Most romantic film #58: The Scarlet Pimpernel (1934)

This is an old-school, studio romantic film in black-and-white starring Merle Oberon and a pre-GONE WITH THE WIND Leslie Howard.

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Based on the play and novel by Baroness Orczy (published and produced in 1903) about the adventures of an English nobleman, Percy Blakeney, who rescues French aristocrats from the guillotine and “The Terror,” under the nose of French authority.

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Howard plays Sir Percy perfectly. Sir Percy masquerades as a fashionable fool with one of the highest titles in Britain. He is married to Marguerite, his beautiful French bride (Oberon), but hides his secret mission from her because he knows she betrayed a noble French family to the guillotine… He also pretends not to care for her: they have the msot fashionable marriage in England, meaning brittle, sophisticated and loveless.

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Of course, they love each other madly but due to political and personal misunderstandings, the marriage is “in name only.

The villain is played by one of my favorite character actors, Raymond Massey. He chews up the scenery in swell fashion as Chauvelin, the French bad guy who blackmails Marguerite and pursues Percy relentlessly (without being as tiresome as the LES MIZ folks).

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Howard is wonderful here, handling his double role of fop and hero with panache. He is not only a man of action, but a man of intelligence and linguistic humor. This is the opposite of his masterful work five years later as Ashley Wilkes: similar type, but Sir Percy has substance as well as style. In real life Howard was a man of action: he was killed in WWII (1943) when he was shot down flying over the Bay of Biscay, possibly on assignment for British Intelligence.

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Oberon is glamorous and moving as Marguerite, the woman admired by everyone but the husband she desperately desires. The actress may be better known as Catherine in the original WUTHERING HEIGHTS (1939). Oberon was married to the movie’s director Alexander Korda.

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This story has been re-made in several film versions, including the 1982 TV version starring Anthony Andrews, Jane Seymour and Ian McKellan (as the French villain Citizen Chauvelin) and the 1999-2000 TV version starring Richard E. Grant, Elizabeth McGovern and Martin Shaw (as Chauvelin).

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The 1934 version is considered the best (by me, too, although I love all of them and the novel). The atmosphere, the pre-WWII politics (this is a 1934 British film directed by a Hungarian, after all), the costumes and glamour — huge, wonderful old studio style.

The novel is unabashedly romantic, and while none of the movies comes close to Orczy’s prose, the Oberon-Howard couple is adult, sexy and surprisingly moving compared to the smooth TV versions that follow.

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