The tricks of memory

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.


  1. says

    Interesting. In To Kill a Mockingbird there’s a scene where, to atone for destroying the fence of a crotchety old lady, Jeb is forced to read to her for a week or two. It turns out that she was dying, addicted to opiates to deal with pain, and wanted to die opiate-free. I have a recollection of seeing Jeb in the movie doing the reading. Nope. It’s in the book only.

    (And now I’m hoping I haven’t misremembered the whole thing! 😉 )

  2. OverlappingMagisteria says

    Oddly, the Wikipedia article for the movie describes him imagining himself as an RAF pilot when he’s really stoking a heating boiler. Perhaps you remember that scene and it was cut from the version that you watched? Or did the author of the Wikipedia article also falsely remember it?

  3. OverlappingMagisteria says

    I had a similar invented film memory: In Wizard of Oz, I thought I remembered that when Dorothy taps the ruby slippers together, it showed her briefly flying into the sky and over a rainbow in the distance. It made sense in my mind since Oz is “over the rainbow.” My guess is that I combined this from the ending scene of ET, where the spaceship makes a rainbow as ET goes home.

  4. says

    I’ve had dream confabulations translate into memories, before. That is really unsettling when it happens. In one case it also involved a movie scene that did not appear in the movie (but would have made it a better movie) -- our experiences are not trustworthy.

  5. Mobius says

    Is it possible there were two (or more) versions released of the film? I know this sometimes happens, where some scenes are added or others deleted. I think OverlappingMagisteria may have it right.

    But you are right, memories are fluid. I distinctly recall phrases from a movie only to find upon re-watching it that the phrase is not quite what I thought it was.

  6. Mano Singham says

    OM @#3 and Mobius @#6,

    In the film I saw recently, there is a scene as described in the Wikipedia article, so the article is correct. That is a daydream that the short story also describes briefly and is greatly elaborated on in the film. In this daydream he is an ace RAF Spitfire fighter solo pilot who has an enormous number of dogfight victories over German planes.

    But it is quite different from the opening scene that I am talking about. It is possible that the filmmakers did not want to show two pilot daydreams like the story did. But the opening scene that I ‘remembered’ is described much more vividly in the story which may be why I remembered it and not the RAF pilot one.

  7. mnb0 says

    For several years I misremembered at which side two of my wisdom teeth were removed …..
    Fortunately since a few years they’re all gone.
    If I remember correctly.

  8. M. Currie says

    Another possibility for the plane scene mixup might be that there is another Danny Kaye movie in which he is piloting a plane. Merry Andrew, I think. I can’t remember details, as it was very long ago, but I seem to recall he’s ended up pretending to be a German pilot, and at one point tries to drink coffee through his mask.

    It’s quite possible there were multiple versions of the film. My wife, who saw Around the World in 80 Days as a child in Cuba, swears up and down that there was a dance scene with Cantinflas in that version, which does not exist in the US version. Given how popular Cantinflas was in Mexico, it seems quite possible that there was an extra scene, since Spanish language versions were often done for such movies, but it’s not documented. Or maybe it’s a false memory? We may never know.

  9. sonofrojblake says

    I do wonder if you somehow conflated a memory of “The Secret Life of Walter Mitty” with a memory of “A Matter of Life and Death” (released in the US as “Stairway to Heaven”, although nobody thought to write a theme song for it for another 25 years…)?

  10. garnetstar says

    I’ve always had an alarming overlap between things that happened IRL and things that I dreamt or imagined. Sometimes it’s very awkward to try to sort these out and act appropriately with other people, who may not have experienced something that I remember as happening.

    Then there’s the similar dichotomy between “did I say that or just think it?”, which often I lose track of as well.

  11. Silentbob says

    I’ve had dreams where I go to some very familiar (although fictional) place, or situation, and when I wake up I think, “That’s interesting, I’ve dreamt about that (place/situation) before”.
    But then the next thought is, “Wait. Did I really dream about that before, or did I dream I’d dreamt about it before in the dream?”. And it’s very disconcerting. 😆

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