Leslie Howard is Brilliant but the Film is Lacking
JLFM - wrote on 11/24/13
*This review contains spoilers from the book, "The Scarlet Pimpernel."*
The Scarlet Pimpernel, by Baroness Orczy, has been adapted into several films over the years. One of the most notable versions is the 1934 adaption- mainly for Leslie Howard's performance as the title character. But how well does it hold up today?
Taking place during the French Revolution, the Scarlet Pimpernel is an elusive Englishman that rescues French aristocrats from the guillotine. His identity is a secret, but the wicked Chauvelin has convinced Marguerite Blakeney- a social icon in London- to discover the Scarlet Pimpernel's identity. Little does Marguerite know that the Scarlet Pimpernel is actually the idiotic Sir Percy- Marguerite's husband!
This adaption of the Scarlet Pimpernel has aged nicely, but it still a mixed bag. There are moments of brilliance, and moments of glaring weakness. And while there are various portions of the film that fall under both categories, they are mostly divided into comedy and drama.
The comedy works extraordinarily well. The humor (coming primarily from Sir Percy) is almost always successful, and there are laughs to be sure. Much of the reason the humor works so well is because of the killer delivery from Leslie Howard (portraying Sir Percy and the Scarlet Pimpernel).
Unfortunately, the more dramatic moments are far less enjoyable. These moments of drama feel completely pedestrian, and it's not all interesting. Part of this is the script, which falters in the film's more serious moments. The other part is the characters which- with the exception of Sir Percy- are hugely undeveloped. In the book, the characters are very fleshed out, and are given clear personalities and charming intricacies. In the film, they are but cardboard cut-outs, with character development nonexistent- resulting possibly from the brief 95 minute run-time.
There are- of course- many differences between the book and film. One of the biggest changes is the attention the main character is given. In the book, Marguerite Blakeney receives most of the attention. In the film, it is Sir Percy (though considering Howard's genius performance, this is more than acceptable). The ending has also been dramatically changed, and while it might bother die-hards of the source material, I personally found it a refreshing change, and it kept me wondering what would happen.
Despite the less-than developed characters, the acting is solid (though Raymond Massey seems terribly miscast as Chauvelin). Alas, the only notable performance is Leslie Howard as Sir Percy/The Scarlet Pimpernel. He steals every scene he's in, and he's the only thing we're thinking about in the scenes he's not in. His performance brings life and excitement to the picture.
I only note the score (composed by Arthur Benjamin) because there is almost no music in the film. There is perhaps 10-15 minutes of music in the entire film, and none of it leaves an impression.
The Scarlet Pimpernel has its charms (mainly deriving from Leslie Howard's terrific performance), but on the whole, the more serious moments fail to deliver, and the production is a bit forgettable. It's harmless fun for those seeking a serviceable adaption of the source material, but those expecting more will merely be underwhelmed.