It is mid-1939 and both Germany and England are preparing for an inevitable conflict. Professor Horatio Smith, an effete academic, asks his students to come with him to the continent to engage in an archaeological dig. When his students discover that the professor is the man responsible for smuggling a number of enemies of the Nazi state out of Germany, they enthusiastically join him in his fight. But things are complicated when one of his students brings a mysterious woman into their circle, a woman who is secretly working for the Gestapo. Written by
Opening credits: The tale we are about to unfold to you is a fantasy. None of its characters are living persons, but it is based on the exploits of a number of courageous men who were and are still risking their lives daily to aid those unfortunate people of many nationalities who are being persecuted and exterminated by the Nazis. To these champions of freedom this story is dedicated. See more »
On the face of it, I don't ask much of a film: only - only! - that it should make me laugh and cry and catch my breath, and stir my blood in equal measure. Strange, then, how rare this seems to be... and how few films earn the final accolade by almost forcing me to review them! I had not the slightest intention, this morning, of writing about "Pimpernel Smith". But now that I sit down afterwards and try to work, I find my attention wandering back to it again and again. Clearly, I must set down this review, or I shall never get anything done... and there can be few stronger tributes to the power of a film.
Leslie Howard, of course, makes or breaks the whole. As producer, director and starring actor, his name is scrawled - literally - on the film from its opening titles; indeed it gives us a chance to recognise the penmanship on the mysterious hand-written notes that recur! Unsurprisingly, in some ways this is very much a one-man vehicle. If Leslie Howard's charms escape you, the whole production is probably a dead loss - but for any fan of his earlier films, it is little short of unalloyed delight.
"Pimpernel Smith" takes much of its resonance from the subtle parallels with Baroness Orczy's story of the Scarlet Pimpernel. The latter is openly referred to only in the title, but acknowledged in a dozen ways, from the leading character who cloaks an incisive mind beneath a foolish mask to the young acolytes who aid and yet rashly put him at risk, the woman who is set to spy out the identity of a beloved one's potential saviour, and of course the closed frontiers and despotic arm of a new-fledged state - not Revolutionary France, but a Nazi Germany not yet at open war. Above all, the echoes lie in the ingenious guises and plans for escape, always one twist ahead of both the enemy and the viewers themselves. By the end of the film, I was suspecting the most innocent characters of being the nondescript Professor Smith in disguise... and I'm still not certain about the indignant lady on the Cook's Tour!
The references, however, are never obtrusive and always remain subtle; and of course perhaps the chief of these is the casting of Leslie Howard himself. Along with a humane and intelligent script, it was his outstanding depiction of the title role that raised the 1934 film of "The Scarlet Pimpernel" above the average. Even today, the association is immediate. Less than ten years after the original, the dual performance of their star must have been inescapable.
From vacuous fop to absent-minded professor... and yet it is to Howard's credit that his Professor Smith is not a carbon copy of Sir Percy Blakeney, but a distinct and undoubtedly charming character in his own right. For a moment, rapt in admiration of an Aphrodite, he is startlingly handsome. But for the most part, peering owlishly over a newspaper or buried beneath a deplorable hat, he is more the living spit of bespectacled Charles Hawtrey in some post-war "Carry On". He has developed the baggy amble to a fine art, and the knack of deprecation and inoffensive insolence almost without effort; and the role of gentle academic is not a pose, but the guiding principle behind all his unlikely impersonations, even that of the part of hero. The Professor, above all, is a man who hates destruction and waste.
Passionate screen kisses rarely move me; oddly enough, a handful of restrained moments of tenderness in this film did. It may be a carefully-scripted star vehicle, but few enough of those choose to celebrate the clever and the unassuming. I like Professor Smith very much indeed.
But even the quietest hero needs a villain as foil, and Francis L. Sullivan is also outstanding here as the elephantine von Graum, a Nazi general who turns out to be far less stupid than one might assume. It's hard not to suspect the character of being a lampoon on Goering, and from the start we are invited to laugh at him; but for all his girth and his struggles with "the English sense of humour", von Graum is brighter by far than most of his staff, and sometimes even one step ahead of the viewer, which makes it hard to be complacent on our heroes' behalf. He may rant and foam for lack of proof, but the net is tightening... and without the advantage of Orczy's predetermined plot, the unexpected twist at the end of this film could all too easily go either way. Unfortunately, heroism is not necessarily defined by survival...
In fact, in retrospect, I feel that the ending (which I won't reveal here) was perhaps the one weak point. Unlike the Basil Rathbone wartime pictures (there are echoes of "Pimpernel Smith" in the subsequent, not at all bad, "Sherlock Holmes and the Secret Weapon"), the anti-Nazi sentiments of the hero's set-piece speech are not dated or tendentious to modern ears. Indeed, Leslie Howard's shadowed intensity remains one of the most effective shots in the film. The only trouble is that it's so good that it becomes a hard scene to top, and the actual finale comes off as somewhat trite by comparison.
But that's with hindsight. At the time, the only thing of which I was fully conscious was that, already pre-disposed in that direction by "The Scarlet Pimpernel" and "Pygmalion", I had just become a raving Leslie Howard fan! Every time I catch myself whistling 'Tavern in the Town' without thinking, over the next few days, I shall know why... and smile.
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