I keep getting reminded of how unreliable memories can be, especially about things that happened a long time ago. While forgetting details and even entire incidents are common, more concerning is when we ‘remember’ things that did not happen. The latest such incident occurred when a few days ago I was watching the 1947 film The Secret Life of Walter Mitty starring Danny Kaye. I was a huge fan of Kaye’s comedies as a boy, which often showcased his ability to sing comic songs, and this film had two of them. I recall watching it a long time ago and enjoying it so when I saw that it was streaming, I decided to take a second look.
The film is about a timid, milquetoast of a man who is bullied by his mother, his boss, and his fiancee and who escapes into daydreams where he is the hero of adventures. Like so many films that we recall from our childhood, it did not age well. (It was remade in 2013 with Ben Stiller in the title role). I would have stopped watching after about ten minutes but what kept me going was that I distinctly recalled that right at the beginning, while he is waiting at a traffic light, he daydreams that he is the pilot of a military plane that is flying through a major storm. Despite the dangerous conditions and the plane being buffeted by the strong winds, he remains calm and collected and his crew admiringly tell each other that they are confident that he is the one person who can pull them through. In the background, the engine makes a ta-pocketa-pocketa-pocketa sound, a recurring background machine sound in almost all his daydreams.
But in the film, the first daydream is where he is the captain at the helm of a sailing ship, steering it through a hurricane, even though he has a broken arm that he nonchalantly dismisses. What happened to the plane scene that I remembered so distinctly? I kept watching the film through to the end to see if it came later but though he had many heroic daydreams, that one did not appear.
The film was based on a short story by James Thurber with the same title so I looked it up. It appeared in the March 18, 1939 issue of The New Yorker magazine and sure enough, the story begins with the plane daydream.
“We’re going through!” The Commander’s voice was like thin ice breaking. He wore his full-dress uniform, with the heavily braided white cap pulled down rakishly over one cold gray eye. “We can’t make it, sir. It’s spoiling for a hurricane, if you ask me.” “I’m not asking you, Lieutenant Berg,” said the Commander. “Throw on the power lights! Rev her up to 8,500! We’re going through!” The pounding of the cylinders increased: ta-pocketa-pocketa-pocketa-pocketa-pocketa. The Commander stared at the ice forming on the pilot window. He walked over and twisted a row of complicated dials. “Switch on No. 8 auxiliary!” he shouted. “Switch on No. 8 auxiliary!” repeated Lieutenant Berg. “Full strength in No. 3 turret!” shouted the Commander. “Full strength in No. 3 turret!” The crew, bending to their various tasks in the huge, hurtling eight-engined Navy hydroplane, looked at each other and grinned. “The Old Man’ll get us through,” they said to one another. “The Old Man ain’t afraid of Hell!” . . .
“Not so fast! You’re driving too fast!” said Mrs. Mitty. “What are you driving so fast for?”
“Hmm?” said Walter Mitty. He looked at his wife, in the seat beside him, with shocked astonishment. She seemed grossly unfamiliar, like a strange woman who had yelled at him in a crowd. “You were up to fifty-five,” she said. “You know I don’t like to go more than forty. You were up to fifty-five.” Walter Mitty drove on toward Waterbury in silence, the roaring of the SN202 through the worst storm in twenty years of Navy flying fading in the remote, intimate airways of his mind. “You’re tensed up again,” said Mrs. Mitty. “It’s one of your days. I wish you’d let Dr. Renshaw look you over.”
So what happened to make me remember seeing something that I never saw? I must have read the Thurber story back then as well and over time, my brain created an entire visual scene of the opening daydream and inserted it into my memory of the film.
As I watched, nothing else was familiar, apart from the ta-pocketa-pocketa-pocketa sound. The Thurber short story only consists of five daydreams from each of which reality brings Mitty back roughly to the present, hardly enough to make a film. In the film, his nagging and bullying wife is changed to a nagging and bullying mother and Mitty’s daydreams get him involved in an elaborate and sinister conspiracy but nobody believes him because of his reputation for mixing up reality and fantasy. I did not remember any of this. So basically, the only scene from the film that I ‘remembered’ was one that did not appear in it.
The strange ways. that memory works is a never-ending source of fascination for me. I try to always remember to try and corroborate any major memory with supporting evidence.
Here is a trailer from the film.
Here is the trailer of the 2013 remake.