Directed by Harold Young
Written by Baroness Orczy
Starring Leslie Howard, Merle Oberon, Raymond Massey, Nigel Bruce,
I’ve written before about how much I enjoyed the writing of Baroness Orczy, but that has been a strictly literary admiration until now. It was inevitable that her best-know literary creation would be made into a film. Several silent films were made, but the first sound version was made in 1934 as The Scarlet Pimpernel.
The story was well known.* The Scarlet Pimpernel was the first character to use a secret identity, and he was a major influence on Bob Kane and Bill Finger when they created Batman. He helped victims of the French Revolution to safety in England along with the a group of twenty other English aristocrats who work with him.
He’s revealed to the audience to be Sir Percy Blakeley (Leslie Howard), a silly fop whose biggest interest is lame jokes and making sure other people tie their cravats properly. He is despised by his wife Lady Marguerite Blakeley (Merle Oberon), who fantasizes about the Scarlet Pimpernel.** Meanwhile, the sinister French ambassador Chauvelin (Raymond Massey), plots to discover who the Pimpernel really is, and blackmails Marguerite to be his spy. Blakeley reveals he has a love/hate relationships with his wife after he hears she betrayed someone to the guillotine.
The movie is extremely faithful to the book. This isn’t surprising, since the Baroness wrote the script. The opening scene of the novel – one of the cleverest bits of derring do in literature – is portrayed almost intact, as is the scene where Chavelin first tries to trap the Pimpernel in a drawing room. The ending seems to have changed a bit – in the book, Lady Blakeley plays a bigger role – but is still first-class adventure.
Nigel Bruce – best known as Doctor Watson to Basil Rathbone’s Sherlock Holmes – was something of a surprise. He looked a little different when he was younger; it was only his voice that gave him away.
The movie was a success and gives a surprisingly good example of how a great book could become a great movie.
* Warner Brothers even parodied it in a Daffy Duck cartoon. But the parody set it long before the French revolution.
**Early Bruce Wayne was clearly modeled on Blakeley, and the Superman-Lois Lane-Clark Kent love triangle also has its source with the Pimpernel.
***Charles Laughton was considered for the role, but the fans seriously objected for the rotund and ugly Laughton playing the romantic swashbuckler.