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That demned elusive Pimpernel - Laura Wise

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September 15th, 2013


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09:35 am - That demned elusive Pimpernel
Last night I indulged in a double dose of one of my guilty pleasures, my deep love for the Scarlet Pimpernel -- film versions, because I've never read Baroness Orzcy's novel.

The guilt comes, of course, because it's a fairly unabashed aristo fantasy. The pleasure comes in everything else.

Set during the Terror of the French Revolution, the story involves the English gentleman Sir Percy Blakeney as a prototypical superhero, complete with secret identity: he lives his cover as a foppish idiot, but that's just so he can disappear -- he's a master of disguise! and a leader of men! and a great tactician and strategist! -- to France to help imprisoned French noble families escape the guillotine. His antagonist is Chauvelin, a subordinate of Robespierre's who wishes to win a place on the Committee; his love interest is Marguerite St Just, a Frenchwoman who begins (sort of) on the side of the Revolution but who falls in love with, and marries, this foppish man because she thinks there's something beyond the surface. And then he hears that she's sent a noble French family to the guillotine, and.... drama ensues.

You might think that's a spoiler, but in fact that backstory is where the 1934 film, produced by Alexander Korda and starring Leslie Howard, starts. I'd forgotten until my rewatch how tight the film is: only an hour and a half long, it focuses on the last segment of the larger story. Merle Oberon is a tormented Marguerite, who's already unhappy with Sir Percy's coldness in her first scene; Raymond Massey is an imposing, clever Chauvelin. The film itself takes pains to suggest that the French peasantry might have good reason to loathe the aristocracy, as evidenced by one imprisoned nobleman who makes a mild version of that case to his fellow prisoners, and even more by Marguerite's backstory about being oppressed by the nobleman she sent to the guillotine. But above all, there's Leslie Howard's turn as Sir Percy. Here he gives us Sir Percy's famous 'poem,' done in his best arch, foppish stylee.

It's great, but my own idea of the Scarlet Pimpernel was formed by Anthony Andrews in the 1982 'miniseries' (it's two and a half hours long). That glossy, adventurous version is far more weighted to the aristocrat; for example, the opening sequence focuses on the ugly mob cheering on Madame Guillotine and one of Sir Percy's daring rescues. We meet Marguerite -- here an actress, played by Jane Seymour -- before Sir Percy does, and she's far more sympathetic than Oberon in the role (she doesn't mean to give up the noble family at all, but is tricked by Chauvelin). There's also a fascinating semi-love triangle in this version, with Ian McKellen's Chauvelin -- yes, youngish handsome Ian McKellen!! -- yearning for Marguerite, which makes him nasty to Sir Percy even before he begins to suspect The Truth. This version has fencing and gorgeous scenery and even better clothes, and all of it's beautifully shot.

But it's Anthony Andrews, reveling both in the camp public persona and the serious private man, who makes this version for me. Here's a sample scene: we begin with McKellen's Chauvelin threatening a French noble, witnessed by Armand St Just; Armand then talks to Sir Percy about it, and there's a quizzing glass and fluttering hands and the most epic drawl in the history of epic aristo drawls. It's delicious, made even more so when Andrews drops the act.

At one of the Comic-Con events this year, Tom Hiddleston was asked which swashbuckler he'd like to play: between Captain Blood, Scaramouche, and the Scarlet Pimpernel, he picked Sir Percy. AND HE WOULD BE PERFECT.

I hope that you have your own pleasures today, whether guilty or not. :)

(21 comments | Leave a comment)

Comments:


[User Picture]
From:kathyh
Date:September 15th, 2013 01:52 pm (UTC)
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Tom Hiddleston was asked which swashbuckler he'd like to play: between Captain Blood, Scaramouche, and the Scarlet Pimpernel, he picked Sir Percy. AND HE WOULD BE PERFECT.

OMG! He would. He even looks a bit like Leslie Howard! What a delicious prospect that would be. We're about due for another version.

I've seen both of the ones you mention and for the life of me can't remember which one is closest to the book, which I've read too. Marguerite definitely was an actress before she married Percy but I think she denounced the aristocrat to save her brother Armand. When the book starts they are already married but Percy is cold to her because he's found out she denounced the aristocrat, but doesn't know her reasons for doing it. Oh, my ageing memory!

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From:laurawise
Date:September 15th, 2013 02:30 pm (UTC)
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A bit of rummaging 'round the net suggests that there's another version in development, but not actively so. We must hope!

Your description suggests the 1934 film is truer to the novel, then. I really appreciate seeing the backstory in the 80s version, though, and because we've seen Sir Percy fall in love with Marguerite in that once, the finding out and resultant heartbreak are even more delicious. :)

Hugs and a good day!
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From:kathyh
Date:September 15th, 2013 04:11 pm (UTC)
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A good day to you too, which I would have said had I not been completely discombobulated at the thought of Tom Hiddleston as the Scarlet Pimpernel.

I've seen Pimpernel Smith too, but all I remember was Leslie Howard being noble.

As a total, well nearly, non-sequitur his nephew Alan was Benedick in the first Shakespeare play I ever saw. He's a wonderful stage actor but never made nearly enough screen appearances.

Many hugs and have fun with Pimpernels various :)
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From:laurawise
Date:September 15th, 2013 04:33 pm (UTC)
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I hadn't known Alan Howard was Leslie Howard's nephew! Which made me look up the younger Howard -- who was the Voice of the One Ring in the LOTR films!

The things one learns.

(And some day I'll make it all the way through The Cook, The Thief, His Wife, and Her Lover.)

Thank you, K! [beams]
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From:laurawise
Date:September 15th, 2013 04:01 pm (UTC)
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"Opulent" is the perfect word for the 80s version! :))

And thank you for reminding me of Pimpernel Smith, which I've known about but never seen. It IS on Amazon Prime. :) Thank you, C, thanks and hugs to you!
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From:wildrider
Date:September 15th, 2013 04:04 pm (UTC)
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Okay, I have to actually see one of these versions just to overwrite the parodies I've seen which immediately snap to mind when I hear "Scarlet Pimpernel" -- i.e., Blackadder! :)

Have a wonderful costume drama Sunday!

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From:laurawise
Date:September 15th, 2013 04:34 pm (UTC)
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Do try an actual Scarlet Pimpernel! (There's also a TV-series version starring Richard E Grant, but I never could get into it.)

That being said, the Blackadder version is pretty darn great. [beams]

Hugs and a great day to you, K!
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From:mobile_alh
Date:September 15th, 2013 06:01 pm (UTC)
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Hugh Grant doesn't ever have the gravitas to play the heroic side of the role, to my mid at least. But oh, how I have adored Leslie Howard in this role since my girlhood!

Another book fair under our belts and a quick holiday in Connecticut next week to rest up for the next leg of Fall Book Fair season!

Hugs and cheers for a happy coming week.....
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From:laurawise
Date:September 15th, 2013 09:00 pm (UTC)
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Cheers, ALH, because I know Fall Book Fair season is taxing! And cheers for weeks off and for thoughts of Leslie Howard, too. :)

[hugs]
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From:singinglark
Date:September 15th, 2013 06:35 pm (UTC)
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This makes me think of The Royal Rascal, starring Don Lockwood and Lena Lamont.

OTOH, young Sir Ian is gorgeous.
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From:laurawise
Date:September 15th, 2013 09:01 pm (UTC)
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Well, The Royal Rascal is making fun of costume dramas, so that connection makes sense. I just unironically love The Scarlet Pimpernel.

Happy Sunday!
From:gwynnega
Date:September 15th, 2013 08:11 pm (UTC)
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Another vote for Pimpernel Smith! (I also love the Leslie Howard Scarlet Pimpernel film.)

::hugs::
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From:laurawise
Date:September 15th, 2013 09:02 pm (UTC)
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I will have to make time to see it! :)

Hugs and thanks, Gwynne, and a happy start to your week.
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From:janus_74
Date:September 15th, 2013 08:17 pm (UTC)
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I'm very intrigued now. I might have to track down a few of the versions.
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From:laurawise
Date:September 15th, 2013 09:04 pm (UTC)
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They're fun! I suspect the 80s version works better for modern taste -- the copy of the 1934 film I saw needed restoration work -- but either are enjoyable. :)

Happy end of your weekend and start of your week, T!
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From:chase820
Date:September 15th, 2013 09:44 pm (UTC)
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Lurve the 1982 SP. I grew up with that one.

I was massively disappointed with the 90s version starring Richard E. Grant. It managed to be both flip and grim at the same time. How odd.
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From:laurawise
Date:September 15th, 2013 11:58 pm (UTC)
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I could never get through the Richard E Grant version! Yes, it was tremendously disappointing, in part because it did seem to miss the spirit.

Cheers, healing, and childhood favorites for you, Chase. :)
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From:roguedemon
Date:September 16th, 2013 01:56 am (UTC)
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OMG, I have the book and I've read it many times. I do think Hiddleston would be perfect. I have seen the 1982 movie and it deviates from the book a lot, but it was well cast. Marguerite was deceived by Chauvelin when she denounced the aristocratic family. She was angry at how they had treated her brother, and talked about it, and Chauvelin takes her remarks and uses them to send the family to the guillotine. Anyway, the book is a lot of fun, if you ever want something to cheer you up. ((Hugs))
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From:laurawise
Date:September 16th, 2013 10:06 am (UTC)
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I'll look for the book, definitely.

And YAY for your BIRTHDAY! :) Cheers and hugs to you!
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From:stevie_carroll
Date:September 16th, 2013 02:24 pm (UTC)
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What fun! (both versions)
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From:laurawise
Date:September 16th, 2013 07:50 pm (UTC)
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They ARE fun. :)

Happy Monday, Stevie! (Or, where you are, happy almost Tuesday.)

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