Comedies With Money
The Danny Kaye features for Samuel Goldwyn were comedies with money, just as Eddie Cantor's had been during the thirties. You look at them today and imagine how W.C. Fields, The Marx Brothers, or Abbott and Costello might have fared with such enormous resource at their disposal. Kaye rollicked in a technicolor garden to their black-and-white tenements. One reason I think folks resent this comedian is doubt (no, conviction) that he wasn’t worthy of such expenditure. Few clowns date so woefully as Danny Kaye. Many wonder why anyone ever laughed at him. These Goldwyn-aramas are so bloated, so extravagant for the sake of showing off, as to convince us that 40’s patrons maintained a whole different standard with regard screen humor. And yet they also liked much of what we still enjoy. Was it the novelty of Kaye’s act? If so, that was a long time wearing off. He had starring parts from 1944 into the sixties (and did give us The Court Jester). His initial brace for Goldwyn were one and all events. None placed below top of the bill. By The Secret Life Of Walter Mitty, there’d been three, pretty much an annual laugh and music feed. 1947 offered comedies and then it offered super comedies. Walter Mitty and Paramount’s Hope/Crosby The Road To Rio were for families wanting more than their money’s worth out of a merry movie night. As opposed to lame-o mix-ups with Claudette Colbert or Deanna Durbin getting caught in some guy’s pajamas, these were three-ring howlers for everybody. Never mind what we prefer now, Kaye appealed to a broader base at his peak than any other comic before cameras. The Secret Life Of Walter Mitty saw no shame in turning him loose upon audiences for an unapologetic two hours, much of that surrendered to gags done time and again to exhausting effect.
Goldwyn bought the James Thurber short story and committed to making it long. Sophisticates liked this author and were confident he’d be bastardized. Goldwyn thought little enough of the property to initially call his adaptation I Wake Up Dreaming, but restored Thurber’s title in the face of extravagant press covering the shoot. Thurber was consulted in time-honored fashion, then ignored. He'd regale New York Times readers (many fans there) with accounts of Hollywood moguls and their wives mucking around with his story. Turns out there was a Walter Mitty organization dedicated to protecting the integrity of their revered character, so that got coverage too. This was interest building a year in advance of the film’s opening. Few comedies merited such scrutiny. What Goldwyn kept of Thurber were daydreams increased in number from four in the story to a half-dozen for the movie, to which was added a scripter's own daydream wherein Mitty mans up, routs baddies, and wins Virginia Mayo (lacquered and white-gloved to near-statuary appearance) . Boxoffice receipts vindicated Goldwyn's rape of Thurber's art. The author may have had his niche readership, but their combined number couldn't muster $5.4 million in worldwide rentals such as SG's free-wheeled picturization did. The Secret Life Of Walter Mitty revolved but incidentally around that title character, its greater resources put to the disposal of Danny Kaye's manic persona. He trips, mugs, and patters as before. Audiences expected no less than multiple encoring for staccato lyrics wife Sylvia Fine penned for each Kaye feature, and what matter if they mis-fitted his Walter Mitty? A technicolored fashion show dawdles in recognition of then-customers' willingness to gaze upon Goldwyn Girls decked in latest 1947 creations. There's extensive second-unit glimpsing of story-set Manhattan, richly lensed to the advantage of gleaming Yellow Cabs and pristine skyscrapers. You can call The Secret Life Of Walter Mitty plodding and witless, but it is sure enough eye candy for those who'd call that enough, which in 1947, was most everyone who attended.
A singular fan-discovery recently brought The Secret Life Of Walter Mitty out of changing tastes' coma, that being indication that among deleted dream sequences was one featuring Boris Karloff reprising his Frankenstein monster act. Shock waves ensued when several E-Bay listings revealed hitherto unknown production stills with legendary make-up artist Jack Pierce applying scars and bolts to the Karloff countenance for the first time since Son Of Frankenstein (there was a baseball charity event in the interim with BK back in harness, but that was a one-night appearance). Members of The Classic Horror Film Board pounced on this revelation and spent numerous posts speculating on hows and whys of such a remarkable (and belated) curtain call. Goldwyn secured permission from Universal to display the protected image. Proof of that turned up in a separate online auction. Forum sleuthers assembled clues over months and realized that The Secret Life Of Walter Mitty was indeed the film for which Karloff again donned his immortal guise, but a question remained ... was there actually footage shot with him as Frankenstein's creation? Ace historian Ted Newsom argued a persuasive yes. Scott MacQueen suspects BK's rather perfunctory entrance into the narrative as it now stands is explained by the fact his monster appearance was excised. There's frankly so little of Karloff in the film as to make me wonder if indeed he wasn't prominent in at least one sequence eventually dropped (after all, he's third billed). The Secret Life Of Walter Mitty makes hash of menacing opportunity with heaped villainy that should have been merged into Karloff's character. His role seems truncated and unsatisfactory throughout. Was this result of eleventh-hour surgery to cover exclusion of the Frankenstein dream? There was one other dropped fantasy we know about in which Danny Kaye assumed the role of Irish rebel (and appears, at least by stills like one above, to have played that largely straight). In all the Mitty pre-release press I looked at, there was no mention of a Karloff/Frankenstein cameo, so debate continues as to how much, if anything, was actually committed to film. Discovery of such footage would naturally send currents through fandom the equal of those that first brought the monster to life.
Many Thanks to Scott MacQueen for Info and Images on Boris Karloff's participation in The Secret Life Of Walter Mitty.