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  Pimpernel Smith They Seek Him Here, They Seek Him There
Year: 1941
Director: Leslie Howard
Stars: Leslie Howard, Francis L. Sullivan, Mary Morris, Hugh McDermott, Raymond Huntley, Manning Whiley, Peter Gawthorne, Allan Jeayes, Dennis Arundell, Joan Kemp-Welch, Philip Friend, Laurence Kitchin, David Tomlinson, Basil Appleby, Percy Walsh
Genre: Comedy, Thriller, WarBuy from Amazon
Rating:  7 (from 2 votes)
Review: Germany, spring 1939, it is late at night and Dr Beckendorf (Allan Jeayes) is completing an experiment for a formula that could save countless lives - or it would if he could be assured of it getting into the right hands and not into those of the Nazis who currently hold the land in their grip of terror. But there's one chance that he can get away as there has been a mysterious figure operating in the country who helps sympathetic Germans escape the regime to safe territory, and when Beckendorf's friend, the Polish newspaperman Koslowski (Peter Gawthorne) passes him a coded note, he knows that help is on its way...

For an actor thought of as the quintessential Englishman of his day, Leslie Howard's actual roots were in Eastern Europe, born of Hungarian Jewish parents in London. He had fought for Britain in the First World War and been deeply traumatised by the experience, suffering shell shock that he found acting a fine way to cope with. Therefore it's perhaps not so surprising that when the Second World War broke out Howard threw himself into winning the propaganda war against the Germans, so that in spite of his huge popularity both at home and abroad, he eased off from making films to get behind the war effort.

That's not to say that he stopped making films altogether, but they did become far more personal to him than the role he took in his most famous film, Gone with the Wind, just as the war was commencing. In this period he made The First of the Few and this, Pimpernel Smith, inspired by the Scarlet Pimpernel novel that had offered him one of his most memorable roles when filmed "straight" back in the mid-thirties. It was a natural choice to update the idea of going behind enemy lines to save important people stranded in Nazi Germany, and Howard adopted his aloof, vague professor persona, one that had served him well, as the Pimpernel's alter ego - some say that he was the inspiration for Indiana Jones.

Archaeologist Horatio Smith is introduced gazing at his favourite statue, that of Aphrodite, in a museum, as she is meant to be the love of his life for he has no interest in real women, to the extent that he insults his female students so that they storm out of his lectures. This seems to belie his English good manners, but it's all an act, and before the film is over he will have found love with a proper woman rather than his fantasy version, although we don't twig straight away that she is ideal for him, as indeed neither does he. Howard was a dashing figure for all his intellectual air, and a genuine romantic lead for many female movie fans of his day, so as if to acknowledge this he does drift into saving the damsel in distress eventually.

Before that he assembles a group of his students to visit Germany for an expedition into whether there is true evidence of an Aryan race that the Nazis have been claiming, and flattered by this fine thinker's interest the authorities allow him to visit. For some reason the film is very coy about admitting Smith is actually a secret agent for over half the film, as if we hadn't guessed already, but this gives us longer to enjoy some delightful light comedy, humour whose intention is not only to entertain, but to slyly point out that we need to laugh in times of adversity more than ever, and the British are excellent at that. Smith's counterpart is General von Graum (Francis L. Sullivan), tellingly a man with no sense of humour, and desperate not to be foiled yet again by the Pimpernel's schemes, while the love interest was Mary Morris (best known as the only woman to play Number Two in The Prisoner TV series): both of these characters push him to the limit of his talents. Of course, Howard died two years later in real life when the Luftwaffe shot his plane down, but he had the last laugh as his films endure, as his great speech at the end demonstrates. Music by John Greenwood.
Reviewer: Graeme Clark

 

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