James Thurber was an acclaimed humorist/illustrator/satirist who rose to literary fame when his work was featured in the prestigious magazine “The New Yorker”. The nearly hour-long PBS styled documentary James Thurber: The Life and Hard Times presents viewers with a multi faceted portrait of the writer/artist, portraying him in real human terms rather than merely concentrating on his status as a literary icon.
Thurber was born in Columbus, Ohio in 1894. Due in part to the urging of then wife Althea, Thurber moved to New York City in 1925. He began writing for the New York Evening Post before joining the staff of The New Yorker. Perhaps modern readers will be familiar with Thurber because of the 2013 film “The Secret Life of Walter Mitty” which was adapted from one of the writer’s most famous short stories of the same name. Interestingly, the 2013 version, starring Ben Stiller, was actually the second time this particular story was adapted to the big screen. In 1947 another film version was released with actor Danny Kaye cast in the lead role. Unfortunately the documentary reveals that Thurber wasn’t pleased with the initial Hollywood adaptation of his work but we’ll never be sure of his opinion regarding the updated version.
James Thurber: The Life and Hard Times was directed by Adam Van Doren and is narrated by George Plimpton. It features an array of insightful interviews with several of Thurber’s co-workers, critics, fellow writers, friends, and even his daughter Rosemary. Among the notable names in the documentary are playwright Edward Albee, novelist and critic John Updike, journalist Alistair Cooke, and writer Fran Lebowitz.
The documentary acts as a primer for all those unfamiliar with James Thurber’s lofty career achievements. It provides viewers with examples of the author’s work with special emphasis on his simple comic drawings. Thurber was described as being a “compulsive doodler” and although there were times when he struggled with his writing his drawings seemed to come naturally to him. There was a marked difference between the ease at which Thurber was able to produce his drawings and the challenges involved in creating his written work. Thurber also suffered from an internal conflict in regard to his artistic aspirations. When he was starting out James Thurber intended to become a serious author like his idol Henry James but instead went on to gain fame as a renown humorist; a vocation which, in his estimation, was a lower and under appreciated genre of literature.
James Thurber: The Life and Hard Times portrays the esteemed author as a prolific artist with a tragic sense of humor whose work satirized the foibles of middle class America. In fact Thurber’s work reflects many of the demons which plagued him throughout his life. For example, as a child the author lost an eye in a freak accident. His eyesight continued to diminish for the rest of his life and eventually he was rendered blind. During an interview featured in the documentary Thurber is questioned as to what effect this handicap had on his ability to write. The humorist is quick to make the point that despite his inability to see, “a writer’s imagination doesn’t go blind” and even goes on to note that without sight he feels as if he’s become more observant and less likely to become distracted.
James Thurber died in 1961 at 66 years of age. The documentary James Thurber: The Life and Hard Times depicts him as a frustrated writer who despite his fame yearned to write “serious” novels. In his later years Thurber began drinking heavily and his work suffered. Personally he left behind his daughter and his second wife Helen. Professionally Thurber succeeded in creating a vast body of work which includes short stories, cartoons, books, a Broadway comedy (“The Male Animal”), and essays. His work has also been adapted to television as well as feature films.
James Thurber: The Life and Hard Times presents a portrait of a flawed but talented writer and illustrator. The film is a must see for anyone interested in American literature and in particular the work of humorists in the tradition of more well known writers such as Mark Twain.
James Thurber: The Life and Hard Times is out on DVD now.