“The Secret Life of Walter Mitty,” James Thurber’s classic 1939 short story, is a tribute to the sometimes unsettling power of the human imagination. It’s also very, very funny and, alongside a number of other Thurber gems — “The Catbird Seat,” “The Night the Bed Fell,” “If Grant Had Been Drinking at Appomattox” — remains an indispensable example of the uniquely American, mid-20th-century humor that found its highest expression in the pages of the New Yorker.
The most recent movie adaptation of the Mitty story stars Ben Stiller in the titular role as the archetypal nebbish who retreats into an intensely vivid fantasy world in times of stress. (The first film version of Mitty, starring Danny Kaye, was released in 1947.) In this rendition of the tale, Stiller plays a photo editor at LIFE magazine — still publishing, thanks to the magic of the movies, four decades after it shuttered in 1972 — and much of the film is set in the meticulously recreated offices of the storied weekly. In those offices, meanwhile, hang poster-sized versions of LIFE magazine covers through the years.
The covers are stirring, iconic — and, for the most part, they’re fake.
Or rather, the majority of the LIFE covers one sees in The Secret Life of Walter Mitty were never covers at all. The pictures on the covers in this gallery, for example — the launch of Apollo 11; Jayne Mansfield luxuriating in a swimming pool; a theater audience watching the first-ever 3-D feature-length film — are, indisputably, classic LIFE images. But none of them ever graced the cover of LIFE magazine.
“When we were selecting photos for the LIFE covers in Walter Mitty,” says Jeff Mann, the production designer on the film, “we focused on pictures that would serve the story we were telling, but that would also capture the diversity of what LIFE covered in its prime. We worked really, really hard to select photos that were novel, naïve — in the best possible way — and that featured significant twentieth-century people, places and events.”
In the end, Mann says, he and his team — and Stiller, who is a photography aficionado — felt that the photos they chose to use as covers, from the literally millions of pictures in LIFE’s archive, had to somehow “convey the influence of LIFE magazine, while at the same time helping to move our story along. It was a fabulous problem, and one we had a lot of fun working to solve.”
Here, then, are a number of LIFE covers that never were — including several that, in light of how wonderful they look, perhaps should have been covers, after all.