Mr. Peabody and the Mermaid - 1948

William Powell and Ann Blyth

Mr Peabody and the Mermaid

Mr. Peabody and the Mermaid - released August 11, 1948. Directed by Irving Pichel

This William Powell comedy features the ace Hollywood actor as a man just turning fifty years old (Powell himself was fifty-five at the time), who has come across a mermaid while on vacation in the Caribbean. The trip to warm weather from his life in Boston is due to a crisis of mortality engulfing him ("...fifty is the old age of youth, the youth of old age" he opines to his wife, played by Irene Hervey) and the pretty mermaid (Ann Blyth) represents a return to youth, or at least, youthful energy, as he has to keep moving her around, putting her first in a bathtub, and then into the extraordinarily large fish pond at the deluxe island inn where he and his wife are staying.

Complications grow as the mermaid (from a distance, she never really gets a good look at her fishy competitor) is mistaken by the wife for an affair with an opportunistic local woman (played by Andrea King) who belongs to the British island community. But while we are shown the wife's jealousy and a sort of four (or five)-sided triangle (a local British islander has his eyes on Hervey) being formed, it never really gels and the film is really occupied with Powell sneaking away to spend time with his fishy female friend.

Though Mr. Peabody and the Mermaid is structured in the same style as a 1930s screwball tale, a field Powell excelled in, this movie is very much a late 1940s movie with a fantasy edge to it that makes it unique. Lacking the urgent speed of that earlier era, this one makes do with evenly spaced gags about psychology, abstinence from smoking and alcohol to improve an aging body, the attitudes of the British toward Americans (and visa versa), and of course, mermaids. What it fails to achieve in trying for sophistication, for example a rather clumsy suggestion that maybe what is happening is only in Powell's mind, it mostly makes up for it with us watching an alarmed Powell trying to figure out what to do with the beautiful half-girl, half-fish on his hands.

Aside from Powell's skills, the agreeability of Hervey, and the non-speaking work of the Mermaid (Blyth's character understands English well enough, she just can't voice any lines), the film has a tincture of sadness to it, something that would be quite out of place in one of those 30s' comedies that Powell made (the script for this film is by Nunnally Johnson from a Guy Jones novel).

Blyth doesn't have to pull off anything like the fearsome multi-sided work she did in Mildred Pierce, her more famous film. On the other hand, with Mr. Peabody and the Mermaid, she does about everything that can be hoped for with a mute part that centers on being a mythological symbol of self-destruction in a middle-aged man's vacation to recapture his bearings in life (and there's some confusion about all of this in the story-telling. This mermaid sings and in the end Powell ends up on the rocks of a small island, which matches the ancient tale of Ulysses tortured by the mermaids singing, trying to lure the hero to run aground on rocks. But whereas the mythological creatures wished to slaughter sailors, there's nothing like that to the cheerful mermaid played by Blyth. Rather, she seems as ensnared by Powell as he is with her.)

The production qualities are first rate, though limited. There is a grandiose set for the Inn where Powell and Hervey are staying, with an enormous pond where the rare and tropical fish inside it end up being eaten by the mermaid. When Blyth dives downward into its impressive depths it looks more like a fantastically big fish tank, complete with a toy castle for the mermaid to hide in. The tail Blyth swims with is encrusted with glinting jewels along its scales, and supposedly this wearable special effect cost approximately $20,000 to build, and a week of practice to learn to swim with. It's rather amazing that Blyth is able to effectively express everything through her face or by splashing her large fish-tail, and there's no mistaking what she means when she does either.

Outside of the Hollywood sets, scenes are shot around Weekiwachee Springs, Florida, representing the British Caribbean isle where Mr. Peabody meets his mermaid.

Powell is the old-world gentleman here seen in so many of his other films, older and with slices of silver in his hair along the temples. Instead of winning the girl and setting his world in order like those films allowed him to do, here he is set apart from the British island clique on the screen, and in a way that reinforces the sometimes melancholy undertone of the movie, with Powell alienated to some degree from every other character in the film, except for his mermaid.

Original Page April 2020

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