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September 2016

The Scarlet Pimpernel

cast: Leslie Howard, Merle Oberon, Raymond Massey, Joan Gardner, and Nigel Bruce

director: Harold Young

94 minutes (U) 1934
widescreen ratio 2.35:1
Network DVD Region 2

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

The Scarlet Pimpernel

Is Emma Orczy's Sir Percy Blakeney in The Scarlet Pimpernel (1905) the original of all those who hide their fight under a ruffle? Did Don Diego de la Vega, who as Zorro - 'the Robin Hood of old California' first took arms against Alta California's Mexican rulers in The Curse Of Capistrano in 1919, draw inspiration from the foppish behaviour of his aristocratic predecessor to mask his true nature?

This role-playing, whereby appearing to be a louche dandy or a wastrel diverts attention from your career as a two-fisted dispenser of rough justice, certainly has resonance for the superhero genre, the natural afterlife to these cloak-and-sword romances. Stolid, 'mild-mannered reporter', Clark Kent is no fop, but his unimaginative weakling is a million miles from the garish 'big blue schoolboy' who flashes across the skies above Metropolis. Millionaire playboy Bruce Wayne, in at least some of his manifestations, is a dipsomaniac womaniser, and could never be mistaken for the Dark Knight of Gotham City. And Peter Parker, once transformed by the bite of a radioactive spider, saw fit to continue to present himself as the bespectacled science nerd, rather than use his powers as Spiderman to punch out school bullies like 'Flash' Thompson.

Before I graduated to The Eagle, and my sister to Jackie, we were as children diverted by our weekly copies of Look And Learn; I remember nothing about this worthy magazine except The Trigan Empire serial, and two examples of the full page artworks from literary classics that used to appear inside the back cover. One of these illustrations was of the moment when Stephano and Trinculo came across Caliban in The Tempest, Caliban's monstrous nature only being hinted at by some scaly appendage protruding from under a sack; the other was of Blakeney's Scarlet Pimpernel, in disguise as an old crone, effecting an escape with a cart full of aristocrats, by convincing the Republican guards that there were plague victims on board.

This film version of The Scarlet Pimpernel begins with the disguised Blakeney (Leslie Howard) using this ruse in his rescue of the Countess de Tournay (Mabel Terry-Lewis), and her daughter (Joan Gardner), although the Count (O.B. Clarence) is detained in Paris by Robespierre (Ernest Milton), wishing to interrogate him about the Pimpernel's true identity. The escapees are pursued by Republican guards on horseback but all is not as it seems, these soldiers are in reality part of the Pimpernel's loyal band, pledged to him, and to the rescue of French aristocrats from the guillotine. Blakeney resolves to return to France at some point to rescue the detained Count; meanwhile Robespierre tasks Citizen Chauvelin (Raymond Massey), the new French ambassador to London, with unmasking the Pimpernel.

Back home, Blakeney once more adopts his foppish manner, advising the Prince of Wales (Nigel Bruce, unrecognisable from the bumbling Dr Watson of five years later) on shirt cuffs, and reciting his doggerel about "that demmed elusive Pimpernel" to all who will listen, including the newly-arrived Chauvelin. All is not well in the Blakeney household; Percy and his wife Marguerite St Just (Merle Oberon), a former French actress, are estranged. Marguerite's brother Armand (Walter Rilla), a member of the Pimpernel's band, asks Percy why he no longer loves his wife and Percy tells him he will love her until he dies, but he can no longer trust her for her denunciation of the Marquis de St Cyr to the Terror.

Chauvelin discovers Armand is one of the Pimpernel's confederates and manages to have him arrested in France. He then blackmails Marguerite into helping him. In a confrontation with his wife, Percy demands to know why she denounced the Marquis, and she reveals that to break up a relationship she was having with his son the Marquis had her imprisoned (presumably for prostitution although this is not spelled out). Percy agrees to try and help Armand. Studying a portrait of her husband, Marguerite spots a signet ring bearing the device of a pimpernel, a member of the primrose family, and realises who he really is. Meanwhile, Chauvelin reveals that he also has discovered that Percy and the Pimpernel are one in the same. The stage is set for a denouement at Boulogne, where Percy rescues Armand and the Count, but Chauvelin uses Marguerite to secure Percy's surrender.

Produced by the ever-dependable Alexander Korda, this is a hugely enjoyable romance, more cloak than sword, in which the protagonists joust with impeccable good manners, and while the element of suspense is largely absent the characters are never less than absorbing. Leslie Howard rebooted his characterisation seven years later by producing and directing the propaganda film 'Pimpernel' Smith (1941), about the exploits of a British archaeologist, using the cover of an expedition to uncover the Aryan origins of German civilisation to free inmates of the death camps. This film inspired the real-life activities of the Swedish diplomat Raoul Wallenberg, who used his position to rescue Hungarian Jews from the Nazis.

Raymond Massey, as Citizen Chauvelin, with his sceptical looks and imposing voice is a perfect foil for Howard. Canadian-born Massey appeared in several important British films including the science fiction epic Things To Come (1936) adapted from his own novel by H. G. Wells, and the superb A Matter Of Life And Death (1946). Oberon is perhaps a little too 'modern' for Marguerite, although her character is a former actress. Oberon's biography makes fascinating reading, of Anglo-Indian origin she made a career of obfuscation about her antecedents like a real-life version of the subplot in Imitation Of Life (1959), possibly fearing it would harm her career prospects.

The only extra on this disc is a gallery of stills, and various film posters, playbills, and memorabilia, but there is a splendid opening montage of British film advertising the Network DVD catalogue; the sort of montage that makes you want to see all the films shown, even when you know some of them to be not very good.

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