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Elusive Pimpernel, The (1950)


Main image of Elusive Pimpernel, The (1950)
35mm, 109 minutes, Technicolor
Written ProducedMichael Powell,
and Directed byEmeric Pressburger
Production CompanyLondon Film Productions
 British Lion Film Corporation
 Archers Film Productions
From a romance byBaroness Orczy
PhotographyChristopher Challis

Cast: David Niven (Sir Percy Blakeney); Margaret Leighton (Lady Marguerite Blakeney); Jack Hawkins (Prince of Wales); Cyril Cusack (Chauvelin); Robert Coote (Sir Andrew ffoulkes); Arlette Marchal (Comtesse De Tournai)

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In revolutionary France, an intrepid Englishman is rescuing aristocrats from the guillotine. But who is the mysterious pimpernel?

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Although The Elusive Pimpernel is a light-hearted romp that refuses to take itself seriously, it was the source of bitter recriminations and a subsequent lawsuit between its executive producers. The film was conceived as a co-production deal between Alexander Korda's London Films and Samuel Goldwyn, in which it was agreed that Goldwyn would fund half the film's production costs in exchange for US distribution rights. Korda had produced a version of Baroness Orczy's 'The Scarlet Pimpernel' in 1935 (d. Harold Young) with Leslie Howard and Merle Oberon, and Goldwyn anticipated a colour remake that would emulate some of that film's international success. However, like David O. Selznick, who had worked with Korda on Gone to Earth (1950), the American mogul hadn't counted on the free-spirited filmmaking of Michael Powell, Emeric Pressburger and their long-term creative collaborators including production designer Hein Heckroth, editor Reginald Mills and composer Brian Easdale.

Powell's suggestion to make the film as a musical was less than enthusiastically received by Goldwyn and Korda, and Pressburger continued to struggle with the script until he decided to abandon his straight approach and opt for an altogether more playful style. The use of vibrant Technicolor and the light-treatment of the story anticipate later period swashbucklers such as Richard Lester's hugely successful The Three Musketeers (1973), but dismayed Goldwyn, who refused to pay his share of the production costs. Powell and Pressburger were obliged to re-edit the film, but this failed to pacify Goldwyn. He and Korda promptly sued each other for breach of contract and The Elusive Pimpernel was eventually released in America in a further truncated form (and in black and white) as The Fighting Pimpernel.

Although both Powell and Pressburger were dissatisfied with The Elusive Pimpernel, the film itself is highly enjoyable. It features stunning location work in Bath, the Loire Valley and on Mont St. Michel and there are numerous spirited and quirky moments, such as the intercut fireworks that suggest the force of Chauvelin's pepper-induced sneezes and the jaunty editing that visually echoes the rhythm of Sir Percy's poetry recitation in the Russian Baths. Hein Heckroth's understated sets (a few screens and pillars in the steam room for example) give precedence to the sumptuous costumes, with David Niven and Jack Hawkins' humbug-striped tailcoats and frilly lace cuffs commanding as much visual attention as Margaret Leighton's elegant ball gowns and satin nightdresses.

Nathalie Morris

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Video Clips
1. They seek him here... (1:39)
2. The storming of the chateau (3:05)
3. A conjuring trick (2:39)
Production stills
Monthly Film Bulletin review
'Pimpernel' Smith (1940)
Scarlet Pimpernel, The (1935)
Adventures of the Scarlet Pimpernel, The (1955)
Challis, Christopher (1919-)
Cusack, Cyril (1910-1993)
Easdale, Brian (1909-1995)
Hawkins, Jack (1910-1973)
Heckroth, Hein (1901-1970)
Kalmus, Natalie (1887-1965)
Macnee, Patrick (1922-)
Mills, Reginald (1912-1990)
Niven, David (1910-1983)
Powell, Michael (1905-1990)
Pressburger, Emeric (1902-1988)
Late Powell and Pressburger