The Pimpernel Lives Again (1934)
The “Pimpernel” Lives Again
Baroness Orczy talks about the filming of her best-selling novel, “The Scarlet Pimpernel,” in an exclusive Film Weekly interview with J. Danvers William
It is twenty years since I wrote “The Scarlet Pimpernel.”
One day, I called a famous publishing house and was told that they required a serial. To get home, I had to catch a train at Temple Station, just off the Strand. It was bitterly cold, and London looked grey and miserable.
Standing there, waiting for my train, the idea suddenly came to me. I could see Sir Percy Blakeney with his monocle, and I could see the Scarlet Pimpernel. By the time I arrived home I had the whole book formulated in my head. All that remained was to put it down clearly on paper.
When arrangements for the filming of the book were completed recently, it seemed to me essential that Alexander Korda and his actors should have a similar subconscious grasp of the story before they began work, and it was in the hope that I might imbue them with some of the original inspiration that I came to London to help with the production.
Although I maintained that the story should not be materially altered–partly because it had already proved its own worth and partly because the public obviously did not want it altered, I was fully aware that certain small changes would be necessary.
Many excellent novels have made poor films because they are introspective rather than active. an attempt to screen such a film is bad. The director is dissatisfied because he hasn’t sufficient action, and the author is incensed because, in an attempt to infuse new action, the original meaning of the story is lost.
The difficulty did not arise in the case of “The Scarlet Pimpernel” because it has, of course, an active plot. The only alterations necessary were those of a technical character caused by the changing of the medium from print to celluloid.
My part has been to retain my original conception of the characters. The actual telling of the story, in terms of the screen, I have left to Alexander Korda. I made up my mind at the very beginning, however, on certain general points connected with the production.
I decided that the first thing I wanted the picture to have was action. I wanted it to be a motion picture in the proper sense of the term, and not just a series of heavily dialogued scenes. Dialogue is the art of the theatre. The art of the camera is motion.
Korda fully agreed with me that the only way to make a really successful film of my book was to use dialogue sparsely and tell the story, as far as possible, by clever pantomime on the part of the actors and by camera-work unfolding the story rapidly and giving the film quick movement.
Factors of Success
Arnold Bennett used to attribute the large sale of the book entirely to the way in which the characters stood out. In my opinion, the estrangement between Sir Percy Blakeney and his wife, and the fact that Sir Percy was living a double life which was heroic in both aspects, also contributed largely to its success.
I took the view from the start that these circumstances should be welded into the screen version.
Artistry, subtlety and technique are important, but I consider these things subservient to the plot. Not long ago I went to see a film, the title of which I need not mention. Suffice to say that it was a subtle, satirical and superbly photographed picture. I enjoyed it in a way, but could not quite make up my mind whether it was a first-class film.
Next day I arranged for one or two people, who might be taken as representative of the general public, to see the film. They said quite frankly that, although the production was technically perfect, they did not enjoy it half so much as The House of Rothschild.
This little experiment satisfied me that subtlety and polish were useless without a strong plot. Although The House of Rothschild deals with such an abstruse subject as high finance, it has a clearly defined story running throughout, and its appeal is broad.
The ideal, of course, would be a film that combined both plot and artistry. The highbrow point of view that technique is the only thing which matters is quite unreasonable. People want what they enjoy; and what they enjoy more than anything else, in my opinion, is a good story well told.
Good Pictures Pay
If you look at the phenomenal screen successes–Farewell to Arms, The Private Life of Henry VIII, Queen Christina, Little Women, to mention only a few–you will find that they are all technically sound pictures made by crack directors and based on strong stories. Which seems to me to prove conclusively that people do enjoy good artistry when it is given to them in conjunction with a good plot.
We felt that one of the chief difficulties about screening a story like “The Scarlet Pimpernel,” which has been read extensively throughout the world, was that people had formed their own idea of the chief characters.
This was brought home forcibly to us when Alexander Korda cast Charles Laughton in the chief rôle. Indignant letters came pouring in from people of all rank and nationality saying that casting was absurd, though I personally thought that Laughton’s fine acting would more than counterbalance his obvious physical unsuitability. However, public opinion decreed that Laughton should not play the part, and Leslie Howard, after much difficulty, induced his American company to allow him to come to England to characterise the Scarlet Pimpernel.
Korda has been helped considerably in his work by Mr. Howard, who has such a command of technique that he can tell as much with a glance or a gesture as it would take a less-accomplished actor several lines of dialogue to put over.
Mr. Howard has also grasped the psychology of the part. Too often, actors are just themselves dressed up in fancy clothes. Unless an actor really knows the mind of the character he is portraying, the finished production is almost certain to be disjointed.
I was very impressed by the way in which one particular incident was handled in the studios. It was the one in which the Scarlet Pimpernel escapes from the Market Place in old Paris under the very eyes of the French police.
When I wrote the novel I simply said that Sir Percy Blakeney adopted the disguise of an old woman. That was easy enough to write, but I imagined that it would be most difficult to screen. Leslie Howard, as the foppish Sir Percy, was ideal, but I did not see how he or any other male actor could play the part of an old woman without looking absurd.
But, having seen the incident as it will be shown in the finished picture, I have to admit that it could not have been done with more conviction. Howard, besides being an accomplished actor, must have studied the ways of old women carefully to have given such a vivid interpretation. Much of the credit is also due to the make-up expert.
But it is only now that I have seen this incident screened that I realise what an important part is being played by Hal Rosson, the photographer. He spent several hours arranging the lights and backgrounds, and it was he who cast the final veneer of age upon Leslie Howard’s face and gave the sequence finish.
The progress already made certainly speaks well for the rest of the picture.
“The Scarlet Pimpernel” is now nearing completion at the B. and D. Studios, Elstree, where it is being produced for London Films by Alexander Korda.
The story was adapted for the screen by a distinguished team of writers, including Sam Berman, author of the play, “Biography,” Arthur Wimperis, who wrote much of the dialogue for “Henry VIII,” and Robert Sherwood, of “Reunion in Vienna” fame.
Baroness Orczy herself also collaborated in the preparation of the scenario, while her son, John Orczy-Barstow, an authority on the costumes and customs of the period covered by the story, has been technical adviser throughout the production.
(Film Weekly, October 10, 1934)