Wednesday, February 23, 2011

A Favorite Film: PIMPERNEL SMITH (1941) starring Leslie Howard

Doing a quick juggling of my blogging schedule: I've moved my Favorite Film post over to Wednesday for the foreseeable future so I can indulge the meme, TOP TEN TUESDAYS on...well, Tuesdays. I'm moving Thursday's Favorite Book post to Friday and leaving Thursday open for the CRIME ALPHABET meme. Any extra book reviews and esoteric stuff, outside of Monday's Book Review will have to be wedged in there somewhere as the mood hits. Don't want to crowd the blog with too many posts in one day. (Though I have been known to do that, anyway) In case you hadn't noticed, I have a tendency to get carried away. Can't help it. I'm just having so much fun with this blogging gig. Fun is contagious. Ha!

Today's Favorite Film is PIMPERNEL SMITH starring the wonderful, understated and remarkably suave, British actor, Leslie Howard (1893 - 1943), who also directed. Leslie Howard was always one of my favorite actors - the personification of British gentility. Howard's life was tragically cut short when his plane was shot down by the Nazis (well, the Luftwaffe) in 1943. Lots of pix of Leslie Howard in this post. Here's the reason: I loved the man. He was always the gentle, yet hard as steel, leading man who did it all with his eyes. That gleam of remarkably pleasing intelligence was just always there.

A personal aside: Here's the difference between Howard and Paul Henreid who was of similar physical type but whom I simply could not stand - the look in the eyes. That's it. Had Henreid had Howard's intelligent gleam, all would have been different. Henreid had two expressions: pained and smug. That's it. Okay, enough of that

PIMPERNEL SMITH is based, as you can guess from the title, on Baroness Orczy's classic, THE SCARLET PIMPERNEL. The setting for Orczy's book is England and France during the worst of the French Revolution - The Reign of Terror. The Pimpernel (a sort of flower) is by day, Sir Percy Blakeney, the kind of Brit dandy you want to kick in the butt and by night a courageous hero, The Scarlet Pimpernel, spiriting nobles out of France and away from the services of Madame la Guillotine.

They seek him here,
They seek him there,
Those Frenchies seek him everywhere.

Is he in heaven?
Or is he in hell?
That damned elusive Pimpernel.

PIMPERNEL SMITH takes place during another Reign of Terror, that of the Nazis. The setting is perfect: Nazi, Germany before the actual fighting war between England and Germany begins. Howard plays Oxford professor of archeology, Horatio Smith. He and some of his students are in Germany working an archeology dig professing to be looking for the origins of the 'Aryan' race so beloved of Hitler and his evil minions. Of course the Nazis welcome this expedition with open arms and more importantly, the necessary paperwork.
But, what the Nazis don't know, at least in the beginning of the film, is that the 'foppishly foolish' professor is, in reality, a British agent under cover of his Oxford credentials. (He really is an archaeologist and really teaches at Oxford.) His mission (should he choose to accept it, and he does) is to try and save victims bound for concentration camps, spiriting them out of Germany into friendlier hands.

The scarecrow you see in some of the old PIMPERNEL SMITH movie posters makes for one of the best sequences in the films : both spooky and thrilling. The professor turns himself into a scarecrow actually positioned in a field where he can watch what's going on. During this mission, he's shot, still pretending to be a scarecrow. But he manages, nonetheless to get his quarry out of the country.

Once his students find out about the professor's wound, they put two and two together and immediately want to join in the 'game'. Spying is not so much fun, but they're young and spirited and want to help their fearless leader in any way they can.

My quibble here is with the casting. Most of the 'students' look too old to be 'young and spirited' college youths. But other than that, I'm good with this movie. I love it.

Francis L. Sullivan as the hideous Nazi commandant who knows Howard is up to something but has trouble grasping just what that 'something' is, is worth the price of admission on his own. He is truly a large lump of detestable flesh - cunning and nasty as they come.

I like the dichotomy too of the slim and agile Howard vs. the corpulent, bloated Nazi. Good casting there. Sullivan has rarely been creepier. The eerie camera work in the fog at the end is especially good, designed to make the point between the stronger spirit will-o-the-wisp nature of the professor as opposed to the turgid presence of the Nazi. Just wonderful stuff.

There's a vague sort of love interest too, when the professor is called upon to save a Polish woman who's father is being held at a camp. But basically this is a quiet, intelligent thriller with some terrific escapades. An underrated film deserving of a bigger audience. One of its more interesting quirks, at least for me, is that this film was shot before most nations in the West supposedly knew what was going on in the camps. At least that's the excuse for inaction I've always heard.

If you belong to Netflix, here's some good news: PIMPERNEL SMITH is available for instant view through your computer or TV. How great is that? They also have the Richard Grant version (a good one) of THE SCARLET PIMPERNEL available for instant view. PLUS the Anthony Andrews version (I love Anthony Andrews) available on dvd as well as the original with Leslie Howard, Merle Oberon and Raymond Massey. I've lined them all up. (No I am not paid by Netflix to say this.) Ha!


  1. Leslie Howard--I like him, too. That he was shot down by the Nazis (and the Lufwafte was, after all, bombing for the Nazi regime) just makes me like him even more for his heroism.

    Paul Henreid--I liked him in "Casablanca," and in "Watch on the Rhine," where he played an anti-Nazi resistance organizer vs. a Nazi agent who followed him to the U.S..

    This movie sounds great. I'm not so keen on watching movies about WWII, unless our side is pummeling the Nazis.

    I have read a lot saying that the West knew about the camps much earlier on than is publicly stated. But, anyway, I won't turn this into a whole point about that.

    Sounds like a great movie with a terrific Leslie Howard.

  2. Oh, not a great film, Kathy. But a very good thriller with a memorable ending. The scarecrow and the ending is what I remember best. A very kind of moody, darkly ironic film. NOT great film-making, but quite good enough. I have always liked this film and recommended it. Fighting the Nazis is always something I was interested in watching.

  3. I remember this one very fondly. I always thought the Indiana Jones concept owed a lot to Pimpernel Smith!

    Did you ever see Leslie's nephew, Ronald Howard, play Sherlock Holmes? He bore a striking resemblance to his uncle and he made a good job of the role. Howard's Holmes was good-humoured and youthful - I often think the series (from the 1950s) captures the spirit of the earlier Rathbone films quite nicely.

    1. If I may mention it, Ronald Howard is Leslie's son, not his nephew. In addition, Leslie's younger brother Arthur's son, Alan, was also an actor whilst his sister Irene was MGM-British's casting director.

      Perhaps comparions with the Fox family of today (2018) are not amiss.

  4. Nicolas: I used to watch the Ronald Howard Sherlock Holmes series on TV - when it first came out. You're dealing with an 'ancient' here. Ha! Good series. Loved the tweeds Howard wore.

    Can't remember who played Dr. Watson. I'll have to look it up.

    Yes. I always like stories with archeologists or anthropologists or Egyptologists as the hero. It's so unlikely. :) That's why it works.

  5. Ah, then I'm preaching to the converted! If memory serves, Watson was played by H. Marion Crawford. The friendship between the two men was warm and believable, and I liked that Watson was often shown as a man of action!

    Sadly, I think Crawford committed suicide some years later, though I don't know the exact circumstances.

  6. Nicolas: Yes, I was already a fan, but thanks for the reminder. Ronald Howard is like a vague shadow lingering there in my long ago memory banks. :)

    Sad to hear about Crawford. I'll see if I can find any info.

  7. Well, I found "Deja Vu," and "20th Century," at the library and reserved them.

    It has "Pimpernel Smith" on a video, not a dvd, but I put it on hold. It may be a worn video, but I'll try it.

    The library has several dvd's with Leslie Howard, including "49th Parallel," which is about a small Nazi group in Canada before the U.S. got into WWII, and several individuals whom they encounter. I have never heard of it, but it might be good.

  8. Kathy: You don't have Netflix? Because PIMPERNEL SMITH is now on instant view there. You might try some of the other movie streaming sites as well. It's amazing what you can find on line when it comes to old movies and such.

    Anyway, I'm glad you found DEJA VU and TWENTIETH CENTURY. I've never seen 49th PARALLEL,I'll have to see what's what. How bad could it be? It has Leslie Howard.

    Meant to tell you: there are 2 films with the title DEJA VU. One is the romance I told you about, the other is an excellent violent thriller with Denzel Washington. Just wanted you to make sure you got the right film. Although I recommend them both they are VERY different. :)

  9. I better check on which Deja Vu.

    Yes, must be good with Leslie Howard. So many past actors this is true of.

  10. Kathy: I hate it when films have the same title. It's easy to get confused online. You have to make sure to check the actors and, of course the cover of the dvd. ;)

  11. I got the right one on hold at the library. I checked.

  12. Kathy: Good. I just know you're going to enjoy it.

  13. I'm frugal. If I can get dvd's at the library, I'll wait.

    Two close-by friends have Netflix; they share. If I really want a dvd, I'll ask one of them to get it.


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