Just seen in super-sharp HD: The 1964 film The Incredible Mr. Limpet. I would not consider this the zenith of the Don Knotts cinematic ouevre – That honor goes to The Ghost and Mr. Chicken, which was ahead of it's time in density of wit and running gags. But I saw Limpet a lot on TV as a kid, and I'll admit to having a soft spot for it.
This new viewing was a bit of a revelation. I assumed it was a kiddie film, but now I can see it wasn't, despite it's animated fantasy elements. The story begins a few months before the bombing of Pearl Harbor: Mr. Limpet is an unassuming bookkeeper who is far more fascinated by fish than his work or his marriage. And we see why: his wife Bessie is overbearing, and his friend George has managed to join the Navy, while he is 4F. Limpet is in such a state of general pessimism about the human condition that early in the film he voices a hope that we will all be eradicated in the upcoming world war, which will allow fish to evolve into our replacements.
Through a bit of unexplained wish-granting, Mr. Limpet falls into the Atlantic and turns into a fish. He quickly adapts and even gains the love of Ladyfish, a comely, naïve female of his new species who talks in a breathy Marilyn Monroe voice. But Mr. Limpet still feels the pull of his old life-- and addresses it's disappointments by helping the U.S. Navy's Atlantic Fleet locate and destroy German U-Boats.
From a 2010 perspective, Mr. Limpet is an unusually bloodthirsty animated protagonist: there are lots of stock-footage shots of submarines imploding and the seas strewn with shattered hulls. Das Boot and Crimson Tide lie between us and this film, and we as an audience now know how horrible it is to die in a submarine. But in 1964, the war was still a fresh memory, and I'm sure every person in the cast and crew were WWII veterans. The enemy was invariably identified as “Nazis” in the film, as in “I'll lead your ship to the Nazi submarines!”
After a lot of German sailors, most of whom were not Nazi Party members, go to their watery graves, the war eventually ends. With the explicit permission of his estranged wife, Mr Limpet and Ladyfish swim off to “the spawning grounds.” The end.
Mr. Limpet, as a fish, often contends with how this unusual dilemma affects his relationships. His former marriage is de facto void, but since Bessie is not technically a widow and they never divorced, his guilt (and then-current social morés) initially prevents him from consummating his relationship with Ladyfish (which should consist of her depositing a clutch of eggs while he sheds gametes into the surrounding water: I'll bet he didn't think that part through when he was wishing to be a fish). His unexplained metamorphosis creates ethical and logical problems no amount of hung lanterns can explain away.
This leads to a completely different reading of The Incredible Mr. Limpet. With one small adjustment, the story can make sense: when Henry Limpet looks out into the sea and says to himself “I wish I were a fish,” what if he meant “I wish I were single?” As a bachelor/fish, Mr. Limpet is able to achieve his full potential: he makes friends, joins the service and receives a commission, and gets to be the hero who eradicates the Axis menace from the Atlantic. None of this would be possible if he had stayed married/human. In the end, after the fighting is over and he retires with honors, Mr. Limpet amicably parts with his first wife and moves on, to live happily ever after with his comely, naïve Ladyfish/second wife.
Just to drive this home, but maybe as just an indication of how serial monogamy worked in the 1960s, I was struck by how much this reminded me of the last season of “Mad Men,” set in 1965. Bessie, in her shrill, domineering way, reminded me of Betty Draper, Don Draper's first wife; Ladyfish had the same youthful, big-eyed, come-hither ways as Megan Calvet, Don's soon-to-be second wife. But Don Draper and Don Knotts: polar opposites, save that first name.
And yes, I'm afraid The Incredible Mr. Limpet is being remade. Warner Bros. has tapped Kevin Lima to direct this effort, which is a good idea: He directed Enchanted, and knows a thing or two about blending reality and fantasy that skews for kids and grownups both. To portray the updated Mr. Limpet, they're looking at Zach Galifianakis. This is an awful idea, for a reason that should be painfully obvious: How can a fish version of Zach be designed to resemble him when fish don't have beards? Duh. I'll even ignore the fact that his style of humor couldn't be a worse fit for the role. Of course, by the time this film is released Zach Galifianakis will have completed his magical transformation into Jack Black and this point will be moot.