As Joe Doakes is reading the newspaper, he begins to talk to himself. Questioned by his wife, he explains that he is disturbed by the paper's account of the ways that a government investigative committee has been interrogating its witnesses. Joe then nods off, and imagines that he is being questioned by the committee. He envisages how satisfying it would be to turn the tables on the investigators. Written by
Benchley, amusing as ever, in a Walter Mitty-like role
It's too bad that the great humorist Robert Benchley, who starred in a number of comic short films, never portrayed Walter Mitty on screen. He actually did portray Thurber's everyman with dreams of glory in a 1945 radio adaptation of "The Secret Life of Walter Mitty," but never in the movies. It feels like a missed opportunity because he'd have been perfect for the role, far more appropriate than Danny Kaye, who played Mitty in an ill-conceived musical version of the story.
In The Witness, however, Benchley comes pretty close to playing Mitty: here he's an average guy who fantasizes about being questioned by an investigative committee, vaguely political in nature and hostile in tone. In his daydream our hero triumphs over his persecutors with snappy comebacks, sarcasm, and wisecracks. The film is based on Benchley's magazine piece "Take the Witness" which has a courtroom setting, but in this adaptation the premise is adapted to then-current events, when various congressional committees were investigating war profiteering, political subversion, etc. (And it's fair to say that what was considered acceptable material for a comedy short in 1942 would not have been acceptable a few years later, during the era of Joe McCarthy and the Red Scare). With a cool, superior attitude, Benchley makes a fool of his interrogator. The punchline comes when, snapped out of his fantasy, he is confronted at his door by an unpleasant man taking a survey and finds himself at a loss, forcing his wife to deal with the guy.
This short takes an approach somewhat different from the original magazine piece. In the film Benchley's quips in the committee sequence aren't all that witty, yet the spectators laugh and murmur in approval, he's quite full of himself, and it all feels unreal, even dreamlike. For me that's what makes the premise work, because it's so true to life. In our fantasies, our jokes ARE funny, people laugh and applaud, we gain their approval easily and win the day. Then reality intrudes: the phone rings, we wake up, it's a telemarketer peddling something or taking a survey, and our fantasy of heroism is over. Benchley captures that experience nicely in this amusing short.
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