TBT: The Scarlet Pimpernel (1934)


“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!

scarlet-pimpernel-howard-massey (1)

That’s my fetish!

Leslie Howard Scarlet Pimpernel 1934

Anyone need their cravat tied?

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.

1934 The Scarlet Pimpernel

Where do I sign up for that job?

Leslie Howard & Merle Oberon in "The Scarlet Pimpernel" (1934)

This dress did not appear in the film, but it is similar to the ballgown that did make it on film.

How can she even look in his eyes with a cravat like that?

How can she even look in his eyes with a cravat like that?

1934 The Scarlet Pimpernel

That’s a-moiré.

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.

Pay no attention to the clearly evil man in the background.

Who is eviler? Robespierre or Chauvelin?

Leslie Howard Scarlet Pimpernel 1934

I’m going with Chauvelin, since his collar is bigger.

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:

Merle Oberon - The Scarlet Pimpernel - 1934

Merle Oberon - The Scarlet Pimpernel - 1934

This is one of the clearest images I could find of the dress in the film. Honest.

Merle Oberon - The Scarlet Pimpernel - 1934

The ballgown from far away…

Merle Oberon - The Scarlet Pimpernel - 1934

3/4 view of the bodice and skirt. Those are birds on her bodice and possibly butterflies on her skirt.

Merle Oberon - The Scarlet Pimpernel - 1934

The bodice from behind. I think those are wings on the back, there. And there’s a lamé sash around her waist that has waterfall pleats down the back.

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.

Leslie Howard - The Scarlet Pimpernel - 1934

I’m struggling between pointing out the wrongness of the bodice and the fabulousness of the hat…

The neckline with the vandyked collar is perfect for the early 1790s, but the skirt silhouette and the bodice with the natural bustline aren't.

The neckline with the vandyked collar is perfect for the early 1790s, but the skirt silhouette and the bodice with the natural bustline aren’t.

Merle Oberon - The Scarlet Pimpernel - 1934

Close-up of the collar treatment. The portrait she wears around her neck is gorgeous… Could it have been an original 18th-century miniature?

Uh oh, that skirt looks like lamé to me...

Uh oh, that skirt looks like lamé to me…

1934 The Scarlet Pimpernel

The women are all dressed in “1930s meets 1790s.” It’s pretty, but not historically accurate.

The men’s wear, however, was spectacular. I’ll just leave these here:

Leslie Howard - The Scarlet Pimpernel - 1934

“Zounds! That is a monstrous good collar!”

Leslie Howard in "The Scarlet Pimpernel" (1934)

Is it getting hot in here, or is just me?

Leslie Howard - The Scarlet Pimpernel - 1934

Can we bring Garrick coats back into men’s fashion, please?


Some lucky bastard got away with this frock coat designed for Leslie Howard for $640. WHO ARE YOU???

Another frock coat from the film, designed for Anthony Bushell as Ffoulkes.

Another frock coat from the film, designed for Anthony Bushell as Ffoulkes.

Costume design sketch for Sir Percy.

Costume design sketch for Sir Percy, via the Harry Ransom Center.

And the Prince of Wales’ outfits, as well as those of his over-stuffed companions, are fantastic.

Leslie Howard - The Scarlet Pimpernel -1934 prinny2 prinny3

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!


About the author

Sarah Lorraine

Sarah has an undergraduate degree in Clothing & Textile Design and a Master's in Art History and Visual Culture, with an emphasis on fashion history. When she’s not caught in paralyzing existential dread, she's drinking craft cocktails and writing about historical costume in film and television. She's been pissing people off on the internet since 1995.

17 Responses

  1. Al

    I love this version (but hell, I love EVERY version) of the Pimpernel. The women’s dresses are miserable, but they almost always are if you are comparing them to the VERY careful descriptions of clothing in the books.
    Everyone in this version is just so freaking gorgeous!

  2. Donna

    We’ve got this one on DVD. I’ve only recently seen *any* other version of this story … the Jane Seymour one. Nice, but not Oberon and Howard.

    Yes, Raymond Massey did scary so very well … that’s why I think Jeremy Brett (late lamented Holmes as well as Freddy Einsford-Hill) must have been very brave. Brett divorced Massey’s daughter. Would you want Raymond Massey *that* P.O.’d at you? :-)

    • Sarah Lorraine

      I still haven’t seen the Jane Seymour one, but it’s on my list. I know the costumes are really praised by the costuming community in that one, but I’m having a hard time envisioning anyone other than Leslie Howard as Sir Percy.

      I actually picked up the book yesterday and I’m halfway through it. Good little story, but the script in this one is far better in really bringing out how inane Sir Percy was, plus all the little banter which makes this so so good.

      And yeah, I wouldn’t want Raymond Massey angry at me. Although, I do love how he can barely contain his laughter while Leslie Howard is fussing around with his cravat. God, I love that man.

    • Sarah Lorraine

      Hehe. It’s worth watching over and over. I sat my fiancé down and made him watch it… Now, mind you, Francis is a HUGE fop, so I knew he’d love it, but he seemed skeptical. He’s sitting there sipping his whisky sort of humoring me, when this part happens: https://youtu.be/0K9xA0MDjvU?t=26m8s

      When he gets to the line “How it came to me, heaven only knows, because it was the busiest moment of the day, while I was tying my cravat” and Francis had just taken a sip of his whisky which then came spraying out of his mouth as he was choking with laughter.

      Had to pause the movie to clean up. Effing brilliant.

  3. MoHub

    The only Pimpernel I like nearly as well is the Blackadder the Third take on it.

    • Sarah Lorraine

      Yes! I love the Blackadder “Nob & Nobility” episode! In retrospect, it’s TOTALLY OBVIOUS that they were riffing on Leslie Howard’s Sir Percy. “Dem bones, dem bones, dem…”

  4. mmcquown

    Like so many films that have been re-done, each version has its merits and faults. But Pimpernel is one of a few to have gotten a modernised version, Pimpernel Smith, set in WWII.

    • Janeite06

      Yeeeeees! Pimpernel Smith is pretty magnificent, in my opinion. Nothing can top my love for the 1934 Pimpernel when it comes to film versions set in the original era. However, in some ways, I feel that Pimpernel Smith actually captures the spirit of the book better. The Marguerite character is the clever, heroic Margot of the book rather than the watered-down pretty face of many film versions. And the danger seems more imminent and the future more uncertain because they actually were at the time of the film’s release.

  5. Isis

    I love, love, love this movie. Actually, I blame my 18th century obsession on it, having seen it at the tender age of five and falling in love with it.

    Re-watching it I was pleasantly surprised by how good the costumes are, especially if you consider it’s 1934. Apart from THAT ball gown, or course.

  6. pandaemonaeum

    Oh, I am so glad you did this one! That dark dress Merle Oberon wears pretty much started my obsession with film costumes, as I wanted that dress so much. It’s still one of my favourites and I want to make it some day, even if it is historically inaccurate :D

    • olsonmiki

      I loved them both and I loved the book. Wanting to share my love for the story with my young kids, we sat down to a movie day to watch the Seymour version…I forgot about the beheading scene in the beginning. They all ran screaming from the room. : ( It’s okay! It’s okay! They’re all grown up now and mostly not traumatized.