The beauty of getting older is seeing the world change. The curse of getting older is not always remembering how the world used to be. Nostalgia is one of the most powerful and destructive drugs upon which any of us can get hooked. That’s one of the reasons visual media, like cinema and television, are such important forms of art and entertainment. Books, sculptures and paintings can be so easily reinterpreted and reevaluated to fit the whims of the moment. A film, however, cannot be separated from its cultural context. There are too many people involved in its production, too many visions, too many voices and almost all of them are of “the now”. Even when the movie is about another time and place, it inevitably is that time and place as it is understood when the movie is being made.
Let me give you an example of what I mean. You used to be able to say “The N-Word” on television. It was in a famous Saturday Night Live sketch with Chevy Chase and Richard Pryor. It was in dramas like Roots. It was on the news. Everyone knew it was a hateful slur but no one thought of it as an obscenity. It was used when the fictional or journalistic context was appropriate. Then something changed and we now, almost exclusively, say “The N-Word” on TV like we’re afraid of conjuring up Lord Voldemort or something.
Which may be a sign of cultural progress but, in this respect, is significant for its undeniable demonstration of how things used to be and how they are today. Movies of the past let you see how things used to be, or at least how people of that time wanted things to be, in ways that you can’t deny or deconstruct. And in giving us an accurate picture of the past, or at least how people of the past saw themselves and their world, they provide a reference point for understanding “the now” of our today.
Which is a wool gathering way of stating the most interesting thing about this Weekend Remake Throwdown isn’t the respective quality of the films. It’s how each one embodies a bit of the zeitgeist of its era.
The Secret Life of Walter Mitty (1947) stars Danny Kaye as its henpecked and put upon title character. He’s a timid little man who lives with his mother and is being railroaded into marrying an unpleasant girl who cares more for her dog than for Walter. He’s a proofreader for a publisher of salacious pulp magazines. And Walter is also a daydreamer who dives into his fantasies of being bold and brave and manly, in the most gentlemanly of ways, whenever he can. Walter imagines himself as a courageous sea captain, a dashing fighter pilot, a legendary cowboy and a host of other characters, all of them stronger, more assertive and more capable than Mr. Mitty could ever be in his own life.
In all of his daydreams, there’s the same blonde. She’s in different clothes and different roles but always pretty and always so admiring of Walter’s alter egos. The alter egos themselves are virtually indifferent to her. Walter doesn’t dream much about love and even less about lust. He dreams of being an important person and the girl’s swooning over him merely reinforces how wonderful his dream-self is supposed to be. In a couple of his fantasies, the girl makes a pass at him and Walter walks away from her like she’s a piece of the scenery. His daydreams are the reveries of a child, not the visions of a horny teenager.
Then one morning, the girl of his dreams shows up in Walter’s real life and gets him tangled up in an espionage plot that’s more convoluted than anything his poor brain every cooked up. There’s a book of treasures and a disappearing body and nefarious killers and ladies in their underwear. In the end, Walter has to know his own mind, save the girl and stand up for himself to his overbearing mother, domineering boss and awful fiancée.
The Secret Life of Walter Mitty (2013) stars Ben Stiller as a largely anonymous little man in the photo department of LIFE magazine. He lives alone, has a doting mother and a ne’r do well sister, and when he daydreams, it bears little resemblance to the theatrically staged scenes of Danny Kaye. It’s more like Stiller’s Walter goes into a fugue state and he has these schizophrenic delusions about the people around him, whether it’s the woman in accounting he fancies or the corporate douchebags who announce that LIFE magazine is ceasing print.
Far from childlike or even childish, there’s more than something a little creepy about how Stiller’s Walter, a man obviously on the far side of 40, fantasizes about his coworker falling in love with him. Walter even lapses into a romantic daydream about this woman while he’s in the middle of a conversation with her. That’s not a charming eccentricity. That’s the sign of a brain tumor.
Real life adventure comes into this Walter’s life when he embarks on a global journey to find a lost photo for the last cover of LIFE and has to track down the gallivanting rogue of a photojournalist (Sean Penn) who took it. He survives sharks and volcanic explosions and deadly mountain climbs, all of which make his eHarmony profile incredibly popular.
You can probably tell from those descriptions that the plots of The Secret Life of Walter Mitty have little in common. The biggest difference between them, however, is that the original is funny and the remake isn’t. That’s not because the remake is bad. It’s because the original is a comedy and the remake is…well, I’m not sure. It’s not a comedy. There’s maybe one good laugh in the whole film. It’s far too toothless to be a satire. At the end, Stiller’s Walter can’t even object to LIFE magazine being terminated and scores of people losing their jobs. All he can do is meekly suggest that it all happen in a nicer way. There certainly isn’t enough tension or conflict for it to be a drama. The story is about Walter overcoming his inhibitions but he does that within the first minute of the movie and keeps doing it over and over and over again. There’s really no point where Walter’s inhibitions prevent him from doing anything. If there’s a genre in which The Secret Life of Walter Mitty (2013) fits, it would have to be the category of “Ben Stiller Wants To Be Taken Seriously As A Filmmaker” films. While the original sought only to entertain, the remake was $90 million spent on giving Stiller a chance to demonstrate his not inconsiderable skills as a director and his very inconsiderable skills as an actor.
Which is an example of the two different worlds in which these films were made. 1947 Hollywood was a poorer place where, just ten year earlier, America was thought of by everyone including itself as a second-rate country. When you made a movie in 1947, comedy or drama, you made it to make money. 2013 Hollywood is a place where America has been the dominant power in the world almost longer than anyone can remember, with so much money sloshing around that tens of millions is often spent to satisfy a celebrity’s or studio executive’s ego.
And while there may have been people trying to make art in 1947 Hollywood, there were few artistic pretensions. The plot of the original Secret Life functions only as an excuse for a series of jokes, gags and Danny Kaye mugging for the camera like an embryonic Jim Carrey. The remake’s plot is so focused on grasping for meaning and significance it doesn’t earn that it can’t be bothered with little concerns like, you know, entertaining anyone. The original exudes a sense of everyone involved working hard to give the viewer and enjoyable experience. The remake oozes with an ennui that has no room to care about an audience’s expectations.
Even the main characters seem to have sprung from different dimensions. 1947’s Walter is a happy, well-meaning and talented young man who is popular at work and lacks only the ambition or, what we old folks used to call, gumption to stop letting other people push him around. This Walter doesn’t daydream as an escape from a miserable existence. He daydreams because he’s kind of fellow who daydreams. Nothing more. Nothing less. 2013’s Walter is an unhappy and middle aged man of no true talent, other than skateboard tricks, who turns to fantasy as a substitute for his frustrating reality. In the remake, Walter stops daydreaming when he embarks on his real life adventure. In the original, Walter stops to daydream as he’s on his way to save the blonde from the forces of evil. Other than a name and a mental preoccupation, these two Walters are a different as night and day.
Which I believe is another reflection of the worlds in which they were created. 1947 America was a nation of folks who’d experienced things like the Dust Bowl, The Great Depression, polio and two world wars. They were people with personal knowledge of mass suffering who wanted some relief. 2013 America is a nation of folks who’ve experienced things like their overpriced houses losing the value they should have never had, the Monica Lewinsky scandal, and the atrocious seventh and eighth seasons of “The Walking Dead.” They sometimes seem to search for a meaning in their entertainment that is absent from their lives.
Of course, 1947 America was also a place where Jackie Robinson became the first black man allowed to play Major League Baseball in over half a century. You don’t seen any of that in The Secret Life of Walter Mitty. And 2013 America…okay, I admit I got nothing. In 2013 America, Kim Kardashian reportedly made about $28 million. That’s not quite as bad as segregation, but…
This Weekend Remake Throwdown is won by The Secret Life of Walter Mitty (1947) because it is fun while the remake is just there. Both films are worth watching, though, for the contrast between a country that still thought of itself as poor and one that assumes it will always be rich.
The Secret Life of Walter Mitty (1947)
Written by Ken Englund and Everett Freeman.
Directed by Norman Z. McLeod.
Starring Danny Kaye, Virginia Mayo, Boris Karloff, Fay Bainter, Ann Rutherford, Thurston Hall, Gordon Jones, Reginald Denny and Konstantin Shayne.
The Secret Life of Walter Mitty (2013)
Written by Steve Conrad.
Directed by Ben Stiller.
Starring Ben Stiller, Sean Penn, Kristin Wiig, Jon Daly, Kathryn Hahn, Terrence Bernie Hinds, Adam Scott, Shirley MacLaine and Adrian Martinez.