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Film / The Scarlet Pimpernel (1934)

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Look, Marguerite – a Trope.

"They seek him here, they seek him there.
Those Frenchies seek him everywhere.
Is he in heaven? Is he in hell?
That damned, elusive Pimpernel!"
Sir Percy Blakeney

The Scarlet Pimpernel is the 1934 film adaptation of the classic action-adventure novel written by Baroness Emmuska Orczy. The film was produced by Alexander Korda, who like Orczy was Hungarian in origin, as was his co-writer Lajos Bíró, and indeed their star, Leslie Howard. Oddly enough, Howard, who made the part of Sir Percy so much his own, was not Korda's first choice: having had a major hit with The Private Life of Henry VIII, he had wished to cast Charles Laughton (!) in the part, but was thwarted by critical, popular, and authorial outcry. Korda consoled himself by casting his Anne Boleyn, Merle Oberon, in the part of Marguerite, though Orczy herself considered her unsuitable. The film was given to Rowland Brown to direct, but Korda almost immediately dismissed him (perhaps feeling that Brown, a veteran of American gangster films, was mishandling this quintessentially English story), and assumed directorship himself, giving the film over to another American, Harold Young, for finishing touches.

The film was a triumph of sheer stylishness. Leslie Howard clearly enjoyed himself as Sir Percy; he passes through the fine gradations between the foppish imbecility of his public behaviour, his harder-edged frivolousness toward Marguerite, and the passionate lyricism of his tributes to his two loves, Marguerite and England, with the ease (as he might put it himself) of "a swallow's flight." Raymond Massey's Chauvelin is a figure of genuine menace: he seems somehow not so much human as a monstrous force of evil pursuing the innocent. The other rôles are equally well sustained: the fatuous but good-hearted Prince George (Nigel Bruce); the kindly and wise de Tournay (O.B. Clarence), his stiffly aristocratic wife (Mabel Terry-Lewis), and charming daughter Suzanne (Joan Gardner), who falls in love with the handsome if somewhat feckless Sir Andrew Foulkes (Anthony Bushell) all make an impression of noble decency that contrasts vividly with the brutal revolutionaries led by the waspish Robespierre (Ernest Milton). Korda's sets and costumes are handsome and lavish, the only failure in production values is perhaps in the rather sparse music.

And in the script. Though the dialogue — at least Sir Percy's — is uniformly witty, the plotting and characterization seems somewhat haphazard. Many actions of the Pimpernel's and his foes are merely narrated rather than seen: we are told that Percy has managed an escape, we are told that Chauvelin's agents have intercepted a message, we are told Chauvelin has figured out that Percy is the Pimpernel — and all these things take place offscreen. Nevertheless, the film maintains its reputation as a classic.

Synopsis (Spoilers included):

In 1792, as the Terror rages, the "Scarlet Pimpernel" (secretly Sir Percy Blakeney) rescues the family of the Count de Tournay from execution, though the count himself is still held by Robespierre. We learn that he does this to make up for the denunciation of an aristocratic family by his wife, the former Marguerite St. Juste — a denunciation which has estranged the couple. His bother-in-law Armand informs him that the Revolution's agent, Chauvelin, is hunting him. Chauvelin manages to obtain evidence linking Armand to the escapes, and threatens Marguerite that Armand will be executed if she does not find which of her English aristocratic friends is the Scarlet Pimpernel. She manages to obtain a note from Sir Andrew Ffoulkes telling when and where the Pimpernel is going to strike next, and informs Chauvelin. Later, she tells Percy what she has done and why, and informs him that Chauvelin had tricked her into denouncing the St. Cyrs after the Marquis had had her sent to St. Lazare when his son had fallen in love with her. Percy, without informing Marguerite of his secret, resolves to rescue Armand. Chauvelin now knows that Sir Percy is the Pimpernel, and Marguerite realises the same when she sees the Pimpernel badge in a painting of one of Percy's ancestors. She rushes to France to rescue him, but is trapped by Chauvelin there. When Percy arrives at the rendezvous, he recognizes the disguised Chauvelin and is able to have Armand and de Tournay rescued, but agrees to go to the firing squad if Chauvelin sends Marguerite to his waiting ship. Chauvelin accepts; but the firing squad proves to consist of Percy's men; the Frenchman is imprisoned in the basement, as Percy and Marguerite sail off to England, their future happiness assured.

The film was re-made in 1950 as The Elusive Pimpernel, with David Niven as Sir Percy, Margaret Leighton as Marguerite, and Cyril Cusack as Chauvelin. A sequel, The Return of the Scarlet Pimpernel, had already appeared in 1937, with Barry K. Barnes as the Pimpernel, Sophie Stewart as Marguerite, Francis Lister as Chauvelin, and a young James Mason as a sympathetic member of the Assembly. In 1941, Leslie Howard adapted the general concept of the film for his own "Pimpernel" Smith, in which an English archæologist smuggles refugees out of Nazi Germany; this film is credited with having inspired Raoul Wallenberg in his campaign to rescue tens of thousands of Jews from the German death camps.

For other adaptations, not derived from the Korda film, please see the list at The Scarlet Pimpernel.

This film provides examples of:

  • Alternate Continuity: The reason for Marguerite's animus against the Marquis de St. Cyr in the film is that he has had her sent to the reformatory for prostitutes at St. Lazare when his son asked to marry her, rather than (as on the novel) that St. Cyr had Armand beaten when he asked the Marquis's daughter to marry him.
  • Atonement Detective: The reason that Sir Percy is rescuing the French aristocrats is to make up for Marguerite's denunciation of the Marquis de St. Cyr.
  • Badass Longcoat: The traveling coats worn by everybody fit the bill.
  • Blackmail: How the Revolution attempts to manipulate its victims: Robespierre attempts it with de Tournay, and Chauvelin uses it against Marguerite and Sir Percy.
  • Blue Blood: The whole point of Sir Percy's adventuring is to rescue threatened aristocrats, who all are kind, high-minded, intelligent (except when pretending), and strikingly beautiful. Only the mob is filthy, stupid, petty, envious, and cruel.
  • Burn Baby Burn: Sir Andrew tries to incinerate a message from the Pimpernel, but is interrupted before he quite finishes.
  • Clark Kenting: Percy doesn't even wear glasses — of course, the difference is that, while everyone knows what Sir Percy looks like, no-one has seen the Pimpernel clearly.
  • The Commies Made Me Do It: Why Marguerite betrays the Pimpernel to Chauvelin.
  • Damsel in Distress: Suzanne de Tournay, and later Marguerite herself.
  • The Dandy: Percy, who is the only man whom the Prince will trust to advise him on clothes.
  • Disney Death: Sir Percy steps out in front of a firing squad, and we hear the "Ready! Present muskets! Fire!" and the report of the muskets. Then Sir Percy comes in for his hat.
  • The Ditz: Sir Percy pretends to be this.
  • Dressing as the Enemy: A ruse often used by the Pimpernel and his associates.
  • Gentleman Adventurer: Sir Percy, and indeed all the members of the his league.
  • Gory Discretion Shot: Although not showing executions would've drastically diminished the tension of the original novel, filmmakers at the time weren't quite ready to actually show decapitated bodies or severed heads on-screen. Thus, while the guillotine drops grimly and crowds roar in appreciation when the executioner holds up something, the film cuts away or body-haulers conveniently interpose themselves to ensure not a single glimpse of human remains actually appears.
  • Grande Dame: The Comtesse de Tournay is a stiffly dignified old lady, implacably opposed to Marguerite — but forced by the Prince Regent to acknowledge her nonetheless.
  • Gratuitous French: Averted. Many terms given in French in the novel are duly translated for the Anglophone viewer.
  • Historical Domain Character: The Prince Regent, Lord Grenville, the artist George Romney, and the pugilists John "Gentleman Jack" Jackson and Daniel Mendoza among the English; Maximilien Robespierre among the French.
  • Historical Hero Upgrade: The Prince Regent (later King George IV) is depicted in this film as a universally beloved if not particularly intellectual figure; the real George was a highly controversial figure who was considered an unprincipled liar, cad, and scoundrel by many Englishmen.
  • Historical Villain Upgrade: Robespierre is depicted as an exceedingly campy (See Always Camp, above) and totally fanatical ("I sent them to the guillotine for the future happiness of the human race...") Knight Templar.
  • I Have Your Wife: Not only is Chauvelin holding Armand hostage to control Marguerite, but he plays the trope literally at the Leon d'Or.
  • Master of Disguise: Leslie Howard has a lot of fun as a cackling old hag; Ffoulkes and Wilmot of the League also appear in more or less convincing disguises.
  • Noble Fugitive: The de Tournays and the other noble émigrés rescued by the Pimpernel.
  • Not Even Bothering with the Accent: Nearly all the Frenchmen in this film were obviously raised in "perfidious Albion", except for Walter Rilla's Armand and Raymond Massey's Chauvelin, whose accent (See Ooh, Me Accent's Slipping, below) definitely bothers.
  • Obfuscating Stupidity: Sir Percy is considered the described by the Prince Regent as "spineless, brainless, useless" and by his wife as "the biggest fool in England."
  • Pimped-Out Dress: Though in this case it's the men who are obsessed with fashion.
  • Point That Somewhere Else
  • Pseudo-Crisis: On at least two occasions the officials of the Republic who seize an aristocrat turn out to be the Pimpernel's friends.
  • Public Domain Soundtrack: The music, credited to Arthur Benjamin, consists of little more than La Marseillaise over the titles and Eine kleine Nachtmusik at the ball.
  • Shot at Dawn: What Chauvelin intends for the Pimpernel in the penultimate sequence.
  • Swashbuckler: Hovers near the edge of the genre. Percy tends to act more with his wits than with weapons; he never even draws a sword in this version!
  • You Don't Want to Catch This: Done with "the plague — the horrible black plague."