Sunday 29 November 2009

The Incredible Mr Limpet (1964)

Director: Arthur Lubin
Star: Don Knotts
A personal favourite of my wife, who insisted I record it, this one features Don Knotts, who I'm fast discovering was one of the great American comedians. There are many household names in America whose reputations didn't travel beyond the country's borders, just as there are many names I grew up watching in England who Americans have never heard of. I think the first time I saw him was in his famous role of Barney Fife while travelling the States in 1999. I hadn't seen it before because we didn't get The Andy Griffith Show in England and his other long running show, Three's Company, was an American version of one of ours anyway, Man About the House.

He made 25 feature films, three of them (along with much of this movie) as a voice actor. I'd already seen him in Cannonball Run II but he was hardly the biggest name in that film, but eventually I saw Pleasantville and It's a Mad Mad Mad Mad World and The Apple Dumpling Gang and with each one, I'm intrigued to discover more of these American favourites. They don't resonate with me like they do to Americans because I didn't grow up with them, but they have a charm to them that comes from a different age and is more than a little welcome. I'm beginning to get a little fascinated with these American family classics, because they hold a real glimpse into that different age and what America was at the time.

Mr Limpet is pretty incredible, in fact he's so incredible that the Navy has a file on him that they locked in 1945 with the aim of never opening it again, but now they need to recall him to active service. Apparently scientists are discovering that porpoises are becoming pretty intelligent and they wonder if he has anything to do with it. Maybe they can be useful to the Americans because Superman isn't enough, or something. Now anyone who's seen Don Knotts must be wondering what he's done to become so incredible. The answer is that in a startling turn of cinematic fantasy, he's turned into a fish.

We leap back to September 1941 to discover his story. Henry Limpet is an average sort of guy, married and living in Flatbush, working as a bookkeeper in Brooklyn for the Atlantic & Gulf Line, blind as a bat without his glasses. And he likes fish, as his colleagues find out when they discover Monty the goldfish in their water cooler. When he's around fish he drifts off into his own little world, which hardly endears him to his wife Bessie, who henpecks her husband and hangs instead on every word that issues from the mouth of George Stickel, who has enlisted and comes up with more and more outrageous stories of his contributions to the war effort every day, even though he's only a mechanic's mate, second class.

'I wish I were a fish because fish have a better life than people,' says Limpet, but his wife makes him take them back to the pet store and go to Coney Island instead. And there, while reading up on the theory of reverse evolution and wishing hard, he tumbles off the pier into the ocean. He can't swim so is quickly presumed drowned, but of course he just turns into a fish instead, one who can swim just fine, though that's far from the only bizarre convenience that we're slammed with. Obviously the filmmakers felt that given that we're talking about a man turning into a fish for precisely no reason whatsoever except he wanted to, why don't they just go hog wild and make him talk and keep his glasses and have a powerful belch that scares away barracuda. And they have a point.

A kid would watch this and see a movie about a man doing his duty, even if he's become a fish. The obvious moral lesson is that we should all do what we can, and if we're classified 4F as unfit for combat that's OK, because we can just turn into a fish and become the US Navy's secret weapon. We only have to want to, which is a pretty solid thing for a kid to learn. To an adult though, and I'm coming to this film at the ripe old age of 38, there are a whole slew of questions, beyond the fact that Limpet's wife has obviously been cheating on her husband with George Stickel from moment one.

Limpet wants to be a fish to get away from all the troubles of the human world, but when he actually becomes a fish he promptly brings all those troubles along with him. He's about to head off to the spawning ground with the first ladyfish that comes along, but backs out at the last minute because he has a wife. It doesn't matter that Bessie Limpet thinks he's dead and they're now of different utterly incompatible species because he has to impose a very human concept on the free world of the fish. Next thing you know he'll bringing guilt to the underwater kingdom and we didn't even know he was Catholic. The key question today would be the one Bessie Limpet asks at the end: 'Am I the widow of a human being or the wife of a fish?' In 1964 that's just a cool line to close a movie with, 45 years later it would be a whole season of Oprah.

Of course Limpet decides to get involved in the war effort, working closely with an American destroyer to target the Nazi U-Boats that are taking over the Atlantic Ocean. I seriously doubt anyone reading this is going to be upset about that choice, the sides in the Second World War being as close to good and evil as any conflict in recent memory, but why do the fish care? Americans didn't join the war until 1941 because they didn't see what was going on in Europe as any of their business. How much further down that road could the fish be? What do they care about Uncle Sam and Pearl Harbor and the war effort, let alone Poland and concentration camps and the Jewish menace? Until Limpet turns up in their midst, they didn't even realise shipwrecks weren't really huge dead creatures.

We can probably safely ignore such deep moral questions aside, most of which can't ever have been intentionally raised, though hey, how obvious was that affair? We can sit back and enjoy the mix of live action and animation, which is decently done. We can thrill to the adventures of Mr Limpet and his sidekick, a hermit crab called Crusty (Limpet is so politically correct that if he met a Siamese fighting fish he'd call it Chop Suey). We can enjoy the animated fish porn as Ladyfish writhes around the married Limpet with sensuous abandon because hey, he saved her from a nasty fisherman.

Best of all, we can laugh at the children's movie logic that has him whipping all over the Atlantic like it's the size of one of the ten thousand lakes of Minnesota. It even has songs with lyrics like 'Henry Limpet, your name will live forever...' even though he's really classified top secret and so nobody knows his name outside his US Navy liaison officers. That case has been closed since 1945, remember? Then again, the crew of the destroyer paint pictures of him all over their boat so 'top secret' may mean something completely different in children's movie logic. Perhaps that's the key reason that films like this are great fun but not undying classics to me: just because I didn't experience them with a child's logic first. Maybe I have to wait for my second childhood for that.


Robert said...

This movie is a hoot! Try not to over-think it eh?

Hal C. F. Astell said...

And I didn't even wonder aloud what Mr Limpet eats when he's a fish...