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September 2016

The Return Of The Scarlet Pimpernel

cast: Barry K. Barnes, Sophie Stewart, Margaretta Scott, Francis Lister, and James Mason

director: Hanns Schwarz

94 minutes (U) 1937
Natwork DVD Region 2

RATING: 6/10
review by J.C. Hartley

The Return Of The Scarlet Pimpernel

And he really does return, to France that is, lured out of retirement by a plot hatched by his old adversary Chauvelin (Francis Lister). This sequel to 1934's The Scarlet Pimpernel suffers from the absence of the stars of the original film. The cast is made up of a sort of repertory company of actors affiliated to producer Alexander Korda, many of whom had featured in the H.G. Wells adaptation Things To Come, a year earlier. Watching Sophie Stewart's sweetly saccharin, but rather insipid performance, as Lady Blakeney, I realise how harsh I was to suggest Merle Oberon was too 'modern' in her own performance for the earlier film.

Leslie Howard as Blakeney in the first film suggested reserves of guile and menace that made you believe he could be the Pimpernel, while Barry K. Barnes in this suggests the male lead in pantomime, or a veteran of the Aldwych farces, and when 'fopping' it up, a minor member of the Drones Club. To be fair, once the film gets going it does liven up, and there are some enjoyable set pieces, particularly when the Pimpernel, in disguise as a deaf military Colonel, eavesdrops on Chauvelin at a restaurant.

As the Terror continues unabated in France Sir Percy Blakeney (Barnes) enjoys an afternoon's cricket in Brighton. Lady Blakeney (Stewart) reveals she is expecting their child and obtains her husband's promise that he will no longer go a-pimpernelling. Given Lady Blakeney's later mishaps I became increasingly concerned for that unborn child. In Paris, the increasingly paranoid Robespierre (Henry Oscar) is purging the Convention of real and imagined enemies, and currently has his rival Jean Tallien (a young James Mason) in his sights. Summoning Chauvelin, Robespierre gives him an ultimatum, capture the Pimpernel or go to the guillotine himself.

Chauvelin visits the actress Theresa Cobarrus (Margaretta Scott), Tallien's mistress and mentor, who is urging her lover to make a stand against Robespierre. Chauvelin reveals that Tallien is in danger and pressurises Theresa to help him in his plan to capture Blakeney in order to save her lover. Theresa visits England and implores Blakeney to help her secure safe passage from France for those under threat but he refuses, citing the promise he has made to his wife. Percy rides to Rottingdean for a meeting with the League of the Scarlet Pimpernel, to tell them that while he will continue to coordinate their activities he will no longer take an active part in their exploits in France.

Theresa manages to convince Marguerite Lady Blakeney that Percy has agreed to resume his activities as the Pimpernel, and when she travels to confront her husband she is kidnapped on the road to Rottingdean. Lured to Paris, to rescue his wife, Percy initially outmanoeuvres Chauvelin and frees Marguerite, but then she is recaptured. Robespierre refuses to give Chauvelin a second chance to capture Percy, and Marguerite stands trial and is sentenced to death. Percy realises that the only way to save his wife is to save France, and joins forces with the repentant Theresa to inspire Tallien to stand up to Robespierre and halt the Terror. The basis for this plot comes from the chronologically final book in the Baroness Orczy's Scarlet Pimpernel series, published in 1922 and dealing with the real events of 1794 when Tallien and other moderates led a coup against Robespierre and the Jacobin party.

Not without its moments, this sequel sticks to the trusted formula of crisis, rescue, reversal, confrontation, and resolution, and might have had more traction with the original cast. Anthony Bushell reprises his role as Sir Andrew Ffoulkes from The Scarlet Pimpernel but that's about it, although O.B. Clarence returns as another endangered aristocrat. Bushell would be the original Colonel Breen in the TV version of Quatermass And The Pit (1958-9), and would direct a couple of episodes of Danger Man in 1961. Lister is very good as a weasellier version of Chauvelin than that played by Raymond Massey, rather reminiscent of the sort of parts played by the character actor Colin Jeavons to whom he bears a slight resemblance. Scott is very good, and while Mason doesn't have a lot to do we can at least enjoy hearing that wonderful voice.

There is a curious sequence early in the film where Theresa travels to Brighton and performs a song for the Prince of Wales before attempting to entrap Blakeney. She is accompanied by Professor Wilkins who is demonstrating his Phantasmagoria, a type of Gothic magic lantern show very popular around this time. Blakeney thinks he recognises the Professor, and also believes him to be French. We never get to see the demonstration, and Percy's suspicions aren't followed up beyond confirming his scepticism about Theresa's intentions. Presumably, this is just a little bit of historical colour, although one can't help feeling an opportunity was lost for a sequence in which the pretend ghoulish shadow-play of the Phantasmagoria could have played counterpoint to the real terrors unfolding in France.

There are no extras on this disc beyond a stills gallery, and an archive transfer of the film, which is rather dark and dingy, presumably presented as an example to offset any criticism of this transfer, which has some roving scratch lines and occasional jumps, but is generally clean. Curiously, the technical shortcomings of this transfer also go to emphasise the fact that this 1937 sequel seems like an earlier film than its better preserved, and more artistically sophisticated, predecessor.

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