As I watched the 1934 The Scarlet Pimpernel on TCM yesterday (for the umpteenth time), I reflected on how closely this story has been associated with me over the years. I read the Baroness Orczy novel when I was seven or eight years of old, and loved every word. I was a fan of Alexandre Dumas at that age, too, so anything related to the French Revolution was bound to attract. I can’t remember when I first saw the 1934 film, but it’s continued to be a favourite of mine over the years. I have seen several film or television versions of this story, but the 1934 Leslie Howard/Merle Oberon version is still the best. Howard captured perfectly the foppish Blakeney-by-day persona, and Raymond Massey was the perfectly unctuous Chauvelin. I have never particularly liked Oberon in the film, as I have always found her acting abilities to be limited, but she is certainly breathtakingly beautiful. Below are some other versions I’ve seen over the years:
This 1982 television series starred Anthony Andrews and Jane Seymour. Andrews carries this series with a wonderfully-nuanced performance. Andrews excels at playing the affected upper-class dandy. Ian McKellan turns in a good performance as Chauvelin. Jane Seymour is the weak part of this interpretation, but then I’ve always felt that the character of Lady Blakeney was not particularly well developed in the novel.
This 1950 David Niven version was disappointing. This film is rarely shown on television, which perhaps speaks to its mediocrity. Although David Niven was always charming on film, I often found his performances to be lightweight, which is particularly true in this film. None of the characters are developed particularly well, and you don’t connect with, or care for them.
This 1999 mini-series was produced at a time when the A&E station actually produced arts and entertainment, rather than its now endless series of awful reality shows. The cast is particularly strong in this version. Martin Shaw is a standout as Chauvelin and, for once, the character of Lady Blakeney, as portrayed by Elizabeth McGovern, is well developed, strong, and brave. I’ve always had a difficult time dealing with Richard E. Grant; mostly it comes down to his voice, which I find very irritating but, in this case, works well for the foppish side of Blakeney.