A Fishy Tale

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1948 was an unusual year, film-wise, in that two movies about mermaids came out, one American, one British: Mr. Peabody and the Mermaid and Miranda, respectively. What historical, geographical, astrological, or cinematic confluences had come together to produce two films about the same unusual subject, I can’t say. What I will say is that Mr. Peabody, about a naïve, unworldly, and middle-aged gentleman who meets a naïve, unworldly, and quite young mermaid, is a sweet and tender film; one about innocence, about longing and dreams and the wish for an evanescent, ineffable beauty that may exist only on the gentle shores of fantasy.

What Miranda is about is something entirely else. And thereby hangs a tail.

Sorry about the pun. I’m rather addicted to them (the worse the better, I say). But Miranda is the only movie I’ve seen that actually gives a credit for the creation of a mermaid’s tail. “The Mermaid’s Tail by Dunlop,” it reads. I’ve no idea who or what Dunlop is or was. But it’s a marvelous tail that (he, she, it, they) made. It keeps flipping, back and forth, in an extraordinarily piscine fashion, and yet still looks irresistibly feminine; feminine in how it shifts and moves and doesn’t keep still, so that you’re fascinated, even mesmerized, as you watch.

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I’ll also note that one of the composers of the film’s title song is named Jack Fishman in the credits. As with the mysterious Dunlop, I don’t know anything about this gentleman, his work or antecedents, or even if Fishman is his real name. But it’s absurd enough that I’d like to think it’s real. As real as the film’s tail, anyway. It all seems part of this movie’s cracked, fishy humor.

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My theory on why these two movies came out in the same year was the need for a thing to produce its opposite. When you have a yin, you need a yang. If Mr. Peabody is sweet and innocent, Miranda is naughty. (Very naughty.) Viewed in comparison, the films are like post- and pre-Code Norma Shearer. The Barretts of Wimpole Street versus The Divorcée. On the one hand you have poetry and sunshine and demure curls; on the other you have cocktails and moonlight and a smart bob.

Throw in some fish and you get the idea.

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Miranda’s title character is, as indicated, a mermaid, who lives in the sea and drinks salt water and eats raw fish and constantly thinks about men. Human men, particularly. “There’s a dreadful shortage of men below sea,” she tells Dr. Martin (Griffith Jones), a land-based specimen she’s caught. She’s delighted with her catch; Martin is, like the Small Bear’s porridge, just right: “I love tall men,” she says. “The last two I caught were so short I had to throw them back again.” You might say that, in hooking her man, Miranda hopes to establish a terrestrial-aquatic entente between human and marine species. But our lady of the waves has some other fish to fry. After canoodling with Martin in her undersea cave (“I love the way you say ‘Miranda,’” she coos to him),  she lets him return to land on the condition that he brings her back with him (though he doesn’t need his arm twisted to agree). Miranda aims to be introduced into society, where she can gratify her desires for vogue fashions and grand opera. And, though not specified, for Men.

How many men can gratify Miranda? How many have you got? All men interest her. Life on land is a never-ending discovery of testosterone delights. “Look at that beautiful man,” she cries, espying a stalwart guard outside Buckingham palace. But Miranda doesn’t confine herself to beefcake window-shopping. Ensconced in Martin’s home as his “patient” (“she needs to be taken out of herself,” the doctor claims, although Miranda needs no urging to do so), she beguiles his chauffeur Charles (“You’re so strong, Charles” she coos as he carries her about) and insinuates herself into the affections of his painter friend Nigel (“I love the way you say ‘Miranda’”—Miranda’s methods may be simple, but they’re effective). Meanwhile, the women—Charles’s fiancée Betty, Nigel’s fiancée Isobel, and Martin’s wife Clare, played by the smashingly gorgeous Googie Withers (whose devastating Grecian profile I rhapsodized about in this earlier post)—fume, glare, and weep as they ponder the conduct of this attractive invalid, who needs to be borne everywhere in strong male arms (the men bicker over who gets the privilege), and whose fashionable wardrobe suspiciously lacks panties…

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Yes, Miranda is a flirt and a minx and an utter darling; and she’s captivatingly played by Glynis Johns as a pert maiden with a posh accent and eyes that mix lewdness and candor in a perfect balance. As Johns enacts her, Miranda is amoral innocence, joy of the senses, guiltless pleasure. She’s a creature untainted by original sin; a post-Eden Eve who’s still frolicking about the Garden, or who maybe managed to sneak back in, perhaps by swimming up a pipe in the backyard plumbing, and can now be found sunning herself on a rock in the ornamental pool. Whenever Johns speaks, in her deliciously gurgling voice, she makes her line readings so suggestive yet so artless (“Are we going to your bedroom now?” she disarmingly asks one besotted suitor) that I laughed out loud each time. There’s no guile or sarcasm in Johns’s portrayal; her Miranda is adorably direct, with no underlying smirk. The double-entendre is there for you to catch on your own, like a fish.

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Yet Miranda’s very naturalness thoroughly upsets and bewilders Dr. Martin’s smart London set. Unlike Miranda, Martin and his class of land mammals behave in ways that, in contrast with the mermaid, seem as false as glass pearls. Well-dressed and archly mannered, inhabiting rooms of an almost excruciating elegance, they govern themselves by unspoken rituals like the most rigidly structured tribe: they smoke and drink and chat to the brittle sound of ice cracking in martini glasses, and think it chic for spouses to vacation apart from each other. Nothing is ever stated directly, and it’s bad form to show any feeling. Their lives take place in cozy little bowls of contentment that are just waiting to be shattered.

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So you can imagine what a splash an impulsive enchantress like Miranda makes on such haute bourgeoisie. For Miranda, whose waves of hair streaming over her breasts coyly suggest nakedness without having to show any, is a primal force: free love, unfettered sex, sensual grace. Even her name, with its syllables rippling like a spring tide—Miranda, Mi-ran-da—hints at erotic languor, of that lovely, lush feeling of bathing in the ocean with no clothes on and getting completely, satisfyingly wet. Maybe that’s the basic appeal of mermaids for us—living in the sea, the most elemental of elements, they can float on the waves and gorge on the silky feel of water against bare skin. They may be creatures of fancy but they’re loaded with sex appeal; earthy fairy tales just a a bit drenched round the edges.

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Though I’m forced to note that the earthy element does predominate in Miranda herself. Aside from ogling every male on view (“You have the most beautiful knees,” she sighs to Martin), she never passes up a chance to indulge her appetites, whether stuffing herself with cockles bought from a street vendor, or snapping up a fish meant for an indignant seal during a visit to the zoo. Nor are her literary tastes the most elevated, as a conversation with Martin reveals (“I suppose you don’t know what happened to Amber in chapter 18?” she inquires. ”Same as chapter 17,” he replies, “only twice”). And then there’s the matter of the disappearing fish from the fish bowl, their declining numbers posing a mystery to Gorgeous Googie (I did mention that Miranda liked raw fish, didn’t I?).

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Gorgeously Grecian Googie

In the end, of course, Miranda, after satisfactorily upending everyone’s notion of proper human behavior, returns to her natural home, to recline on a rock in proper Lorelei fashion. Only the film’s last scene adds a twist, an unexplained addition, a naughty little yang (I did mention that Miranda was naughty, didn’t I?) in answer to the proper yin—just to let us know that something very fishy has been going on, indeed:

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And thereby ends our, uh, tail…

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