William Powell and Ann Blythe star as the titular characters in 1948’s Mr. Peabody and the Mermaid. I like both actors, and I thought this was going to be a light and breezy comedy. Instead, I got something that I’m imagining was awkward in its original release, and will keep getting more uncomfortable over time.
Powell plays a man having a mid-life crisis, except he’s about to turn 49, so I guess he’s having a third-quarter crisis. Irene Hervey plays his unsympathetic wife, telling him he might as well start saying he’s 50. To be fair, if Powell is supposed to be 48 here, then I wonder how many years he had spent celebrating his 48th birthday.
The movie opens in some city far enough north that it is snowing outside a psychiatrist’s office where Hervey is telling a doctor, played by Art Smith, her husband is in love with a mermaid. I would think Smith would be more incredulous, but he is more interested in what weight line Powell used to make the catch.
I’m not sure why Hervey spoke to the shrink first, but Powell enters next and begins telling his side of the story. And, with that, we transition to a flashback that will take the bulk of the runtime.
He and Hervey had been vacationing at a house they were renting on the island of St. Hilda’s in the British Virgin Islands. Powell keeps hearing a wordless tune song in a high pitch by a woman somewhere he can’t pinpoint, but it seems to be coming from the direction of a small rocky island that is visible from the shore. One might describe it as a siren call, beckoning him out to sea. Before long, he’s taking a boat out there, where he finds an unusual, decorative comb on the rocks.
Soon, he’ll be out on the water fishing when he accidentally catches the mermaid. He takes Blythe back to the rented house and, before long, she’s living in the large decorative pond in its courtyard. I never considered it before, but I wonder why I was never curious as to whether salt-water mermaids could survive in fresh water. The answer to that unasked question is, apparently, they can. There’s even a castle-like structure at the bottom of the pond and this is where she takes up residence. I’m not sure why something nobody would see from the surface would be there.
Powell is constantly sneaking off to play smoochy-face with Blythe. Blythe makes herself scarce whenever anybody but Powell is nearby. Hervey doesn’t believe the mermaid exists, so she’s convinced he’s having an affair with Andrea King, a resident of the island who puts some pretty bold moves on Powell in public. Something that surprised me for the time is Hervey and Hugh French also have a very open flirtation with each other.
Hervey finally tires of the affair she thinks Powell is having and so she leaves without telling him where she’s going. When her abandoned car is found, the police start building a murder case against Powell. But this subplot doesn’t provide any suspense, because this is a flashback and we know they both will be OK at some point after this.
And now to finally address the main reason why this movie doesn’t work, and that is because Blythe is given almost nothing to do. She can’t talk, so she doesn’t have any dialogue. Curiously, given some of her reactions to various events that happen, she has some understanding of the English language, though I have no idea where she learned it.
Blythe is there only to be the object of his obsession. This “relationship” is entirely one-sided. Even without viewing it from the perspective of a half-century later, the power dynamic is unsettling. Not only is there quite a disparity in their ages, but she almost has the mentality of a human child.
Eventually, Powell decides to set her free in the ocean. The police find him immediately after and, as they are taking him back to shore in a boat, he jumps in the water. In what is the most visually impressive and moody shot of the film, we see him sinking as she grabs him and pulls him down. Once again, we know he won’t drown because the movie started with him telling this tale in flashback, which will now pull back out of. In the end, the shrink chalks up Powell’s experience to a struggle with accepting his age.
What I’m surprised nobody ever thinks about is how a romance with a mermaid could possibly be consummated. The only time I have seen that concept explored is in that Futurama episode about the lost city of Atlanta. As a mermaid explains to her human boyfriend, “Normally I lay my eggs in that corner, and then you fertilize them…” Somehow, I doubt that’s the fantasy Powell had in mind.
Mr. Peabody and the Mermaid takes material that could have been a sitcom a next decade later and turns it into something weirdly icky. Then again, I’ve never understood how mermaids have been an aspect of popular culture for so long. There aren’t many cultural touchstones you can trace back to sailors so desperate for masturbation fodder that the sight of manatees had them jacking it.
Dir: Irving Pichel
Starring William Powell, Ann Blythe, Irene Harvey
Watched on Olive Films blu-ray