Classic Korda adventure. THE SCARLET PIMPERNEL is based on a romantic novel about deposed French aristocrats, written by the daughter of deposed Hungarian aristocrats; this powerful film secured lasting fame for Leslie Howard.
Sir Percy Blakeney (Howard) is a mild-mannered aristocrat in the court of the Prince of Wales. While large numbers of aristocrats in France are guillotined in the Reign of Terror, Blakeney loses the respect of his wife, Lady Marguerite (Merle Oberon), for being so ineffectual, and he in turn
believes that she has been responsible for the arrest of some old friends of hers. Meanwhile, Robespierre (Ernest Milton) and the rest of the French revolutionary government are troubled by a series of daring rescues of condemned nobles, pulled off by the mysterious agency of a man who leaves
behind him a small red flower--a pimpernel--for which he comes to be named. The Scarlet Pimpernel adopts a variety of disguises as he saves the gentry from the guillotine. Suspecting English involvement, the French send one of their most capable individuals, Chauvelin (Raymond Massey), to London,
ostensibly to serve as ambassador, but really to discover the identity of the Pimpernel. Chauvelin persuades Lady Marguerite to help bait a trap for the Pimpernel, in return for the lives of her arrested friends.
Although directed by Harold Young, the film is much more the work of its producer, Alexander Korda, another transplanted Hungarian (Howard too, for that matter, was the son of Hungarian immigrants). The first director hired was Rowland Brown, director of QUICK MILLIONS, BLOOD MONEY, and author of
several respected screenplays. He also had a reputation for getting fired, however, and on the first day of shooting he butted heads with Korda and lost. The producer took over directing for that day, hired Young the next day, and kept a tight rein on him throughout the production. Much of the
film was shot outdoors, contrary to the general practice in England at the time. The impressive production resources of Korda's studio are very much in evidence. Korda imported Hal Rosson from Hollywood to shoot the film, and the cinematographer was ecstatic at the varied English skies. Howard
gives a wonderful performance, languid and almost effeminate as Sir Percy, and richly deserving of his wife's contempt, but dashing and daring as the Pimpernel. He is supported by Massey in fine form as the villain, and Merle Oberon, as empty as ever.
The novel served as the basis of several silent films, and was remade in 1950 as THE ELUSIVE PIMPERNEL, with David Niven in the title role. The sequel suffers from having been originally shot as a musical; the way it's edited, you can see where the numbers were cut.
The best remembered thing about the original classic adventure is the little bit of doggerel that Howard makes up to throw off suspicion: "They seek him here, they seek him there / The Frenchies seek him everywhere / Is he in Heaven? Is he in Hell? / That damned elusive Pimpernel."
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- Review: Classic Korda adventure. THE SCARLET PIMPERNEL is based on a romantic novel about deposed French aristocrats, written by the daughter of deposed Hungarian aristocrats; this powerful film secured lasting fame for Leslie Howard. Sir Percy Blakeney (Howard)… (more)