On the face of it, I don't ask much of a film: only - only! - that
should make me laugh and cry and catch my breath, and stir my blood
equal measure. Strange, then, how rare this seems to be... and how
films earn the final accolade by almost forcing me to review them!
had not the slightest intention, this morning, of writing
"Pimpernel Smith". But now that I sit down afterwards and try to
I find my attention wandering back to it again and again. Clearly,
must set down this review, or I shall never get anything done...
there can be few stronger tributes to the power of a film.
Leslie Howard, of course, makes or breaks the whole. As
director and starring actor, his name is scrawled - literally - on
film from its opening titles; indeed it gives us a chance to
the penmanship on the mysterious hand-written notes that
Unsurprisingly, in some ways this is very much a one-man vehicle.
Leslie Howard's charms escape you, the whole production is probably
dead loss - but for any fan of his earlier films, it is little short
"Pimpernel Smith" takes much of its resonance from the subtle
with Baroness Orczy's story of the Scarlet Pimpernel. The latter
openly referred to only in the title, but acknowledged in a dozen
from the leading character who cloaks an incisive mind beneath
foolish mask to the young acolytes who aid and yet rashly put him
risk, the woman who is set to spy out the identity of a beloved
potential saviour, and of course the closed frontiers and despotic
of a new-fledged state - not Revolutionary France, but a Nazi
not yet at open war. Above all, the echoes lie in the
guises and plans for escape, always one twist ahead of both the
and the viewers themselves. By the end of the film, I was
the most innocent characters of being the nondescript Professor
in disguise... and I'm still not certain about the indignant lady
the Cook's Tour!
The references, however, are never obtrusive and always remain
and of course perhaps the chief of these is the casting of
Howard himself. Along with a humane and intelligent script, it was
outstanding depiction of the title role that raised the 1934 film
"The Scarlet Pimpernel" above the average. Even today, the
is immediate. Less than ten years after the original, the
performance of their star must have been inescapable.
From vacuous fop to absent-minded professor... and yet it is
Howard's credit that his Professor Smith is not a carbon copy of
Percy Blakeney, but a distinct and undoubtedly charming character
his own right. For a moment, rapt in admiration of an Aphrodite,
is startlingly handsome. But for the most part, peering owlishly over
newspaper or buried beneath a deplorable hat, he is more the
spit of bespectacled Charles Hawtrey in some post-war "Carry On".
has developed the baggy amble to a fine art, and the knack
deprecation and inoffensive insolence almost without effort; and
role of gentle academic is not a pose, but the guiding principle
all his unlikely impersonations, even that of the part of hero.
Professor, above all, is a man who hates destruction and
Passionate screen kisses rarely move me; oddly enough, a handful
restrained moments of tenderness in this film did. It may be
carefully-scripted star vehicle, but few enough of those choose
celebrate the clever and the unassuming. I like Professor Smith
But even the quietest hero needs a villain as foil, and Francis
Sullivan is also outstanding here as the elephantine von Graum, a
general who turns out to be far less stupid than one might assume.
hard not to suspect the character of being a lampoon on Goering,
from the start we are invited to laugh at him; but for all his
and his struggles with "the English sense of humour", von Graum
brighter by far than most of his staff, and sometimes even one
ahead of the viewer, which makes it hard to be complacent on
heroes' behalf. He may rant and foam for lack of proof, but the net
tightening... and without the advantage of Orczy's predetermined
the unexpected twist at the end of this film could all too easily
either way. Unfortunately, heroism is not necessarily defined
In fact, in retrospect, I feel that the ending (which I won't
here) was perhaps the one weak point. Unlike the Basil Rathbone
pictures (there are echoes of "Pimpernel Smith" in the subsequent,
at all bad, "Sherlock Holmes and the Secret Weapon"), the
sentiments of the hero's set-piece speech are not dated or
to modern ears. Indeed, Leslie Howard's shadowed intensity remains
of the most effective shots in the film. The only trouble is that
so good that it becomes a hard scene to top, and the actual
comes off as somewhat trite by comparison.
But that's with hindsight. At the time, the only thing of which I
fully conscious was that, already pre-disposed in that direction
"The Scarlet Pimpernel" and "Pygmalion", I had just become a
Leslie Howard fan! Every time I catch myself whistling 'Tavern in
Town' without thinking, over the next few days, I shall know why...