Scarlet Pimpernel, The (1934)

“They seek him here, they seek him there, those Frenchies seek him everywhere.”

Synopsis:
A British baronet (Leslie Howard) secretly rescues French aristocrats from death during the Reign of Terror, hiding his identity from both his unhappy wife (Merle Oberon) and a ruthless French ambassador (Raymond Massey) determined to nab the elusive “Scarlet Pimpernel” at any cost.

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Response to Peary’s Review:
Peary accurately labels this Alexander Korda production “one of cinema’s most enjoyable historical romances/adventures”, noting that it has “suspense, ironic wit, excellent cinematography…, beautiful costumes, and impressive sets”. In perhaps his best-known role (other than playing Ashley Wilkes in Gone With the Wind), Leslie Howard is note-perfect as the title character, the “damned elusive” Scarlet Pimpernel — a “fine and dandy hero who, refreshingly, succeeds by quick wits rather than a quick sword”, and possesses a simply fabulous alter ego. (Indeed, I may call this one of the best “mistaken identity” films out there.) He fearlessly presents his non-heroic front as “a frivolous, foppish, clothes-conscious, poetry-reciting weakling” — the exact stereotype of the nobility he’s risking his life to save. To that end, as Peary notes, there is a “bias” in the film in terms of the way it makes us “fantasize nobleness in the nobility”, but we’re willing to roll with this given that it clearly wasn’t okay for Robespierre and his henchmen to wantonly kill off an entire class of people, no matter how disgruntled they may have felt. Meanwhile, Oberon, as Peary notes, “is a stunningly beautiful heroine” in her “tight bodices” and “fancy hats and dresses”, and Raymond Massey gives an appropriately “devilish performance” as the film’s ruthless baddie.

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • Leslie Howard as Sir Percy Blakeney (nominated by Peary as one of the best actors of the year in his Alternate Oscars book)
  • Merle Oberon as Lady Blakeney
  • Raymond Massey as Chauvelin
  • Harold Rosson’s cinematography

Must See?
Yes, as a genuine classic. As a public domain title, it’s available for free viewing at http://archive.org.

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One Response to “Scarlet Pimpernel, The (1934)”

  1. First viewing. A once-must (with reservations) for its place in cinema history.

    I find the film somewhat stodgy, so I’m somewhat less enthusiastic overall. While certain aspects of it are appealing in terms of the way the film was made (especially its overall visual design, which is quite often impressive), I mainly find its pacing on the languid side – so a certain lack of energy can sometimes make it a challenge to stay engaged.

    The cast has inevitably been directed to play in a particularly theatrical style which threatens naturalness. Oberon’s performance, for example, occasionally falls into appearing overdone – but fortunately she improves as she enters into scenes in which she senses danger (such scenes increase as the film progresses).

    Howard is often admirable – and he does seem to be enjoying the role – it’s just that he’s not a personal favorite as an actor. Massey, of course, has done this kind of role (and well) in other films too; it’s the kind of thing he could almost do in his sleep.

    One might think that a movie like this – rich in intrigue – would involve more action, but such scenes are not to be found. This leaves the film reliant on a very talky script and, thus, a bit monotonous in tone.

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