Tuesday, March 31, 2009

The Scarlet Pimpernel

When I was eleven I read Gone With the Wind because my friend Suzanne already had. Good stuff, especially every scene with Rhett Butler. I also read A Tale of Two Cities, but found it boring because so much of it was over my head. I slogged through that one solely for the bragging rights. And on the easier side I read Hang Tough, Paul Mather, about a boy who just wants to play baseball but is forbidden to do so because he has leukemia. That got me started on sports books; the next year I began collecting everything John R. Tunis ever wrote.

But the book I discovered that year that I really really loved, the book I reread so perseveringly that its cover wore clean off, was The Scarlet Pimpernel by Baroness Orczy. The title character is a mysterious English nobleman who daringly rescues doomed French aristocrats from the guillotine during the Reign of Terror. The main character is Marguerite, a clever and beautiful woman who's married to an inane fop of a man, admires the Scarlet Pimpernel from afar, and gets blackmailed by the French agent Chauvelin. It's a very romantic book, in several senses of the word. Full of fun new vocabulary, too. I read it with a dictionary open on my lap because I was so engrossed by the story that I didn't want to miss any details. One sentence alone had three words I needed to look up: "...Sir Andrew Ffoulkes, who, in the guise of her lackey, was carrying a number of impedimenta...." (After some minutes I was able to ascertain that this means he was disguised as her servant and carrying the luggage.)

This reminiscing post was precipitated by the Errol Flynn movies I watched last week. They got me in a swashbuckling mood and reminded me that I own two movie versions of The Scarlet Pimpernel. One's from 1934 and stars Leslie Howard, and if you only know him as the ineffectual Ashley Wilkes, you need to see him in this part. He's so good, and very funny. "How I ever came up with it, I don't know, because it was the busiest moment of the day, damn me-- I was tying my cravat!" The problem with that movie is that Merle Oberon as Marguerite is severe and unfriendly-looking. Her eyebrows arch up and her mouth turns down so much that I can't feel sorry for her troubles. Well, I did pity her in one scene, when she went to Lord Grenville's ball dressed in nothing but an unsupportive bikini on top. Seriously, look at that thing! It might have fit well enough in 1934, but how embarrassing to show up in 1794 so underdressed! I don't hesitate to call it the worst costume design I've ever seen in a movie. And don't tell me that's not important; Sir Percy does not agree with you.

Then there's the 1982 TV movie, which was perfectly cast: Anthony Andrews as Sir Percy, Jane Seymour as Marguerite, and Ian McKellan as a deliciously insecure Chauvelin. Beautiful people wearing gorgeous clothes and having seriously fun adventures. I love watching Andrews switch between his silly affected manner and his more earnest tone, sometimes right in the middle of a sentence. And the love scenes... ah.... All three principal actors make you interested and make you care, something that only Leslie Howard achieved in the 1934 version.

Oh, the 1999 TV series with Richard Grant? I've seen bits of it on YouTube, and what I saw I disliked so much that I'm not especially tempted to watch more. Every now and then comes an adaptation of a book that completely violates the spirit of its source material, and this one looks like a fine example of that. In the book even the villain is gallantly courteous; in the TV show I see nothing but mean-spirited, humorless insults. It looks like there's a lot more brawn and much less brain involved in the rescues. Sir Percy isn't even handsome (let the full horror of those words sink in) and as for Marguerite, she's been severely let down by the costume and makeup department. For a character who's supposed to be the most beautiful woman in France, that's a real problem.

So forget that. Go rent the one with Anthony Andrews; it's fun right down to the curl on his forehead. :)

1 comment:

Rachel Ann said...

I love the 1982 version!