Friday, 12 June 2015

Mr Peabody and the Mermaid (1948)

There are dozens of actors (and actresses) from the Golden Age of Hollywood movies that were always entertaining but who are now largely forgotten, not having reached the iconic or mythic status of a Humphrey Bogart or a Cary Grant, their great black and white films of the l930s and l940s now rarely screened. Such a player was the debonair William Powell who began his career in the silent 20s and graced countless 'classic' films through his final appearance in "Mr Roberts" (1955). A polished leading man ('though never a heart-throb)--think of the Thin Man series -- and light comedian, he could be relied upon to bring a touch of class to even minor outings.

Here he plays the eponymous Mr Peabody, ironically in the same year that the British also unleashed their own mermaid movie "Miranda" ( He is about to 'celebrate' his 50th birthday -- a turning point in a man's life then, "the old age of youth" as the script has it. (Powell was actually 56 at the time). He and his wife Irene Hervey have leased a winter rental on the British island of St Hilda's while he recuperates from a bad bout of flu and where he begins to hear the mermaid's siren song. While out fishing he hooks the comely creature's tail and, smitten, promptly brings her home to his wife's bathtub; viewing only the creature's shiny tail immersed in an overflowing bubble-bath, Hervey demands that he return the 'fish' to the sea. Instead he installs Lenore, as he calls her, in the villa's decorative fish pond, where she proceeds to devour all of the rare tropical species.

Lenore is played by 20-year old Ann Blyth, fresh from her turn as the nasty daughter in "Mildred Pierce", and has no dialogue. All she has to do is look dotingly and gooey-eyed at the 50-year old Mr Peabody to become the perfect woman who exists only for the man she loves. She also has a nifty angry glare when any other woman threatens to divert her beloved and some nicely-photographed underwater manoeuvres. The plot is complicated by Hervey's flirtation with a local British diplomat and Powell's being pursued by the dishy Andrea King. When Hervey leaves in disgust, thinking that her hubby is still carrying on with King after he has sworn that she means nothing to him (having seen mermaid Blyth sitting poolside in King's evening dress -- don't ask), the locals are convinced that murder is afoot.

On many levels it's a B-movie, but a well-written adaptation by Nunnally Johnson of the original novel and neatly put together by director-actor Irving Pichel (whose own forgotten career includes "The Most Dangerous Game", "The Moon is Down", and "The Pied Piper"). The film is also lovingly cast with a bunch of little-known bit parts players including Clinton Sandburg as the local PR-man forced by his quack doctor to give up cigarettes and booze ('we're two Americans surrounded by the Redcoats') and Mary Field as the shopkeeper selling Powell only halves of 2-piece swimming costumes to preserve Blyth's modesty.

In the end when Hervey drags Powell to a psychiatrist to cure his affliction, the doctor advises him not to tell his story to anyone who has not hit 'that air-pocket' -- the 50th birthday, where all sorts of fantasies might take hold in the attempt to preserve one's youth.

On balance both movies have their own delights; but despite relishing Powell's charismatic leading role, I must vote for "Miranda" with husky-voiced Glynis Johns --and, after all, that movie does boast the ineffable Margaret Rutherford amongst its cast.
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