Friday, July 12, 2019

“That Damned Elusive Pimpernel” Swashbuckles Again


When I was small, one of my favorite movies was the Danny Kaye classic, The Court Jester. Though Kaye’s physical and verbal antics (“The pellet with the poison’s in the vessel with the pestle”) were hilarious, I never quite understood a major plot point about restoring to the English throne an infant-heir with a peculiar birthmark. Just what was a purple pimpernel, and what was it doing on the baby’s bottom?

As my parents explained, this was a witty nod to the Scarlet Pimpernel, the secret mark denoting the hero of an historical romance set during the French Revolution. The Scarlet Pimpernel (the title refers to a common wild flower) started out as long-running British stage play, by a certain Baroness Orczy. Before long it was turned into a series of novels, starting in 1905. Naturally there were soon cinematic adaptations. The very first, from 1917, starred Dustin Farnum, the silent-movie star who years later became the namesake of a certain Dustin Hoffman. The best known Scarlet Pimpernel film was the first talking version, from 1934. A sumptuous, though sometimes stilted swashbuckler, it stars Leslie Howard, Merle Oberon, and Raymond Massey, under the direction of Harold Young.

Here’s the deal: in 1792 France people’s heads are being chopped off with gay abandon, as the crowd (made of up singularly unattractive individuals) cheers the falling blade of Madame Guillotine.. Clearly we’re supposed to be on the side of the “aristos,” who dress and speak much better. In particular we sympathize with the courageous de Tournays, who have just been condemned to death. Someone dressed as a priest shows them a passage in his Bible: surprise! Inside, there’s a message marked with the insignia of a red flower. The mysterious league of the Scarlet Pimpernel is coming to their aid. Soon they’re spirited out of Paris in a cart driven by a feisty old lady—who turns out to be none other than the Pimpernel himself, in one of his clever disguises. 

Actors love to play dual roles, and in this film Leslie Howard has a doozy. He’s the “damned elusive Pimpernel,” who sneers at danger and lives to serve those in need,  And he’s also Sir Percy Blakeney, British baronet. On his home turf, he covers his tracks by assuming the languid airs of a fop, one who is obsessed with good tailoring and seems most concerned about the amount of starch in his jabot. The big complication is that he has a wife, a gifted French actress named Marguerite St. Just, who doesn’t know about his secret identity. As played by the lovely but not especially talented Merle Oberon (sorry!), she struggles to understand her husband’s mixed feelings for her. Ultimately, of course, all becomes clear—and she finds herself in the usual female position of needing to be heroically rescued before the final fadeout. Howard, though, seems to be having a marvelous time, ricocheting between the persona of the odious English dandy and that of the heroic man of action.

For me a revelation was the performance of Raymond Massey, the Canadian actor best known for his Oscar-nominated 1940 performance as our 16th president in Abe Lincoln in Illinois. Fans of early television also remember his six-year stint as the venerable Dr. Gillespie in Dr. Kildare. Those two roles are the reason I tend to think of Massey in heroic terms. But as the wily Chauvelin, Robespierre’s envoy to England, he exudes a sinister charm, one that nearly ensnares poor Marguerite. As a French snake in an English garden, he’s certainly fun to watch.

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