Very loosely based on the classic James Thurber short story, The Secret Life of Walter Mitty is a fun little romp, with a refreshingly dark and unsentimental side that makes it stand apart from other comedies of the era.
Danny Kaye plays the title character, a young man working at a New York publishing company, somebody with no greater life plans than getting to the end of the day without falling foul of his bullying boss, insufferably bossy mother, and immature and irritating fiancé. The only escape for poor Mitty is his own private fantasyland, where, whether as a brilliant surgeon, a dashing fighter pilot, or a sure shot cowboy, he is always the hero. However, fantasy and reality start to merge when, back in the real world, a beautiful woman drags Mitty into a plot involving stolen jewels – a beautiful woman who happens to look exactly like a woman from his dreams.
The film works best during the fantasy sequences, with the production design in the individual dreams both detailed and surreal (and in the hospital sequence, weird, almost like Cronenberg's Dead Ringers). Director Norman McLeod plays up this visual element more than in some of his previous work with the likes of the Marx Brothers and W.C. Fields, where the emphasis was more on surreal sight gags and word play.
There is also no attempt to gloss over how grim much of Mitty's life is, being undervalued at work and home, henpecked and demeaned by the men and women in his life. Things get genuinely dark too, when those around him convince Mitty that his active imagination is in fact a serious mental illness, and send him to see a shrink, played by, of all people, Boris Karloff. Again, credit to McLeod for balancing the light and dark of the film, ultimately making Mitty a sympathetic rather than just pathetic character.