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  Scarlet Pimpernel, The Damned Elusive
Year: 1934
Director: Harold Young
Stars: Leslie Howard, Merle Oberon, Raymond Massey, Nigel Bruce, Bramwell Fletcher, Anthony Bushell, Joan Gardner, Walter Rilla, Mabel Terry-Lewis, O.B. Clarence, Ernest Milton, Edmund Breon, Melville Cooper, Gibb McLaughlin, Morland Graham, John Turnbull
Genre: Historical, AdventureBuy from Amazon
Rating:  7 (from 1 vote)
Review: The year is 1792 and across the English Channel in France the revolution is in full swing as the aristocrats are executed by the dozens with the device they call Madame Guillotine. In London, the Prince of Wales (Nigel Bruce) is most concerned, but he and his fellow British noblemen are given some comfort in knowing that out there somewhere is the man known only as The Scarlet Pimpernel doing his bit to save as many of the French aristocrats as he can. The revolutionaries are incensed, but powerless as their operations are being made a fool of - until one citizen, Chauvelin (Raymond Massey), steps up...

Probably the most celebrated of all the versions of Baroness Orczy's famous tale of the dashing hero, this was a lavish and elegant Alexander Korda production for the British screen that proved a hit across the world. It's a breezy adventure that was blessed to have one of the nation's biggest stars at is heart, Leslie Howard essaying the role of the apparently foppish dandy who is secretly saving all those lives from having their heads chopped off. It's quite something to say that you're on his side all the while, considering those French upper classes were not historically the most sympathetic of people.

Much of that is in the way Howard has fun as the effete persona of Sir Percy Blakeney, almost playing him as a straight out comic character and certainly mining some laughs from the material. The sole thing Sir Percy appears to be interested in is clothes, especially the correct manner in which to wear a cravat, providing some excellent cover for his actual personality as a brave adventurer. Not even his French wife Lady Marguerite (Merle Oberon rarely looked more beautiful) is party to his secret, and there is a chill between them, mainly because Sir Percy believes her to be a traitor.

She is not, of course, though has to keep her mouth shut or her brother back in France will be in great peril, but this offers up a more interesting romance than the typical "win the heart of the fair lady" historical dramas might usually bring to the table. The lovers are already married to each other but have grown apart and it takes Sir Percy's derring do to solve their marital problems even as Chauvelin attempts to blackmail Marguerite into giving him the advantage over the Pimpernel. All the while the public Sir Percy is taunting him, not that Chauvelin could prove anything, with that famous rhyme he has composed to praise the British hero.

The film had a troubled history, and original director Roland V. Brown was sacked on the first day of shooting, replaced by someone who Korda could order around with less friction. Howard and Oberon had an affair during the making of the production, although funnily enough the man she ended up marrying was Korda, for a while at least, but you would never know that all this disruption was going on from the finished presentation as it runs as smooth as silk. Do not, however, expect a vintage swashbuckler as the Pimpernel is strictly a non-violent protagonist and there's nary a swordfight to be seen here, but the methods he uses to outwit his enemies, especially at the end when it seems all is lost, are very satisfying. Maybe it looks a little creaky around the edges now, but the stars carry it with style.
Reviewer: Graeme Clark

 

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