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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