Alexander Korda’s production of The Scarlet Pimpernel is one of the finest British films of the 1930s and its international success led to two sequels (The Return of the Scarlet Pimpernel and The Elusive Pimpernel) and a series of remakes. The film was based on the 1905 play by Baroness Emmuska Orczy, although it’s been transformed into a swashbuckling period romp here.
Set during the French Revolution, Leslie Howard stars as fop Sir Percy Blakeney. When the English aristocrat hears about his French counterparts losing their heads across the Channel, he springs into action. Using the pseudonym of the Scarlet Pimpernel, he embarks on a series of daring rescue missions, snatching seemingly doomed families from the cold steel of the guillotine and the clutches of Robespierre (Ernest Milton).
The Pimpernel and his small band of followers strive to remain anonymous – even Blakeney’s beautiful French wife, Marguerite (Merle Oberon), doesn’t know of her husband’s alias. Using his seemingly unlimited powers of disguise, the Pimpernel continues to thwart Robespierre and his henchman, Chauvelin (Raymond Massey). Things become even more dangerous, though, when Marguerite becomes involved.
Although Leslie Howard went on to play the Scarlet Pimpernel several times on film, Alexander Korda originally intended Charles Laughton to star as the foppish hero. Indeed, although The Scarlet Pimpernel is now seen as one of the first British classics, director Harold Young was a late replacement for Rowland Brown, who was discarded after only a few days’ shooting.
“They seek him here, they seek him there, those Frenchies seek him everywhere. Is he from heaven, is he from hell – that damned elusive Pimpernel.”
UK / 1934 black and white
Director: Harold Young
Writers: Robert E Sherwood, Sam Merman, Arthur Wimperis, Lajos Biro, based on the novel by Baroness Orczy
Cast: Leslie Howard, Merle Oberon, Raymond Massey, Nigel Bruce, Bramwell Fletcher, Anthony Bushell, Joan Gardner