Sunday, February 15, 2015

Favourite Movies: The Scarlet Pimpernel (1934)

What sort of movie strikes your fancy these days? A period picture with glamourous costumes and well-spoken characters to take you out of the mundane present? A great love story with attractive, all-too-human individuals? A cat and mouse game between clever and evenly matched antagonists?  Adventure with the stakes nothing less than life and death? Poetry?

They seek him here, They seek him there
Those Frenchies seek him everywhere
Is he in heaven?  Is he in hell?
That demned, elusive Pimpernel.

Can you spot the Scarlet Pimpernel?

Perhaps the world's first literary "super hero", Sir Percy Blakeney encourages the world to accept his foppish behavior as his true character while masquerading as the Scarlet Pimpernel, the daring mastermind of a league of like-minded adventurers who rescue those doomed to the guillotine during the 16th century French Revolution. Baroness Orczy's play opened in London's West End with little acclaim from the critics, but great success with audiences. She followed up on that success with a novelization and sequels. Dustin Farnum starred in a 1917 version of the story and there have been many film and TV adaptions since that time, a Broadway musical, and the IMDb lists the title as currently "under production". The idea of the disguised or misunderstood daredevil or crime fighter appears to be timeless.

The 1934 version of The Scarlet Pimpernel is from London Pictures at a time when Alexander Korda and his brothers were putting British filmmaking on the world map with such popular fare as The Private Life of Henry VIII, The Ghost Goes West, Things to Come and Rembrandt. The director is film editor Harold Young hired to replace the fired Rowland Brown. I don't like to be one to disparage someone's art, but despite my fondness for The Mummy's Tomb there is nothing else in Mr. Young's filmography that reaches the level of The Scarlet Pimpernel. I am led to think that the Korda attention to the quality and details of their output has more than a little to do with the virtues of this movie.

Count de Tournay's family is rescued.

The focus of the Pimpernel's latest escapade is the release of the de Tournay family. We learn that the Count de Tournay is more than just a hated Aristo in a conversation with some fellow prisoners.

Unnamed nobleman: "Thank Heavens for the game of chess. It enables us to forget the more disagreeable realities of life."

Count de Tournay: "I'm not so sure it is a good thing. We've been too detached from reality all our lives.  That's what caused the revolution."

Nobleman: "Possibly."

Count de Tournay: "Undoubtedly. If we'd only had eyes to see our own follies we shouldn't be here now waiting to be shaved by the national razor."

At a splendid ball the Prince of Wales defends the lack of action on the part of his government to Countess de Tournay: "Madam, the government does everything in its power to save those who are threatened by death in the prisons of the French Republic. But if a country goes mad, it has the right to commit every horror within its own walls."

Percy Blakeney, through misunderstanding and a lack of communication, has come to believe his wife responsible for the deaths of an aristocratic family named St. Cyr. It is partly his reason for bedeviling the French with his remarkable escapades and myriad disguises. The other, greater part of Percy's involvement is in his own nature; his audacious cleverness and natural strengths as a leader.

Lady Marguerite Blakeney is a former actress who married for love, but now finds her husband's affections turned cold and his character strangely altered. They are a very unhappy couple. The new  French ambassador to England is M. Chauvelin who must discover the Pimpernel's identity at all costs or he will join the unending line to the guillotine. He blackmails Marguerite with threats to her brother into assisting his search for the Pimpernel. Chauvelin has determined through their knowledge of the French language and entitled boldness that the Pimpernel and his gang must be among the upper class whom Marguerite can freely question and observe. 

Percy shares his poem with an amused audience.

Leslie Howard plays Sir Percy and he is magnificent. Howard had taken up acting as therapy for "shell shock" after WWI and his career covered both sides of the Atlantic on both stage and screen. It is a pleasure to watch him as Sir Percy, dandy of the court and a favourite of the Prince of Wales (George IV) commenting on fashion and other trivialities, making himself an indispensable social butterfly without a serious thought in his head. As the Pimpernel he disguises himself as a garrulous old hag and a French army officer. The Pimpernel is always one step ahead of his enemies and he enjoys the intellectual combat as much as the chase. Madly in love with Marguerite, but mistakenly disillusioned, Percy is also heartsick and wounded.

The glamorous Lady Blakeney

Merle Oberson is a beautiful Lady Blakeney, and more. She is trapped by both her marriage and by Chauvelin. She is passionate about her emotions and as quick-witted as any of the Pimpernel League, and quick to action when circumstances require bravery. Lady Blakeney does not sit in a corner looking pretty, although she does look very pretty indeed in gowns designed by Oliver Messel, multiple Tony nominee for sets and costumes. Percy and Marguerite are perfectly matched. Will they find their way back to each other?

Sir Percy teaches M. Chauvelin a thing or two about cravats.

Raymond Massey is that supreme villain, M. Chauvelin. Chauvelin has power, he knows it and uses it. No one sneers quite as sincerely as Massey and he sneers at the English, at Sir Percy, and at Lady Blakeney. He toys with them both and skillfully lays a trap from which there is no escape. To watch Chauvelin's confident arrogance pitted against Percy's slyness is like listening to a fine operatic duet. Two actors supremely good at what they do with a script to match.

The Scarlet Pimpernel is a story that has enthralled generations and the Korda film production is one of its finest tellings. Leslie Howard would return to this theme in a few years when, sadly, another country went mad. In 1941s Pimpernel Smith, Howard plays Professor Horatio Smith, a mild-mannered archeologist who smuggles victims of Nazi persecution out of Germany with the help of his worshiping students. Perhaps there are some "Pimpernels" with 21st-century stories to tell.


  1. CW, I adore this film. The three leads are fabulous and the proceedings are presented with style. Leslie Howard makes playing Sir Percy/The Pimpernal look easy, but it's a role that proved difficult even for the likes of David Niven. (Anthony Andrews may be my second favorite Pimpernal). I'm glad you mentioned PIMPERNAL SMITH, which is a vastly entertaining film in its own right.

    1. A perfect movie to watch hundreds of times. Knowing what is to come and anticipating those great performances is a huge part of the pleasure. I remember enjoying Anthony Andrews, but have not watched it since it first aired. Do you think I'm past due? I think I'm past due.

    2. hanks for the great write-up of one of my favorite classics. Sink me, this is one movie that's perfectly cast and that I can watch over and over. Over the years, I become more and more impressed with Howard's comic timing while playing Sir Percy. One can only agree with the Price of Wales: "Why, damn me, Percy, you're brainless, spineless, useless: But you do know clothes!"

    3. Thank you for reading and sharing. It truly is a great movie that holds up to innumerable re-watches. And yes, for days afterward "sink me" rolls naturally off the tongue!



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