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Tuesday, June 24, 2014

DVD Review: James Thurber: The Life And Hard Times

James Thurber: The Life And Hard Times is an interesting documentary about the writer who is most well-known for his short story, “The Secret Life Of Walter Mitty,” and also for his work at The New Yorker – both short stories and artwork. The documentary is narrated by George Plimpton, and features several interviews with writers, as well as footage of Thurber.

It opens with a piece from an interview with writer and humorist Stuart Hample, who talks about meeting Thurber at a party. Hample does a sketch of Thurber as he describes him and the scene (a delightful touch). “He stood by the piano and he said, ‘I love music. Christ, how I love music. I always wanted to be a musician. And what am I?’ And he slapped the piano with his hand. ‘What am I? Nothing but a goddamn humorist.’” What a great anecdote to begin the film, with one humorist being described by another, and showing both the humor and frustrations of the film’s subject.

Playwright Edward Albee says of Thurber, “What an extraordinarily good and serious writer he was, when he has the reputation of being a humorist.” He goes on to say, “He’s a very funny writer, but with a tragic sense of humor.” The film also includes interviews with John Updike, Fran Lebowitz, Alistair Cooke, and Roy Blount, Jr. There is also an interview with Rosemary Thurber, his daughter from his first marriage.

The film provides some interesting biographical information. Particularly intriguing is the material on Thurber’s mother and the relationship between her and his father. Thurber’s mother was a prankster of sorts, and biographer Burton Bernstein tells a funny anecdote of one of her pranks. Both parents opposed Thurber’s first marriage, to Althea, and there’s an interesting note that Thurber’s brother Robert boycotted the wedding, but no word on exactly why. (That’s one of the few moments while watching this film when I wanted more information.) Thurber and Althea moved to New York, and in 1927 Thurber sold a short story to The New Yorker. The film then goes into information on that magazine, and the effect E.B. White had on Thurber’s writing, with an interview with senior editor Roger Angell. There is some interesting discussion on the difference between Thurber’s writing and his cartoons, and about the way women are portrayed in the cartoons.

And of course there is a section of this documentary devoted to “The Secret Life Of Walter Mitty,” which was written in 1939 “about a timid man who fantasizes that he is a hero” (Plimpton’s narration). Plimpton says, “It would become Thurber’s most famous work.” What’s interesting about this section is the biographical information, how Thurber’s father was a Mitty-like character, and that Mrs. Mitty is like Thurber’s mother. And there is a little information on the film version, which Thurber disliked, referring to it as “The Public Life Of Danny Kaye.”

The film includes footage from an episode of Omnibus from 1954, where host Alistair Cooke interviews James Thurber. At the age of eight, while playing a William Tell game, Thurber was shot in the left eye with a toy arrow. And late in his life, the vision started to go in his other eye. At the time of the interview, Thurber was nearly blind, and he talks about having to give up drawing completely. But he finds the positive side to be being blind, saying that it allows him to not be distracted from his writing.

By the way, the title of the documentary comes from the title of Thurber’s book My Life And Hard Times. Excerpts of his writing are read to us at a few points throughout the documentary, and the work is quite funny. There is also some wonderful footage of an acceptance speech that Thurber gave late in his life.

James Thurber: The Life And Hard Time was directed by Adam Van Doren and originally aired in 2000. It was released on DVD on June 17, 2014 through First Run Features. Also released on that day was another documentary related to The New Yorker, Top Hat & Tales: Harold Ross and The Making Of The New Yorker, which was likewise directed by Adam Van Doren. There are no special features on the DVD.

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