In 1934, Leslie Howard made a classic movie called “The Scarlet Pimpernel”. It was the tale of a British aristocrat who used his quick wits and disguises to rescue Frenchmen during the Reign of Terror of the French Revolution. Seven years later, he revisited the premise and applied it to the situation in Europe right before the outbreak of WWII. Howard was inspired by the story of the rescue of an anti-Nazi Hungarian leader. He worked on the project for three years and ended up producing and directing. The film was a big hit in Great Britain. It was released in America as “Mister V” (I have no idea why they renamed it). Churchill chose to show it to the officers of the HMS Prince of Wales on his way to meeting FDR for the conference that resulted in the Atlantic Charter. When Raoul Wallenberg saw it in Sweden, it inspired him to rescue numerous Jews from the Holocaust. The movie has some major street cred. The movie claims to be a fantasy based on real people and events, but you should view it as preposterously entertaining propaganda.
Howard plays Horatio Smith. Smith is a professor of antiquities at Cambridge University. He is absent-minded and anti-female. No one would guess he is the daring “shadow” who has been sneaking Nazi targets out of Germany. The mission portrayed in the movie is to rescue a German pianist who is anti-Nazi. He plans to do this via a Nazi approved archeological dig that he tells them will prove the German civilization has Aryan beginnings. So, if you’re wondering how a British professor has the opportunity to be rescuing right under Nazi noses, there you have it. Don’t overthink. The professor takes six of his students with him, including a brash American (I know that is redundant) named David (Hugh McDermott). They will piece things together (the clue comes from a wound Smith gets while masquerading as a scarecrow!) and end up teaming up with their prof. Smith’s nemesis is a Goering-like Gestapo chief named von Graum (Francis Sullivan). He is pompous, but not buffoonish. However, he does not get snark well. He suspects Smith and their interplay is the highlight of the movie. The movie has a running joke about von Graum’s claim that Shakespeare was German. At the end of one of their exchanges, Smith says “Parting is such sweet sorrow.” When Von Graum asks “what is that?”, Smith responds with “One of the most famous lines in German literature”. To show the level of intelligence of the script, Smith refers to the theory that the Earl of Oxford wrote Shakespeare’s plays. Von Graum sics Ludmilla (Mary Morris) to flirt the truth out of the Professor and provide us with romance.
“Pimpernel Smith” is an entertaining propaganda piece from WWII Britain. It is a showcase for the wonderful Leslie Howard. He made it because he felt he needed to weigh in on the Nazi threat and show Brits what they were fighting for. It was one of the first movies to reference the concentration camps, although the scene in one of them is ludicrous and far from showing the horrors of the Holocaust. The movie’s theme is more of a fist in the face of the Nazis. The movie closes with the obligatory speech by Smith which concludes with him promising Von Graum: “I shall be back. We should all be back.” That is a bit trite, but most of the dialogue is crisp and there are some humorous lines. Smith describing a skeleton uncovered at their dig: “Buried with all his weapons, you see, presumably, in the belief that there might be a rearmament program in the hereafter, eh, Mr. Spencer? An ancient Teuton.” Howard dominates the movie. He has a bravura scene where he goes to Gestapo headquarters in disguise and snarks the hell out of them. (The scene reminds of “To Be or Not to Be”.) The rest of the cast is average, except Sullivan who makes Von Graum a worthy adversary. He is atypical for a comedy Nazi. Otherwise the movie is predictable, but you expect that.
“Pimpernel Smith” is available on You Tube and is well worth a watch. Although not particularly well known, it is a classic and it stands the test of time well because the dialogue is intelligent. The words balance the silliness and Howard moves it to a B.
GRADE = B