The Scarlet Pimpernel (1934) * Pimpernel Smith (1941) ****

The chief virtues of The Scarlet Pimpernel are producer Alexander Korda’s customary lavish production values, a witty screenplay that amusingly interpolates genuine historical figures such as Romney, Sheridan and Daniel Mendoza, and the perfect casting of Leslie Howard - a quintessentially English actor with one huge Hollywood success behind him and many more to come. The role of the Englishman who daringly rescues condemned aristocrats in France while maintaining a façade of foppish imbecility in London played to all his strengths, and was brilliantly revived in the wartime variation Pimpernel Smith.This first film was Korda's second and more successful attempt to find another international smash along the lines of The Private Life of Henry the Eighth (1933), after the blatantly imitative Private Life of Don Juan (Korda, 1934), borrowing the exquisite Merle Oberon from both. Perhaps indicative of the heavy burden of responsibility it carried, the film had a troubled production. Three (credited) screenwriters and three directors (including Korda) worked on it, though only Harold Young takes credit in the finished print. The first, Rowland Brown, was allegedly removed for making the film too violent, though as Jeffrey Richards observes in his book The Age of the Dream Palace, it might have benefited from less genteel handling. He notes that there is “too little of the Pimpernel and too much of Sir Percy”, and certainly the story’s obvious potential for scenes of swashbuckling and derring-do is under-exploited. This is especially true when the rescue of Armand and the Count de Tournay - to which the narrative has been excitedly building for some time - is achieved through nothing more suspenseful than bribery, and not even shown but merely reported by subsidiary characters. Though the scenes of Sir Percy annoying buffoonish English aristocrats and humiliating the Prince of Wales’s tailor are highly amusing, a few more daring rescues and escapes would have helped strike a better balance. (In this respect, the 1980s tv movie with Anthony Andrews and Jane Seymour is much the better version.)
Korda produced a sequel, Return of the Scarlet Pimpernel (1937), but it has not endured: Howard’s Hollywood commitments resulted in stage actor Barry K. Barnes standing in as Sir Percy, and of the original players Anthony Bushell alone returned. The best variation of all, perhaps, remains Howard's brilliant updating of the story in Pimpernel SmithSticking with surprising fidelity to a source from which five characters and sundry plot details are transplanted intact, this wartime revision is a highly efficient piece of propaganda.The American among Smith’s student allies, for instance, functions as a metaphor for his country; still officially neutral at the time the film was being made. Similarly, the jokes involving Smith's German nemesisVon Graum’s inability to understand British humour, and his claim that scholars have proved Shakespeare was German, serve a deeper purpose than mere mockery of the enemy. The film implies that humour is one of the characteristics separating the humane from the machine-like and pitiless, and Von Graum’s lack of it makes him a deadly figure, not a comic one. (The same goes for Smith’s absent-mindedness, which unlike Sir Percy’s foppish banality is both genuine and intended for our approval.) In a final speech that predicts Hitler’s inexorable march toward hubristic self-destruction with striking prescience, Smith explains that it is the fact that the fascist mentality mistakes these strengths for weaknesses that will be its undoing.Perhaps a bigger surprise than its efficiency as propaganda is the film’s excellence as narrative cinema. Though it shares the first film’s odd desire to look away from potentially exciting episodes – we never learn how the second escapee was hidden in the hostel, or exactly how Meyer’s rescue was affected in the scarecrow sequence – this is a much more stirring film than its model. Howard’s direction combines interesting ideas (our first glimpse of Germany is of a tourist sign reading ‘Come To Romantic Germany’ upon which the camera remains fixed as the sound of a ranting Hitler, marching boots and machine gun fire are heard on the soundtrack) with superb film noir-like lighting effects. The latter is especially notable when Smith’s identity is discovered on the train (a patch of light from an unknown source isolates his piercing eyes) and at the climax in which Smith and Von Graum match wits at the German border.This final scene achieves a near-supernatural quality, with Smith vanishing almost impossibly into the night, his whispering voice somehow remaining behind him. Coming to this extraordinary sequence today we cannot help but bring to it echoes of Howard’s own death at the hands of just these enemies, making it not merely every bit as stirring as Howard intended, but genuinely poignant also.