Leslie Howard was a multi-talented actor/director/producer as well as a true patriot who was taken from us too soon in 1943 when he was murdered along with 16 other defenseless people by the German Luftwaffe. Can a film star be so appealing that the audience will root for a die-hard one-percenter who is battling the cruelty of ignorant poor people in an adaptation of book by a Pro-Imperialist, Pro-Aristocrat author? Well, sink me if Leslie Howard can’t, as you will see in this week’s film recommendation: The 1934 version of The Scarlet Pimpernel.
The film is set during The Reign of Terror, during which déclassé French mobs cheer as the guillotine ceaselessly beheads tumbril-full after tumbril-full of upper class men, women and children. Enter our brave and dashing British hero, The Scarlet Pimpernel (Leslie Howard), to rescue his fellow nibs and show the Froggies a thing or two along the way, hey wot? In private life this crusader hides behind a foppish, effete image as Sir Percy Blakeney, leading his wife (Merle Oberon) to worry that her husband is incapable of manly action. Meanwhile, a tough, clever French agent named Chauvelin (Raymond Massey) blackmails Lady Blakeney over a past transgression in the hopes that she will ferret out the true identity of The Scarlet Pimpernel.
Although the movie contains some exciting action scenes in the early going, it’s really more of a three-handed melodrama (Indeed, the film would have benefited from just a bit more swash in its buckle). Percy doubts his wife’s political loyalty, she despairs of his evident lack of virility and seriousness, and Chauvelin tries to exploit the situation to bring about the death of his hated enemy. What might otherwise have been an overly serious or plodding story is enlivened throughout by Howard’s nearly over-the-top performance as Sir Percy, which he wisely plays for every possible laugh. Sink me, he’s a delight, as is Nigel Bruce in a supporting role as a buffoonish Prince of Wales (Later he would play a similarly comic Dr. Watson in another of my film recommendations).
Raymond Massey, with his dark looks and intense acting, makes a memorable villain as Chauvelin. And 1930s movie icon Merle Oberon is at the peak of her allure. Shortly after this film was made the Hays Code came in to cover up her décolletage with burlap, thereby saving America’s wayward youth from unclean thoughts and perilous temptation. Sadly, Oberon was then in a serious car accident that permanently scarred her lovely face. She did though go on in 1939 to anchor an all-time classic, Wuthering Heights (She also, funnily enough, married The Scarlet Pimpernel’s producer, Alexander Korda, that same year). As a sign of the times and the business in which she worked, this mixed-race actress spent her entire life trying to deny her Indian heritage by invoking the risible claim that she was Tasmanian!
As for the politics of this film, well, only once does an aristocrat (Count de Tornay) in the movie acknowledge that The Terror never would have happened if the rich hadn’t been so out of touch. The author of the novel (a curio to be sure), Baroness Orczy, criticized French aristos for forgetting the code of noblesse oblige and abusing the poor. But neither she nor this film objects to aristocracy in principle, only aristocracy done badly. Should this bother you? Not unless you take this movie way too seriously. This is a Saturday afternoon matinee, not a political science lecture, and it succeeds on those light-hearted terms, particularly because of the standout work of the wonderful Leslie Howard. Best of all, it’s in the public domain (take that, you indolent landed gentry!) so even if you haven’t two farthings to rub together you can see this film for free right here.