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Star of the Month: Merle Oberon
Remind Me

The Scarlet Pimpernel (1935)

"Alex was Hungarian, imaginative, intelligent, extravagant. Although lacking business sense, he had an uncanny ability to find money, and he also had an uncommon feeling for quality." - Raymond Massey

The "auteur" theory of film authorship may apply most often to directors, but other artists can certainly acquire the label, be they writers, actors, cinematographers or composers. The Scarlet Pimpernel (1934), one of the great costume adventure films of its time, is the work of an auteur producer, Alexander Korda. His stamp is simply all over the movie, beginning with the script's overall wit and humor - two qualities which were in short supply in the original source material.

The Scarlet Pimpernel began life as a 1905 play by Hungarian Baroness Emmuska Orczy and Montagu Barstow. Three years later it was novelized by Orczy as the first of a series of novels. The story is set during France's Reign of Terror. Innocent French noblemen are being guillotined daily, but a mysterious man heroically rescues many of them, always leaving behind a small red flower - a pimpernel - as his trademark. The Scarlet Pimpernel, as he is called, is revealed to us to be Sir Percy Blakeney, a British aristocrat who pretends to be a foppish and ineffectual dandy in order to throw off suspicion. Even his disgusted French wife is unaware of his secret identity. The French, however, figure out that the Pimpernel is English and send an emissary, Chauvelin, to London to find him.

Korda originally had Charles Laughton in mind for Blakeney, but luckily he ended up with Leslie Howard, who became a huge star because of this picture. As Blakeney's wife he cast the beautiful Merle Oberon (who later became Mrs. Korda), and playing the villain Chauvelin was Canadian actor Raymond Massey.

Two more production members imported from America were cinematographer Harold Rosson and editor William Hornbeck, both among the finest in Hollywood at their professions. This was a sign of Korda's extravagance - bringing over such craftsmen was definitely not the norm for British movies at this time. Assembling the right crew, however, is one of the chief jobs of a producer, and Korda knew how to hire a winning combination of people to achieve what he wanted. In the case of The Scarlet Pimpernel, Korda wanted to fully and lavishly recreate the French revolution, and these were the people to pull it off in style. (Both Rosson and Hornbeck stayed to work on a few more Korda pictures as well.)

The Scarlet Pimpernel's original director, Rowland Brown, was famously fired on just the first day of production after butting heads with Korda. According to Raymond Massey's autobiography A Hundred Different Lives, Korda watched Brown direct a scene and then told him disapprovingly that he was shooting it as if it were a gangster film. Brown replied that he would direct it his way or walk out. Korda said, "Please walk," and Brown was gone. Korda directed the scene himself and by that afternoon had hired a replacement, Harold Young. Korda kept Young on a tight leash, however. As Massey wrote, "The next day Young ostensibly took over, but the direction throughout the months of shooting remained an unofficial but smooth collaboration."

While acting in The Scarlet Pimpernel, Massey was also starring in and directing the play The Shining Hour on London's West End, following a 125-performance run on Broadway. He managed to handle both the play and the movie even though it meant consistent 15-hour days. Korda accommodated him by providing a car and driver each day, thereby allowing Massey to catch up on sleep during the one-hour drive to and from Elstree Studios. It also helped that during each performance of The Shining Hour, Massey ate two full hot meals on stage as part of the play itself. (In theater circles, the play was known jokingly as "The Dining Hour.")

"I never had such fun working in a movie as I did on The Scarlet Pimpernel," Massey would later recall. "Of all the heavies I have played on the screen, the most wicked and the most fun to do was Chauvelin. There was a spirit in that company, a feeling of confidence, a sort of élan which I have often found in the theater but never sensed in any other movie."

The Scarlet Pimpernel has been a popular source for moviemakers over the years. It was made into several silent films and remade countless more times for film and TV. Korda himself oversaw two further versions - a sequel, Return of the Scarlet Pimpernel (1937), with a different cast, and a remake, The Elusive Pimpernel (1950), directed by Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger. Leslie Howard directed an entertaining modern-day version of the story in 1941 called "Pimpernel" Smith (also known as Mister V), in which he plays an effete academic who rescues victims of Nazi Germany.

Producer: Alexander Korda, Grace Blake
Director: Harold Young
Screenplay: Emmuska Orczy, Lajos Biro, S.N. Behrman, Robert E. Sherwood, Arthur Wimperis
Cinematography: Harold Rosson
Film Editing: William Hornbeck
Music: Arthur Benjamin
Cast: Leslie Howard (Sir Percy Blakeney), Merle Oberon (Lady Marguerite Blakeney), Raymond Massey (Citizen Chauvelin), Nigel Bruce (Prince of Wales), Bramwell Fletcher (Priest), Joan Gardner (Suzanne de Tournay).

by Jeremy Arnold



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