BluRay/DVD Reviews

MR. PEABODY AND THE MERMAID (Olive Films)

By • Sep 4th, 2014 •

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I caught this one when I was 14, and even then the subtext was clear: a middle-aged man, aware of his fading sexual prowess, invents a dream woman with no sexual organs, someone who can love him for himself, and not for his virility. Despite the film’s ‘whimsical’ qualities, it’s the ‘wistful’ aspects, and the narrative’s inevitable, sudden third-act downturn, that haunted me.

William Powell had fiancée Jean Harlow die on him in 1937, and then survived a bout with rectal cancer in 1938, so he intimately understood what it meant to brush up against death (even though the reaper would not visit him until he was 91).

In the film he’s turning 50, which was a more troublesome date in those days then it is now. He says, early on in the film: “Fifty. The old age of youth… The youth of old age…” And this grim conclusion guides his adventure with Lenore (an utterly perfect Ann Blyth), the gorgeous, mute, other-worldly mermaid, from euphoria, to befuddlement, to fear of losing her, to sacrificing everything.

Having waited this long for the film to appear on home video, I’m delighted with the quality of the master materials and with the transfer. I always assumed it was a cheaply made film, but the creamy quality of the images gives no indication of that. The richness of the visuals intensifies framings that are filled with negative space, emphasizing Powell’s alienation from the real world. Sound, likewise, is quite clear, down to the alluring distant voice of the mermaid’s song as it drifts in from afar.

SPOILER ALERT Personally, I’d cut the opening and closing scenes – which take place in a psychiatrist’s office – and have it end with the emotionally powerful extreme long shot of Peabody sinking into the depths, his mermaid amour swimming up to his unconscious body to give him a farewell kiss. The framing scenes are very much like those that frame Don Siegel’s THE INVASION OF THE BODY SNATCHERS. They work, but they were added to soften the blow, and the film would be more powerful without them. Check the extraordinary cover art on the BluRay box and you’ll see the best of the film captured in a single, hand-painted frame, playing not into the whimsy, but rather into the ethereal nature of the film at its best.

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