You're driving too fast. Walter Mitty, do you hear me?

BENCHLEY: (As Walter Mitty) Oh. I'm - I'm sorry, my dear.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: (As Mrs. Mitty) What's the matter with you, Walter?

BENCHLEY: (As Walter Mitty) What makes you think something's wrong?

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: (As Mrs. Mitty) You started getting that vague look again.

MONDELLO: Benchley's Walter Mitty was channeling a henpecked milquetoast that audiences already knew. James Thurber had created him for the pages of The New Yorker on March 18, 1939, pages 19 and 20, to be precise, and not all of either page because Thurber's "Secret Life of Walter Mitty" was barely a thousand words long. Still, words enough for Mitty to pilot a hydroplane, save a millionaire banker on the operating table, electrify a courtroom with his testimony, and stare down a firing squad all as he was running errands for his wife.

(SOUNDBITE OF RADIO SHOW, "THE SECRET LIFE OF WALTER MITTY")

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: (As character) Pick up feet there, will you? Can't you see the lights changed?

BENCHLEY: (As Walter Mitty) Oh, oh, sorry.

MONDELLO: Mitty's imaginary exploits were enough to fill Benchley's 19-minute radio broadcast but not enough to fill a feature length movie. So when Hollywood recruited Danny Kaye to play Mitty in 1947, they embellished a bit. Mitty was given a job editing horror stories and trashy romances, which became grist for his fantasies and which also allowed Boris Karloff to drop by, claiming to be a writer.

(SOUNDBITE OF MOVIE, "THE SECRET LIFE OF WALTER MITTY")

BORIS KARLOFF: (As Dr. Hollingshead) I know of a way to kill a man and leave no trace.

MONDELLO: So that romance could blossom with a beautiful co-star, this first movie Mitty was henpecked not by his wife but by his mother who prepared dinners that were a little on the nose.

(SOUNDBITE OF MOVIE, "THE SECRET LIFE OF WALTER MITTY")

FAYE BAINTER: (As Mrs. Eunice Mitty) Walter, you haven't touched your nice milk toast.

MONDELLO: And because Danny Kaye could rattle off nonsense songs, the filmmakers threw those in, too.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "THE LITTLE FIDDLE")

DANNY KAYE: (Singing) (unintelligible). Happy (unintelligible).

MONDELLO: This Walter Mitty was still a nebbish, timid and insecure. But unlike the guy in the original story, he got caught up in actual adventures, not just fantasy ones. And they helped him worked up the courage to say some very un-Mitty like things to his boss and the other folks who kept bossing him around.

(SOUNDBITE OF MOVIE, "THE SECRET LIFE OF WALTER MITTY")

KAYE: (As Walter Mitty) Your small minds are muscle bound with suspicion. The only exercise you get is jumping to conclusions.

THURSTON HALL: (As Bruce Pierce) Now, hold on, Mitty. I don't think...

KAYE: (As Walter Mitty) You never think.

HALL: (As Bruce Pierce) What?

KAYE: (As Walter Mitty) The only good idea you ever had was to hire me to do your thinking for you.

MONDELLO: This more assertive Mitty also put in an appearance when some off-Broadway folks decided to fully musicalize his story on stage in 1964. And music turned out to be a great way to pump up those fantasies.

(SOUNDBITE OF MOVIE, "THE SECRET LIFE OF WALTER MITTY")

TOM EWELL: (As Walter Mitty) (singing) ...that I say.

UNIDENTIFIED GROUP: (Singing) Oh, tragedy.

EWELL: (As Walter Mitty) (singing) Off the radio, in my private plane.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #2: (Singing) Meet your royal (unintelligible) in the...

MONDELLO: Ben Stiller's new movie version doesn't use music to pump up Mitty's fantasies. It uses state-of-the-art special effects.

(SOUNDBITE OF MOVIE, "THE SECRET LIFE OF WALTER MITTY")

BEN STILLER: (As Walter Mitty) Go, go, go. Get out. Get out. She's going to blow. Go, go.

MONDELLO: Building in flames, Mitty leaping in through a third-floor window to save a pretty co-worker, three-legged dog, no problem.

(SOUNDBITE OF MOVIE, "THE SECRET LIFE OF WALTER MITTY")

KRISTEN WIIG: (As Cheryl Melhoff) Thank you. How did you know about the building?

STILLER: (As Walter Mitty) I heard barking. I thought I smelled gas. Oh, I hope it's OK. I engineered a prosthesis for Chips while I was sprinting down the stairwell.

WIIG: (As Cheryl Melhoff) God, you're noteworthy.

STILLER: (As Walter Mitty) I just live by the ABC's, adventurous, brave, creative.

MONDELLO: It's easy to understand why the part would appeal to Stiller. He spend much of his career playing nebbishy characters who get pushed around. The thing is, Ben Stiller is in total control here: actor, director, producer. And his fantasy about Mitty's fantasies seems to be that they turn the character into an action hero. About a half-hour in, the daydreams disappear and Mitty starts doing real heroic stuff.

(SOUNDBITE OF MOVIE, "THE SECRET LIFE OF WALTER MITTY")

STILLER: (As Walter Mitty) I jumped out of a helicopter yesterday into the ocean and had a shark fight.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #3: Really?

STILLER: (As Walter Mitty) I can't really talk right now. I'm on my way to a volcano.

MONDELLO: By the time he's hiking to through the Himalayas to retrieve a photo for work, the most Mitty-iest thing about this Mitty are his snow mitts, which is fine. It's an actor's job to imagine himself a hero. There must be a little Walter Mitty in everyone in Hollywood. And if Stiller's dreams don't mesh with Thurber's, someone else's will, no doubt.

Maybe someone who writes about the movies. I can see him now sitting there at the multiplex, notepad in the hand, daydreaming as the credits roll about standing up for the audience, screaming at the filmmaker's, no, for once, don't do what's expected, do what's smart. A critic can dream, can't he? I'm Bob Mondello.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

SIEGEL: This is NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.