The Scarlet Pimpernel (1934)

The Scarlet Pimpernel (1934)
Directed by Harold Young
From the novel by Baroness Emmuska Orczy
Scenario, continuity & dialogue: Lajos Biró, S.N. Behrman, Robert E. Sherwood, Arthur Wimperis and Baroness Orczy [uncredited]
Produced by Alexander Korda
Music by Arthur Benjamin
Cinematography by Harold Rosson
Film Editing by William Hornbeck
Set Decoration by Vincent Korda
Director of costumes: John Armstrong; Dresses designer for Miss Merle Oberon: Oliver Messel

Leslie Howard Sir Percy Blakeney
Merle Oberon Lady Blakeney
Raymond Massey Chauvelin
Nigel Bruce The Prince of Wales
Bramwell Fletcher The Priest
Anthony Bushell Sir Andrew Ffoulkes
Joan Gardner Suzanne de Tournay
Walter Rilla Armand St. Just
Mabel Terry-Lewis Mabel Countess de Tournay
O.B. Clarence Count de Tournay
Ernest Milton Robespierre
Edmund Breon Col. Winterbottom
Melville Cooper Romney
Gibb McLaughlin The Barber
Morland Graham Treadle (the tailor)
John Turnbull Jellyband
Gertrude Musgrove Jellyband’s daughter ‘Sally’
Allan Jeayes Lord Grenville
A. Bromley Davenport French innkeeper (Brogard)
William Freshman Lord Hastings
Hindle Edgar Lord Wilmot

Articles and Reviews

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. (Baroness Orczy in an interview with J. Danvers Williams, Film Weekly, October 10, 1934)

To have been for many years an adherent of the Scarlet Pimpernel is to have the best of excuses for a mild confusion of his many adventures. Was there not a famous drive with Lady Blakeney inside the coach and Sir Percy on the box? Where is it? Or does that belong to another part of his chronicle? No matter. Hero though he is, he has not the classical rank of Mr. Pickwick to make passionate textualists of us all, and what matters, when he comes to the screen, is that he shall be, in his hours of ease, an elegant fop, a boon companion of the Regent, a lazy, posing, worthless fellow whom his wife can justifiably despise, but, in his bursts of secret activity, a gallant adventurer who, in impenetrable disguises, thwarts the villainous Chauvelin and snatches lovely French aristocrats from the guillotine.
Mr. Leslie Howard is all this and more. First, he is the old hag who drives the Tournay family through the barriers of Paris in a cart; then, dandy and strategist rolled into one, he is engaged in a battle of wits with Chauvelin. Miss Merle Oberon, may not be every one’s notion of a lady of fashion at the close of the eighteenth century, but she gives a sharp emotional twist to the tale when Chauvelin, by threatening her brother’s life, drives her into betrayal of the unknown Pimpernel; and there, bless him, is Sir Percy feigning sleep in the library at midnght and there is the abominable Chauvelin allowing his prey to escape once more. But for a moment only.[…]
Our own idea of Chauvelin was of somethime moth-eaten than Mr. Raymond Massey can accomplish, but a frowning, swaggering villain serves almost as well, and there are a dozen of other good performances to support Mr. Howard’s–conspicuously Mr. Nigel Bruce’s Regent and Mr. Ernest Milton’s brief but impressive sketch of Robespierre. The sequence of the story might be better than it is; it has a tendency to hop, rather than flow, from scene to scene: but the spirit of the book is in it, its guileless advernture unspoiled by any of the so-called improvements which a less descreet studio might have invented.
(The Times, December 21, 1934)

I must confess that I had my doubts as to the wisdom of casting Leslie Howard as Sir Percy in Baroness Orczy’s ever-green romance The Scarlet Pimpernel. I have a great admiration lor that actor and I would put his performance in Berkeley Square as one of the finest the screen has given us, but as Sir Percy–no. Well, I need not have had any misgivings. Leslie Howard is brilliant. He makes the character of the resourceful adventurer who rescued the victims of the French Revolution and hid his identity under the mask of aristocratic foppery, come to life. To hear him repeat the piece of doggerel he wrote, in the character of Sir Percy, to amuse the loungers of clubland and the ladies of the court– “They seek him here, they seek him there, Those Frenchies seek him everywhere. Is he in Heaven, or is he in Hell, The demned elusive Pimpernel !” –is to obtain a full measure of enjoyment from the intriguingly devised, romantic character. His change of poise, too, is cleverly marked both in expression and manner. He convinces you as the man of action and as swiftly assures you–or rather his enemies–that he is a fop pure and simple. Alexander Korda has made a very good picture but Howard dominates it by his performance. As Sir Percy’s wife who unwittingly betrays her husband’s identity and then tries to undo the wrong she has done, Merle Oberon is good, if rather nebulous, but Raymond Massey is excellent as Sir Percy’s mortal enemy–the French ambassador, Chauvelin. The brief glimpse Ernest .Milton gives us of Robespierre during scenes of the Terror in Paris is noteworthy, and Nigel Bruce is convincing as H.R.H. the Prince of Wales. As an aristocrat, the Comte de Tournay, whose family the Pimpernel rescues from the guillotine, O. B. Clarence is exceedingly good, and alì the supporting cast fits admirably into the realistic and colourful background. If anything, Alexànder Korda’s direction errs on the slow side. He is apt to over-prolong scenes, but since they are so extremely well devised this fault does no more than cause a little action lag which can be forgiven. Vincent Korda’s settings are remarkably good.The picture strikes an authentic note right through, whether it is dealing with the mob–in Paris, the court in England, the hairbreadth escapes of the Pimpernel or the matching of wits between that gentleman and his arch-enemy Chauvelin. There is a definite polish about the whole thing, including the costuming by John Armstrong. You will not be disappointed with the way this popular romance has been brought to the screen. It is first-class entertainment . (L. C. [Lionel Collier], Picturegoer, January 12, 1935)

Alexander Korda’s new film has the wit and sophistication characteristic of the London Films product; but, more fortunate than The Private Life of Don Juan, which in some degree also had those qualities, it has a rounded and smoothly flowing script and a highly skilled actor as a star attraction. The scenarists–Robert E. Sherwood of Reunion in Vienna, S.N. Behrman of Queen Christina, and Lajos Biro and Arthur Wimperis of The Private Life of Henry VIII–have retained the liveliest scenes of the Baroness Orczy novel and have added something of humour and sophistication. We are in “the finest age of English taste,” and the film always tries to suggest this atmosphere. Were it not for the polished acting, particularly of Leslie Howard, fallow patches, occasionally apparent, would be more plainly revealed; but Howard is studied, resourceful and charming, his timing perfect as always; and he is in skilled company with Nigel Bruce, Raymond Massey and Merle Oberon. It is significant that a major influence on the film is the art direction of Vincent Korda. Harold Young (after Rowland Brown’s departure) directed, and the camera-work, which gives the film some picturesque moments, is by Hal Rosson, from M.G.M. (F.H. [Forsyth Hardy], Cinema Quarterly, vol. 3, nr. 2, Winter 1935)

An excellent entertainment. It is one of the best Alexander Korda has produced, or has come out of England. It has human interest, an engrossing story, a lavish production, and good acting. But it is a class picture. Most of the credit for its entertainment must go to Leslie Howard, who gives a magnificent performance as the courageous English Lord who risks his life to save French aristocrats who were sought to be sent to the guillotine. It is a treat to watch him behaving like a fop in order not to have people suspect that he was the leader, known as Scarlet Pimpernel. Howard wins the spectator’s sympathy from the beginning. One is held in tense suspense throughout, because one does not know how Howard, who had been cornered by the French soldiers, would escape from them. The love interest is appealing.
(Harrison’s Report, February 2, 1935)

Exciting, romantic melodrama is to be found this week at the Albee Theater where Leslie Howard and Merle Oberon are importantly involved in an English production of “The Scarlet Pimpernel.” […] It is a film that is not entirely devoid of faults, its principal weakness probably lying in its excessive use of dialogue and its consequent failure to make the most of its camera opportunities. But these must be regarded as minor deficiencies in a thrilling drama of the French Revolution in which the brilliant Mr. Howard gives one of his most satisfying performances.
Here Mr. Howard is the dashing, adventure-loving Sir Percy Blakeney, leader of the Scarlet Pimpernel band. […] In order to keep his identity a secret, Sir Percy chooses to masquerade as a nit-witted dandy and, the better to conduct the activities of his gallant band, is even compelled to sacrifice the love and respect of his pretty French wife. It is Lady Blakeney, however, who at last unwittingly betrays him to the French Ambassador, but in a thrilling climactic chapter Sir Percy neatly slips out of the trap that has been set for him and ingeniously turns the tables on his enemies.
In addition to Miss Oberon, who appears in the part of Lady Blakeney, Mr. Howard receives excellent support in “The Scarlet Pimpernel” from a distinguished company of English players, including Raymond Massey, Bramwell Fletcher, Joan Gardner, Nigel Bruce and Anthony Bushell.
(Martin Dickstein, The Brooklyn Daily Eagle, March 2, 1935)

This is a picture that booksy people will love and thrill-seekers will find bloody enough to appease their probable distaste for the sophisticated elegance of a Leslie Howard.
The plot is laid in the abundantly blood-stained reign of Robespierre, when French aristocracy bent their heads at the guillotine. Leslie Howard, as the daring and cunning savior of French royalty, sweeps smoothly from comedy into drama. At one moment, when he would hide his identity in the character of a fop, his pompous asininities are glittering in their brilliance, and again, in the serious mood of leader, he shows his ability to portray power as well as delicacy.
Merle Oberon, who plays the traitor wife, is a pretty and unusual type, but disappointing to one who has listened to the superlative so carelessly used in her behalf in advance publicity. The cast is an excellent one […] The costume and settings are noteworthy. In all, a picture that belongs on the not-to-be-missed list.
(Movie Classic, April 1935)

Costumes for Leslie Howard

Costume design sketch from “The Scarlet Pimpernal,” gouache and pencil on board

The Scarlet Pimpernel

Costume design for “The Scarlet Pimpernel” (costumier’s copy, after John Armstrong and Oliver Messel)

The Scarlet Pimpernel

A rose-colored, striped silk eighteenth century style tail coat with black buttons and lace details at the cuffs, made for Leslie Howard as Sir Percy Blakeney in “The Scarlet Pimpernel”

 The Scarlet Pimpernel

Original Trailer

Photo Gallery

Leslie Howard Merle Oberon

Leslie Howard Merle Oberon

Leslie Howard Merle Oberon

Leslie Howard Merle Oberon

Leslie Howard

Leslie Howard

Merle Oberon Leslie Howard

Merle Oberon Leslie Howard

Leslie Howard

Leslie Howard

Merle Oberon Leslie Howard

Merle Oberon Leslie Howard

Raymond Massey Leslie Howard

Raymond Massey Leslie Howard

Leslie Howard

Leslie Howard