“They seek him here, They seek him there,
Those Frenchies seek him everywhere.
Is he in heaven?—Is he in hell?
That demmed, elusive Pimpernel.”
Oh, what can I say about Alexander Korda’s The Scarlet Pimpernel (1934) that probably already hasn’t been said a bazillion times in the last 80 years? I have been woefully behind, obviously, because this was the first time I had watched this particular version of the classic story by Emma Orczy. And folks, I am here to report that I was demmed charmed.
First of all, it stars Leslie Howard as Sir Percy Blakeney, whose performance here made me realize all over again what a great actor he was, regardless of his turn as bland Ashely Wilkes in Gone With the Wind (1937). Howard is my Sir Percy, from now on and forever more. The best parts of his role are the ones where he’s putting on the foppish front, and he’s just so devastatingly charming (there’s that word again) that I admit, I would have been front-row-center in the gaggle of silly ladies that follow him around everywhere (one of the best scenes in the entire film is when he delivers Percy’s clever little poem to his adoring fans but has to edit out the word “hell” for propriety’s sake).
Howard’s comedic skills are far better than he’s usually given credit for, and he just seems to be enjoying the hell out of himself playing everyone for the fool. But here and there, a glint of intelligence sparks in his eyes, and the audience can see the ruse evaporate for a brief second — when his wife isn’t looking, when the villain’s back is turned, when an unannounced bluff old fop blunders into the middle of his meeting with the League of the Scarlet Pimpernel. And all the talk of cravats, I thought I was going to hyperventilate from ecstasy!
Then there’s Merle Oberon, who plays Lady Blakeney, Sir Percy’s long-suffering French-born wife. This was one of Merle Oberon’s earliest starring roles, and there are moments when she’s out of her depth, but she performs the best when Howard is there. They clearly had some chemistry, and rumor has it that they were lovers for a bit. But really, Oberon’s actual purpose is to be beautiful, and she is. Oh, my god, she is. Her face was probably one of those that did stop a room when she entered, and she just is so pretty, but in a not-entirely-fragile sort of way. I hesitate in dwelling too long on Merle Oberon’s role in this film, because let’s be honest, at the end of the day, she was really there to wear fabulous clothes and to stare languidly into Leslie Howard’s eyes.
And finally, the villain — Chauvelin — played by Raymond Massey, rounds out the trio of main characters in this version. Massey is fabulous as Robespierre’s evil ambassador to England. Really, his acting is some of the best in the entire movie, as he slinks along with his oily black hair slicked back and giant collars that frame his craggy, angular features. He’s pure ee-vile, and he pretty much glories in it.
So, let’s talk about the costumes. There are two credits given for the costumes: first, John Armstrong, Director of Costumes; and second, Oliver Messel, “Miss Oberon’s Dress Designer.” I’m not entirely sure how many of Oberon’s outfits Messel designed, be it one or all of them, but I kind of think it was just one in particular. This one stood out pretty strongly against the other more historically-inspired late-18th-century costumes worn by the cast, Merle Oberon included. My hunch is that Armstrong designed the 18th-century stuff, while Messel handled the ballgown, which was straight-up 1930s formal wear. Annoyingly, there are no high-quality images of the gown she wears in the film, but it is very similar to the gown she’s shown wearing in some promotional photos:
The 18th-century costumes for the women were … close. Quite a few of the gowns seen on the extras and supporting characters were only corseted around the waist, with a natural bust-line that was obviously more 1930s than 1790s. Also, some of the gowns looked an awful lot like 1870s bustle gowns in overall shape, which I think was also one of those disconnects between two eras with diametrically opposed fashionable silhouettes. The designer went with something in the middle and it came out looking late-Victorian.
The men’s wear, however, was spectacular. I’ll just leave these here:
And the Prince of Wales’ outfits, as well as those of his over-stuffed companions, are fantastic.
Definitely treat yourself to this film. It’s currently available on YouTube, though sadly not through the Turner Classic Movies channel right now (even though it is apparently in their collection). I think you won’t be disappointed!
Have you seen The Scarlet Pimpernel (1934)? Share your thoughts with us in the comments!