Scarlet Pimpernel, The (1934)

The Scarlet Pimpernel (1934), directed by Harold Young.

An English aristocrat, dim-witted foppish clothes-horse by day, is secretly head of a heroic league who rescue victims from the guillotine during the Terror (which is indeed what the French revolutionaries called their reign).

This is background to his marriage problems: his wife is a French actress who -- knowing only his public persona -- despises him as a fool, while he suspects her of being a spy and informer. Obviously love finds a way to unite the personal and political to make an essential romantic adventure.

It's a great mythology which I'm surprised has not had more film development. Zorro, Robin Hood, and the Musketeers all get periodic spectacle reboots, so why not the Pimpernel? You've got the exciting French Revolution context and the English Regency fashions, pull in the Jane Austen material and hot it up with bare-knuckles boxing and other blood sports. The marriage subplot makes it prime romantic action-adventure material, always a popular genre.

Maybe the name is too silly? The "pimpernel" is a roadside flower, in this case Sir Percy's family crest.

Oddly enough this version downplays the action potential, and we have no swashbuckling as such. Was there a British bias against action films at that time? I noticed the same thing when comparing Fire Over England (1937) with The Sea Hawk (1940). If so, Hitchcock was quite an innovator.

The great Leslie Howard defines the title role, which he reworked for a WW2 context in Pimpernel Smith (1941). Merle Oberon is appealing as Lady Blakeney and the camera dwells on both of their faces at length. Raymond Massey provides another of the delicious villains he specialized in during those years.

Historical note: they show a boxing match out in a country field. Because bare-knuckles boxing was not legal even then the matches had to be moved around. The Prince Regent attends this bout, also historically correct. Around 1870 a new law declared spectators to be felons, and that ended it.

The film has been in public domain hell for years, with every disc I could find of pathetic quality, like copies from worn VHS tapes. (I actually don't see it on the public domain lists but it must be; Madacy wouldn't have had it years ago otherwise).

My thumbnails are from a vastly better PAL DVD by Network, a respectable UK label. I can't call it a great restoration and there is noticeable print damage, but it is a big step up from what I had before. No subtitles.