Monday, May 12, 2014

"Those Frenchies Seek Him Everywhere..."

 Errol Flynn undoubtedly takes first prize when it comes to classic adventure heroes. No one will ever be able to compete with that dizzying smile and devilish charm, and let's face it, green tights aren't easy to pull off. No other film of the early '30s came even close to matching what Robin Hood was able to achieve in the adventure genre (thanks in no small part to a brilliant supporting cast and stunning use of technicolor). However, had it been given the same studio treatment, I think The Scarlet Pimpernel could have come real close to capturing that same brand of magic.

I absolutely adore this movie. It has everything you never knew you wanted: French villains, suave Englishmen, disguises, melodramatic misunderstandings, mistaken identities and a "love conquers all" vibe that is swoon worthy. Quick plot outline: The Scarlet Pimpernel (a.k.a. Sir Percy Blakeney) dons disguises to sneak into France and save French aristocracy from the guillotine during the French Revolution. He does it in part because his French wife admitted to denouncing (sentencing to death) some "friends" at the beginning of the French killing spree. His wife is guilty of the crime but there is more to that story than meets the eye. Because of this misunderstanding, Percy and his wife, Marguerite suffer from a strained relationship. It's kind of like a 1700's version of a separation. In the meantime, a super villainous French agent is sent to England to find out the identity of The Scarlet Pimpernel and blackmails Marguerite into helping him. No one suspects Sir Percy (not even Marguerite) because he pretends to be a "dandy", a fop, a shallow English aristocrat who feigns more interest in men's fashion than he does in political affairs. I mean, come on, doesn't that sound amazing?!

Production was right on the money when it came to casing it's leading man. Leslie Howard plays Sir Percy brilliantly. Most American audiences only know Howard from Gone With the Wind. He played Ashley... you know, the guy that Scarlet was obsessed with? The guy everyone thought looked incredibly underwhelming next to Clark Gable's enigmatic Rhett Butler. I think it is incredibly sad that most people don't know just how amazing Howard really was. Lest we forget, he actually bests Gable in the film A Free Soul protecting Norma Shearer. Howard was a British national treasure, a ladies' man to end all ladies' men and a creative force to be reckoned with. He could hold his own with Bette Davis on screen (a feat worthy of note) and is partially responsible for thrusting Humphrey Bogart into Hollywood. Howard refused to sign onto The Petrified Forest unless Bogart was also hired to reprise his Broadway role in the film production. Bogart even named his daughter after Leslie Howard. How's that for film trivia?!

Howard was also in the forefront of WWII, building support for the troops both in England and in America. He wrote articles, made radio broadcasts and devoted his energies to aiding the war effort. In 1943, he was shot down by Nazi pilots over the Bay of Biscay. I think to truly appreciate actors from classic cinema, it's important to know more about them than just the roles they played. It helps to build a background, character motivation, career choices, why they did what they did. Knowing that Howard was a patriot helps define why he may have decided to take on the persona of another British hero fighting worldly injustices. 

I think the Pimpernel still has a place in contemporary cinema. Not only the 1934 version but perhaps as a modern day produced reboot. The Pimpernel has only been remade a couple of times (a mini-series in the late '90s and a 1982 film version...I will admit that I haven't seen either one). Out of curiosity and because I tend to be just a tad bit obsessive, I decided to read the original story of the Pimpernel and see if I could pinpoint why modern day film makers haven't tried their hand at it yet.

If you've never read Baroness Orczy's book... I highly recommend it. Everyone knows that when books are transitioned onto the big screen, things tend to get a bit twisted. Plot outlines, characterizations and timelines of events are subject to change. The '34 version did a really good job considering... but I have to admit, the book has layers that the film doesn't even begin to delve into. The largest difference between the book and the movie is the definition of the hero. Both stories are called The Scarlet Pimpernel, therefore, you go into it assuming the story is about the Pimpernel, that he is the main hero, the main focus. However, if you read the book, the character driving the plot, the one generating and defeating conflict isn't the Pimpernel... it's his wife. The story is Marguerite's. She's the one overcoming Chauvelin, saving her husband the Pimpernel, making the drastic mistakes and in the end, it's her heart that grows and develops and changes. She's a beautifully human character with deep flaws and a pride that Jane Austen would have loved.

In 1934, they treated Marguerite like a secondary character. She had moments of truth but overall she comes across as scared and unsure almost more villain than white hat. Orczy writes her so differently. The print Marguerite is strong, calculating. She is described as the most fascinating woman in Europe. Chauvelin backs her into a corner but she never once lies down and stops fighting. Her motivation is love. Devoted love for her brother, curious love for the Scarlet Pimpernel and once discovered, a deep all-consuming love for her husband. She sacrifices everything to save her hero and her brother.I truly adore and admire this character, and in the end, I think she is the singular reason why this story hasn't been re-told.

Men don't always know how to handle strong female characters... neither do actresses know how to play them oftentimes. To make the film true to Orczy's original, you would almost have to make Marguerite the key role, build the story and the plot around her. That's risky business especially when the story isn't called Marguerite Blakeney. I would love to see how Joss Whedon would approach this story. Not only does he know how to write courageous no-nonsense women, he does it to perfection. It's a production I would love to see happen. I think Hollywood has so many wonderful actresses that could step up and make Marguerite the hero she deserves to be, not to mention the bountiful crop of British men that could rival Errol Flynn in the charm department and take Sir Percy to new heights.

The take-away:
Leslie Howard is AMAZING
Don't judge Marguerite, the girl's got gumption!
Watch movies, Read books, find new heroes!

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