Tuesday, January 27, 2009

MIRANDA (1948)

I've never been particularly fascinated by mermaids (though I was fascinated by the hunky blond Aquaman in my comic-book-reading youth), and though I remember SPLASH being OK, I also remember that MR. PEABODY AND THE MERMAID was a terrible movie, despite the presence of the wonderful William Powell. So it was with some trepidation that I approached this British comic fantasy about a man who finds a mermaid and takes her back to civilization. It turns out to be a fairly delightful film, much more interesting than the above two mermaid movies. Middle-class doctor Griffith Jones takes a solo fishing vacation in Cornwall and snags a mermaid named Miranda (Glynis Johns) on his line. When he falls in the water, she takes him to her cave and he awakes to hear her singing her siren song. She begs him to take her back to London with him so she can spend a few weeks seeing the sights she's read about in snippets of newspapers left behind in the water. He agrees, having her pose as a patient confined to a wheelchair. When they get to London, the men she meets are all enchanted with her, especially Jones' butler (David Tomlinson) and his painter friend, John McCallum. The women are another story. Jones's wife (Googie Withers) isn't terribly happy to see such a lovely young woman staying with them indefinitely and being carried everywhere by her husband. Tomlinson's wife, the family maid, and McCallum's fiancée are similarly upset to see the effect she has on their men.

Jones hires a famously eccentric nurse (Margaret Rutherford) to take on the mermaid's personal care; when Rutherford finds out the truth about Johns, she's fascinated and keeps the secret. The rest of the film consists of Johns seducing all three men (though it's unclear exactly how far any hanky-panky could actually go) between visits with Jones to the opera (where one night, she heaves herself up on the edge of her box seat and belts out an aria as good as the one just heard on stage) and the playing-out of lots of fish puns and jokes about the mermaid's cold skin and Tomlinson's big ears. Just when it seems like the mermaid has wrecked all their love lives, the men find out that she's juggling them all and they lose interest. Johns dives out into the Thames and heads out to open sea, leaving the men and women to mend their relationships. A tidy and predictable ending, yes, but with a hilarious shocker of a last shot that will make you go back to contemplating the mechanics of human/mermaid sex. The movie is frothy and sexy and all the acting is top-notch, with especially high marks going to Withers, who generally manages to avoid the brittle clichés of the jealous wife, and the very handsome Jones (pictured) and McCallum. It's based on a play, but it never feels stagy. Brian Oulton has a small role as a flamingly gay dress designer. I love the fact that there is a separate credit for the tail: "Tail by Dunlop." [TCM]

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