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Two voices: mermaids as virgin and whore

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In comparing and contrasting the lead actresses from three of the major early mer-films, we see that there is a sharp difference in how the two mermaids are portrayed. One is an innocent just-turned-woman who only loves one human man. The other is very much an old-style siren and femme fatale to lure any passer-by to her cave. In this we see the Virgin/Whore dichotomy played out on the silver screen.

mad about men The mermaid in Miranda (1948) and Mad About Men (1954) bewitches not only the men in these movies, but also the audience, by using her almond-shaped eyes and husky-voiced sensuality. She is of course English actress Glynis Johns who explains, "I'm fourth generation performer stock on my mother's side". Her mother, Australian pianist Alys Maude Steele-Payne, was a a student at London's Royal Academy of Music where she met and married John's father, Welsh actor Mervyn Johns, a student at the Royal Academy of Dramatic Arts. They went to South Africa to perform and Glynis was born in Pretoria in 1923. She states, "When I was three weeks old, my grandmother carried me onstage and announced that I was the newest member of the company."

Her film career began in 1938 with South Riding, a British movie in which she played Ralph Richardson's daughter. She says that what she calls "the mermaid pictures" made her a box office star in England; thus she is bothered by the fact that these two films are very rarely shown and therefore relatively unknown in the United States. The sexy, gravely voice which she used when she played Miranda became her trade mark. The fact that she is most identified with her unusual voice is ironic considering that she had originally trained to be a dancer, a talent obviously unused when she turned into a mermaid.

Concerning her voice, she says, "I have never consciously produced a specific sound. It was never anything that I did deliberately." Nevertheless one critic called her voice "verbal chamber music". That voice is what gave the plaintive, magical sound to Stephen Sondheim's best known song, "Send in the Clowns", which Johns introduced in A Little Night Music on 25 February 1973, at the Shubert Theater on Broadway.

mr peabody & the mermaid Ann Blyth's Lenore in Mr. Peabody and the Mermaid (a 1948 American film capitalizing on the popularity of Miranda), never speaks any lines. However, she expresses herself eloquently by singing her alluring, lyric-less siren song. Appropriately, Ms Blyth, who was born in Mt Kisco, NY, in 1928, is a soprano who trained in the San Carlo Opera Company. Her voice was well-used in films like MGM's The Great Caruso (1951), Rose Marie (1954), The Student Prince (1954), and Kismet (1955).

Glynis Johns' Miranda not only intones a lusty siren melody, but she also is quite fluent in human language which she delivers in her "verbal chamber music" voice. The wit of Johns' chatty lines and the humor of which the situations in which she finds herself provide the farcical tone for Miranda. That satiric style is very different from the unspoken, wistful romance expressed solely through Lenore's body language in Mr. Peabody and the Mermaid.

The appeal of Blyth's wordless Lenore is that of an innocent, completely other-worldly creature unspoiled by human contact: she seems to truly be a mermaiden, apparently just having crossed the verge into womanhood, just like Blyth who herself was barely 20 at the time. When Lenore looks at Mr. Peabody with wide-eyed naïveté, we know that she is falling in love for the first time. Johns, who was 25 and 31 when she appeared in her two mermaid films, has an altogether different appeal: Miranda is very worldly, a denizen of the deep who is fascinated with gossip, ladies' fashions, and romantic novels. As she bats her almond-shaped eyes, she knows exactly the power she holds over men.

While Blyth's Lenore seems completely happy loving just that one man (Mr Peabody) Johns' Miranda is a brazen flirt who, like sirens of old, tries to entice as many men as possible; the audience may even wonder whether she is carving notches in a seashell somewhere. Lenore never gives any indication that she belongs to any merman, and the film never gives any hint that mermen exist; in fact, there is never even any hint that other merfolk exist at all. Thus Lenore is truly unique and may, in fact, be an idealized personification of Mr. Peabody's fantasies, the archetypal embodiment of his desire to reattain his lost youth.

Miranda, by contrast, tells us that her cave is a romantic hide-away where her sisters have "had" human men many times before. Although she does not seem to belong to any merman, she does tell us that the reason she wants human men is that mermen are relatively scarce and have unattractive faces with flat noses. Furthermore, some of the publicity shots show Miranda holding her "merbaby". This indeed may indicate that, although the doctor is her first human, she is definitely knowledgable in the "ways of the world".

Miranda is thus the embodiment of the wet, sexy siren who entices -- and possibly destroys -- any male who comes under her spell. Sounding as if it is echoing from the very depths of the sea itself, Johns' spritely and rapturous voice makes Miranda's magical enticement believable. In contrast, Lenore's delicate and soulful pantomime simply adds to the image of her as a childlike, guileless "Little Mermaid" who is completely unaware of her magnetic, sensual allure.

Blyth, who made her Broadway and film debuts as Paul Lukas' daughter in Watch On the Rhine, received a best supporting actress nomination in 1945 for her performance as Joan Crawford's wildly loose daughter in Mildred Pierce. Her acting range is evident when that Miranda-like character is contrasted with the ingenuous Lenore. As a footnote, the viewer of Mr. Peabody and the Mermaid should be aware that Ms. Blyth broke her back in a toboggan accident which caused her to be mostly immobile for over a year. That back injury plagued her often in the dextrous underwater acrobatics required of her when she turned into a mermaid. We might even speculate that she was able to translate this pain into her expression of Lenore's longing sensitivity which, regardless of how sexually tempting she might appear to Peabody, keeps her very much an ethereal being, sharply in contrast with Miranda's carnal gutsiness.

In conclusion, we clearly perceive the difference between the two most famous mermaids of all. Blyth's Lenore is the quintessential angel: every man's dream of a perfect, pure spirit promising true love; every woman's model of grace. By contrast, Johns' Miranda is the archetypal playful seductress: every man's fantasy of a coy temptress, promising excitement but keeping it just barely out of reach; every woman's prototype of powerful sensuality. Thus Lenore and Miranda reveal the two meanings of the age-old myth: on the one hand, ideal platonic love; on the other, earthy, captivating lust.

Note: Glynis Johns' quotes are from "Making Her Entrance Again With Her Usual Flair", by Joseph Hurley, Theater Week, 15 January 1990, pages 12-15.

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