Vintage cult classics -- Reviews of ''One Touch of Venus,'' ''Mr. Peabody and the Mermaid,'' and ''Letter From an Unknown Woman''

Despite their teasing titles, One touch of Venus, Mr. Peabody and the Mermaid, and Letter From an Unknown Woman are unabashedly respectable, if not entirely virtuous, almost-golden oldies. Republic Home Video is attempting to breathe new life into them by marking — and marketing — their 45th anniversaries. They couldn’t wait five years? In any case, each still offers diverting entertainment without the slam-bang violence, explicit bed scenes, or raunchy dialogue these same stories would likely trigger in today’s Hollywood.

In One Touch of Venus, originally a Broadway musical starring Mary Martin, Ava Gardner is more believably Venusian as the lead, but most of the Kurt Weill-Ogden Nash score that gave the show its sparkle got dumped along the way. What’s left is a modestly droll tale about a statue of the Greek love goddess who, after coming to life when she’s kissed by a window dresser (Robert Walker), proceeds to complicate his life.

Life gets much more whimsically complicated for Mermaid‘s happily married Mr. Peabody (William Powell) when his fishing reel hooks a singing mermaid (Ann Blyth). The script detours around the sort of gags that eventually capsized Tom Hanks’ encounter with mermaid Daryl Hannah in Splash, but Powell keeps everything afloat with one of his most humorously urbane performances. Watch for the scene in which Powell furtively tries to buy just the top half of a swimsuit for the mermaid: Veteran character actress Mary Field (who’ll be recognized by even those who don’t know her name) almost steals the picture away from him as the undaunted if perplexed shop clerk.

Letter From an Unknown Woman, a flop in its initial 1948 release, has developed a much-deserved cult following over the years on college campuses and in art houses. Produced by John Houseman (before he turned to acting), it’s about a young woman (Joan Fontaine) who loves a rakish pianist (Louis Jourdan) in turn-of-the-century Vienna. The slender story has been made unforgettable by an elegiacally ironic screenplay by Casablanca‘s Howard Koch (from a novel by Stefan Zweig); exquisite, atmosphere-drenched direction by Max Ophuls (La Ronde); and especially by Fontaine’s giving one of the most poignant performances of her career.
One Touch of Venus: C
Mr. Peabody and the Mermaid: B-
Letter From an Unknown Woman: A-