The Scarlet Pimpernel (1935)

 Run Time: 95 min. | b/w
Director: Harold Young
Stars: w. Leslie Howard, Merle Oberon, Raymond Massey, Nigel Bruce
 Genres: Adventure | Drama
The definitive Pimpernel. Solid swashbuckling entertainment with Howard the impeccably dressed and impossibly noble embodiment of the heroic freedom fighter.


  1. IMDBReviewer

    August 2, 2017 at 8:42 am

    To date, I’ve seen three "Scarlet Pimpernels" from three different eras, but the more I see this one, the more I appreciate it for the economical little masterpiece that it is. Three years ago, when I reviewed Powell & Pressburger’s "Elusive Pimpernel", I dismissed its predecessor as a ‘dated period piece’ remarkable only for Leslie Howard’s performance; watching it again now I’d hedge no bets in saying that it excels above its successor in almost every way.

    From the very beginning, long before the hero appears, it’s evident that we are in for a treat. The reason? Above all, the script.

    Necessary establishing information — the Pimpernel’s name and fame, the Revolution, the state of the Blakeneys’ marriage — is conveyed quickly and naturally in a few pertinent phrases here and there, without any need for static exposition. A vein of wry humour runs through almost every scene, from the Prince’s opening conviction that all the excesses of the Terror can be explained away by Johnny Foreigner’s lack of sporting spirit — "why, if it weren’t for fox-hunting and pheasant-shooting, we might be cruel too!" — to Sir Percy’s sleepy quip when his wife implores him to rise above trivialities for once ("Can’t rise above anything longer than three syllables, m’dear — never could") and the cheerful double meaning of his disguised assurances to a Frenchman reviling ‘perfidious Albion’: ”It won’t take *us* long to cross the Channel, eh boys?” But wordplay is also used to poignant effect, as when he tells Marguerite, estranged from her husband but bedazzled by the romantic image of the unknown Scarlet Pimpernel, "For all you know, he’s a married man deeply in love with his wife…"

    If the script is witty, humane and on occasion impassioned, it owes a great deal also to the nuanced delivery of the cast. Nigel Bruce far outshines his bumbling Watson of later years in the pat of the pompous and preening but not entirely stupid Prince-Regent-to-be; Raymond Massey’s Chauvelin is intelligent as well as menacing, despite an accent that strays periodically and disconcertingly across the Atlantic from France, plus the necessary abridgement of the plot for cinematic purposes; Merle Oberon, no raving beauty to today’s taste, provides all the resourcefulness and heartbreak one could ask for, playing proud, neglected Marguerite — one can easily credit her as Orczy’s ‘cleverest woman in Europe’.

    But casting Leslie Howard in the dual title role was a simple stroke of genius. His tall figure and bony beak of a face serve perfectly both as the languid Sir Percy, setting off a series of immaculately-fitting ‘unmentionables’, and as the commanding, quick-thinking Pimpernel; and the scene in which he drops from one persona to the other almost in mid-sentence upon the entry of the irate Colonel Winterbottom is a joy to watch. He is absolutely convincing as the "spineless, brainless and useless" fop, and yet he can shade intelligence and feeling back into his features at the drop of a hat in unconcealed moments that never let the audience forget the man behind the mask. His scenes with Merle Oberon as Marguerite are joint masterpieces of brittle drawing-room comedy with an undertow of unhappiness that convinces us of the former passion between them, alluded to but never shown.

    Blakeney, of course, gets all the best lines, and Leslie Howard makes the most of them, mocking with exquisite insolence in his guise as licensed fool. But perhaps the third factor that really makes this film is the richness of those background moments when the starring characters are not there. The secure pomp of England epitomised in the opening shots of the changing of the guard; the revolutionary barber stropping his blade with eagerness at the thought of aristocrats’ throats; the ‘tricoteuses’ beneath the guillotine, counting off heads with busily-clicking needles; and the instants of screen time that establish each of the ‘aristos’ awaiting execution — tiny, non-speaking parts — as individuals in their own right.

    The script is intelligent, succinct and sparkling with understatement. The actors’ faces speak as eloquently in the pauses as in any silent drama. The black-and-white photography is sumptuous, from the lavish ballroom scenes to the grimy "Lion D’Or" in Boulogne. And Leslie Howard is endlessly watchable in an ever-changing portrayal of leashed strength in masquerade. The only caveats I’d make are concerning the soundtrack quality — I suspect the prints I’ve heard have been damaged — and the final brief epilogue scene, which despite the gentle wordplay falls, to me, a little flat. In all other respects this would be the "Scarlet Pimpernel" I’d recommend: every time.

  2. IMDBReviewer

    August 2, 2017 at 8:42 am

    Hidden behind the nom de guerre of THE SCARLET PIMPERNEL, an English lord attempts to snatch a few victims away from Robespierre’s insatiable guillotine.

    The Scarlet Pimpernel, the French Revolution’s greatest enemy, first came to life in a 1903 play by the Baroness Orczy and in her subsequent, and almost unreadable, 1905 novel. He was an immediate favorite with both the British & American public and found his finest translation to screen in this lavish movie from Sir Alexander Korda’s London Films.

    It’s interesting that the film actually became so popular, because there is very little action in it. It begins with an exciting rescue & escape from dangerous Paris, but then it settles in for lengthy dialogues in English parlors and ballrooms. Even the conclusion, with its confrontation between hero and villain, is civilized and bloodless. The bulk of the story is actually a melodrama enacted principally by a trio of characters: an English husband who believes his Parisian wife has betrayed the Gallic nobility he so loves, she frets that he has lost every scintilla of masculinity, and the French serpent in their midst plots to destroy their entire Eden.

    The reason the film clicks is because it is so very well written (celebrated American playwright Robert Sherwood worked on the script) and acted. Sensitive Leslie Howard is perfectly cast as courageous Sir Percy Blakeney, who must wear a double disguise, that of the Pimpernel to fool the French, and as a complete aristocratic ass to dupe his wife, Marguerite. She is played by the exotic Merle Oberon; the script allows her to do little more than look frightened or confused, but she does both very nicely. Raymond Massey is properly wicked as the sneering Chauvelin, Revolutionary ambassador and master spy, who desperately desires to capture the Pimpernel.

    In the large cast it’s often a mite difficult to sort out who’s who, but a few fine character actors particularly stand out: Nigel Bruce as a stout & pompous Prince of Wales, Bramwell Fletcher as a French priest aiding the Pimpernel, and Melville Cooper as George Romney, the celebrated portraitist, who has to endure a silly critique from Sir Percy.

    The Baroness Emmuska Magdalena Rosalia Marie Josepha Barbara Orczy (1865-1947) was a most prolific author with a list of books almost as lengthy as her name. Those wishing to follow the further clashes between Sir Percy and Chauvelin may do so in the many sequels, now mostly quite obscure, which she penned over the next several decades: I Will Repay (1906), The Elusive Pimpernel (1908), El Dorado (1913), Lord Tony’s Wife (1917), The League Of The Scarlet Pimpernel (1919), The Triumph Of The Scarlet Pimpernel (1922), Sir Percy Hits Back (1927), Adventures Of The Scarlet Pimpernel (1929), The Way Of The Scarlet Pimpernel (1933), The Scarlet Pimpernel Looks At The World (1933), Child Of The Revolution (1933), Sir Percy Leads The Band (1936) and Mam’zelle Guillotine (1940).

    The scarlet pimpernel (Anagallis arvensis) is a low spreading herb with a 5-peteled blossom that grows as a weed throughout Northern Europe. The flower closes at rain’s approach and opens again with returning sunshine, hence giving rise to its being called ‘the poor-man’s weatherglass’ or ‘the shepherd’s barometer.’

  3. IMDBReviewer

    August 2, 2017 at 8:42 am

    And those "Frenchies" sought him everywhere.

    Leslie Howard probably was the first British stage star who became a genuine Hollywood star as well. We tend to think of Ronald Colman, his elegant contemporary, but Colman never had the great stage career Howard did, and never made films in England – he worked (for Samuel Goldwyn mostly) in Hollywood. Howard conquered English cinema, most notably in PYGMALION (which he co-directed) and this film. His ability to play a romantic figure like Percy Blakeney and a Shavian master character like Henry Higgins shows his amazing talent. By 1935 he had been in several films opposite Frederic March and Norma Shearer (SMILIN’ THROUGH), Mary Pickford (SECRETS), Bette Davis and Humphrey Bogart (THE PETRIFIED FOREST), Davis and Olivia de Haviland (IT’S LOVE I’M AFTER), and Bogart and Joan Blondell (STAND-BY). He continued in this manner, eventually being in Ingrid Bergman’s first American movie (INTERMEZZO), and in GONE WITH THE WIND as Ashley. For an actor who died tragically prematurely in World War II, Howard left an impressive film record.

    Sir Percy Blakeney must have become a favorite role to Howard. He was to make it the basis for a final spy comedy-thriller (his last role) PIMPERNELL SMITH, bringing the character up-to-date (taking on the Nazis led by Francis Sullivan as a "Goering" clone). But the original is the better film, as there is a real attempt to capture the spirit of the 1790s, the stirrings of Regency England. The scenery looks a little forced, but it is done consciously to capture the London of 1793.

    There are slightly jarring effects (inevitable in any historical movie). Nigel Bruce captures the triviality of the Prince of Wales (the future George IV), although he does strike the proper note in explaining the difficulties of attempting to rescue French political prisoners and aristocrats. But his Scottish burr is noticeable. Merle Oberon does well as the heroine, cruelly twisted into helping the French (via the detestable Chauvin, played by Raymond Massey) into betraying aristocrats to the guilloutine. Her willingness to spy for the Frenchman based on his threatening to execute her brother for treason. Only later does she accidentally realize that her noodle-headed husband is the man she is ultimately forced into betraying.

    Massey played mostly villains at this point in his career, except in THINGS TO COME. However, he was to soon make a "favorable" transition, by starring on stage and in the film of ABE LINCOLN IN ILLINOIS. His turn as the psychotic John Brown in SANTE FE TRAIL also changed his movie personae – as he shows that his psychosis is based on a genuine desire to end slavery, as opposed to the opportunistic greed of his betrayer Van Heflin. Here his Chauvin is pompous and deadly. Not a nice character at all. But he has moments to shine: When he hears Blakeney’s idiotic verses about the Pimpernell, he is doing a quiet slow burn and says, "I particularly like that use of the term "Frenchies"!". When he hears Oberon bemoaning the deaths her testimony (which he forced her to give) caused in the French courts, he suddenly makes a comment too often forgotten in movies about the French Revolution: "Why is it that everyone is always bemoaning the fate of the poor aristocrats? Don’t people ever recall what they did to us?!" Even Chauvin and Robespierre had some points to bring up.

    Howard’s gleeful performance is the anchor for it all. As clever and watchful a spy as one imagines, instantly dropping the seriousness to play the fool. Look at how he keeps bringing up the proper tying of cravats, or his miscalling the apoplectic Colonel Winterbottom "Ramsbottom". Wonderful stuff Sir Percy. Wonderful movie still.

  4. IMDBReviewer

    August 2, 2017 at 8:42 am

    I loved this movie largely for the fabulous performances that both Oberon and Howard give. Nothing beats Howard dressed up as an old woman and fooling the silly French soldiers!

    Howard’s performance is beautifully understated. His performance is based mostly in his facial expressions, which gives the performance its power. There is a tendency by later actors who have played the Pimpernel to really over do the fop business, but he gives it just the right intensity.

    Oberon is perfect as Lady Blakeney, and she has wonderful chemistry with Howard. She also does a lot with facial expressions and closeups

    The other good thing is that not all the French people in this movie sounded like they were English!

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