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Scarlet Pimpernel, The (1935)

Courtesy of ITV Global Entertainment Ltd

Main image of Scarlet Pimpernel, The (1935)
35mm, 99 min, black & white
DirectorHarold Young
Production CompanyLondon Film Productions
ProducerAlexander Korda
ScreenplayLajos Biró
 Sam Bermann
 Robert Sherwood
 Arthur Wimperis
CinematographyHarold Rosson
Music DirectorMuir Mathieson

Cast: Leslie Howard (Sir Percy Blakeney); Merle Oberon (Lady Marguerite Blakeney); Raymond Massey (Chauvelin); Nigel Bruce (The Prince Of Wales); Anthony Bushell (Sir Andrew Ffoulkes)

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'The Scarlet Pimpernel', a mysterious Englishman who travels to Paris in a variety of disguises to rescue French aristocrats from the guillotine, is revealed to be Sir Percy Blakeney, a notorious society fop.

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Producer Alexander Korda's customary lavish production values, a witty screenplay that amusingly interpolates genuine historical figures such as Romney, Sheridan and Daniel Mendoza, and the perfect casting of Leslie Howard are the chief virtues of this most successful version of the Baroness Orczy's famous anglophile romance.

The film was an attempt by Korda to find another international smash along the lines of The Private Life of Henry VIII (d. Korda, 1933), after the blatantly imitative The Private Life of Don Juan (d. Korda, 1934) had noisily failed to do just that. From both films it borrowed the exquisite Merle Oberon, and it was especially canny in its casting of Howard - a quintessentially English actor with one huge Hollywood success behind him (the still vivid Of Human Bondage, 1934) and many more to come. The role of the Englishman who daringly rescues condemned aristocrats in France while maintaining a façade of foppish imbecility in London played to all his strengths, and he tellingly revised it during the war years in 'Pimpernel' Smith (d. Howard, 1941).

Perhaps indicative of the heavy burden of responsibility it carried, the film had a troubled production. Three directors (including Korda) worked on it, though only Harold Young takes credit in the finished print. The first, Rowland Brown, was allegedly removed for making the film too violent, though as film historian Jeffrey Richards observes, it might have benefited from less genteel handling. He notes that there is "too little of the Pimpernel and too much of Sir Percy", and certainly the story's obvious potential for scenes of swashbuckling and derring-do is under-exploited. This is especially true when the rescue of Armand and the Count de Tournay - to which the narrative has been excitedly building for some time - is achieved through nothing more suspenseful than bribery, and not even shown but merely reported by subsidiary characters. Though the scenes of Sir Percy annoying buffoonish English aristocrats and humiliating the Prince of Wales' tailor are highly amusing, a few more daring rescues and escapes would have helped strike a better balance.

Despite these reservations, the film was a deservedly huge success. Korda produced a sequel, Return of the Scarlet Pimpernel (d. Hans Schwarz, 1937), but it has not endured; Howard's Hollywood commitments resulted in stage actor Barry K. Barnes standing in as Sir Percy, and of the original players only Anthony Bushell returned.

Matthew Coniam

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Video Clips
1. Rescue (4:37)
2. Sir Percy's deception (3:01)
3. Marguerite's discovery (4:16)
Monthly Film Bulletin review
'Pimpernel' Smith (1940)
Elusive Pimpernel, The (1950)
Adventures of the Scarlet Pimpernel, The (1955)
Biró, Lajos (1883-1948)
De Marney, Derrick (1906-1978)
Howard, Leslie (1893-1943)
Korda, Alexander (1893-1956)
Massey, Raymond (1896-1983)
Oberon, Merle (1911-1979)