Friday, January 27, 2012

The Scarlet Pimpernel (1934)


In the early years of the twentieth century England enjoyed the story of a fictional hero of the dignified eighteenth century. The Scarlet Pimpernel was a nobleman by the light of day, but underneath would be a champion for those persecuted by the French Revolution. An abnormal tail of an Englishmen that saves French dignitaries from the guillotine would somewhat be a precursor to masked men seen in comic books in twentieth century America. It would be this classic tale, first shared in a 1903 play followed by a 1905 novel, that would make its way finally to the talking silver screen at the end of 1934. It would be a rather popular story and movie that last the many years of British cinema.

The Scarlet Pimpernel is an adventure drama of English noblemen who, with a loyal band of followers, secretly saves French aristocrats from death during the bloody years of the French Revolution, while eluding the men desperately perusing him. In the bloodiest parts of the French Revolution, when dozens of men were sent to the guillotine by the new republic, English nobleman Sir Percy Blakeney (Leslie Howard) moonlights a mysterious figure known as the Scarlet Pimpernel,  leader of a gang of men who disguise themselves in attempts to save aristocrats from the their unjust deaths. To keep his identity as a hero from those in pursuit of the Pimpernel, Sir Percy acts in his normal life like a noble fob, out of touch from that genuine strife in the world. Percy/Pimpernel continually plays games with his main adversary, Citizen Chauvelin (Raymond Massey), teasing him with notes and hints that the Pimpernel is one step ahead of him. This cat and mouse game leads to Chauvelin capturing Percy upon discovering the truth, but once again the Scarlet Pimpernel is saved from the firing squad, who in fact are the men that the Pimpernel had used to infiltrate Chauvelin’s circle of followers.

To label the film an adventure picture is deceiving as very little action takes place in the overall scope of the picture. The first act of the movie reveals the nature of the hero that is the Scarlet Pimpernel through a rescue at an execution, playing out like an adventure piece, but from then on the picture becomes slower and dialogue driven. For the remainder of the story Percy portrays his foppish nobleman “self,” which is in fact the real character he plays for the Pimpernel is his true self. This makes for a less interesting story, but still can be seen as suspenseful if you stop expecting to see more action or adventure. The story feels like it would have qualities of a superhero tale, minus the super powers of course, but it tends to drag a little as we are opened to the tale of those in the world against that what the Pimpernel stands for, which interestingly enough included Percy’s own wife Marguerite (Merle Oberon).  Marguerite would eventually learn of her husband’s true nature and change her thoughts towards the Pimpernel’s morals before the final confrontation with Chauvelin.

At the time of its release the story of the Scarlet Pimpernel was one of good interest of English audiences and would last as somewhat of a timeless classic in British cinema, considered the finest adaptation of the story. There were other versions in years to come both in film and on television. Personally I found the film could be somewhat slow, but that was perhaps to the expectations of mine being more contemporary of an audiences. The tale shares similar tones to that of say a modern Batman-like story where a rich man takes justice of righting the wrong into his own hands, and portrays his noble self as a naïve character. The basis of the Scarlet Pimpernel is from a root inside many people that enjoy stories of a greater person fighting for or look out for those that cannot defend themselves.

Outside of the story, the production quality is of good regards. The camera work, editing, and exposition are played off very well by director Harold Young. Young, an American born filmmaker, was first an editor by trade,later getting started in directing his own features. In a way this was his first break into directing, learning his skill from looking a prints of films he would cut, including highly thought of features, such as The Rise of Catherine the Great.

Besides having an American director at the helm, the picture overall has an American flavor to it. The film stars Leslie Howard, a British actor that had done a fair share of time in Hollywood. His work from Of Human Bondage with Bette Davis would show his rage in emotion, and would perform very well as the ideal Scarlet Pimpernel. To play Percy’s wife Marguerite was the very exotic looking Merle Oberon. Oberon’s look and acting ability would eventually land her roles in Hollywood features in the near future. Raymond Massey, who played the villainous Chauvelin, was a well-respected Canadian born stage actor that made a natural transaction to the screen with the characters he was able to provide. He too would one day be work in Hollywood, and even get nominated for best actor in 1940 for playing Abe Lincoln.

Overall one can say that the Scarlet Pimpernel is a fine picture. From story, to acting, to production quality, it is a film example of solid cinema from the mid-30s. Whether it is for a general audience is questionable. It is not offensive or has any moral issues to speak of. Rather it is in this contemporary world of movie watching that audiences would have a difficult time enjoying such a picture. But that is not what I am here to write about. The film is a solid piece of British filmmaking that has lasted through the years and from time to time is viewed by audiences today. Therefore we can say that the film is a successful picture, one that transcends the time it was produced.

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