Movies My Dad Likes: Pimpernel Smith [1941]

This film was made before I was born but I was fortunate enough to find a copy recently. It is, as the title suggests, a plot based upon the older classic Scarlett Pimpernel where an apparent decadent English lord takes to wearing outrageous disguises in order to outwit the French revolutionists and rescue aristocrats from the guillotine. This updated version takes place in Germany just prior to World War II and the hero this time around is Professor Horatio Smith a seemingly self indulgent academic archaeologist who rescues renowned Jews from under the noses of nasty Gestapo officers using a variety of disguises and a good dose of dry humour. As with the earlier version, Leslie Howard, that stalwart of the film industry during a bygone age, plays the lead role as well as producing and directing the movie.

Having become the most wanted man by the Gestapo, Smith takes a number of his Cambridge students to Germany to dig for signs of a non-existent ancient Aryan civilisation as a cover to mask his next series of daring escapades. When he’s mistakenly shot on a mission posing as a scarecrow his students realise that Smith is the illusive Pimpernel and to a man all join his secret organisation.

The Gestapo officers are portrayed as buffoons in plus fours who have no idea of how to catch the Pimpernel. That is until Ludmilla arrives from America hoping to secure a release for her father a Polish newspaper editor who has been arrested by Smith’s main adversary the Gestapo General Graubitz. She offers to find out the identity of the illusive and troublesome Pimpernel in exchange for her father’s freedom. Relying on her woman’s intuition it isn’t long before her suspicions fall on Smith while they are both at a British Embassy party in Berlin. Although she soon becomes an admirer of our gallant adventurer Ludmilla will do anything to gain her father’s release. Torn between betraying Smith to the Gestapo and relying on him effect a rescue of her father she changes her mind over and over again. Smith is aware of her dilemma; after all it was a woman’s privilege to change her mind. I wonder if this is still true with the gender equality obsession we have today. 

As his adversary always manages to whistle a trademark tune for witnesses to hear when liberating a Nazi prisoner, Graubitz employs the best music brains in Germany to decipher what he believes is a code. He becomes enraged when they finally conclude it’s only a ditty by the name of “there’s a tavern in the town”. Undeterred he uses Ludmilla to trick Smith into breaking her father out of a concentration camp. But Smith is wise to the trap so he carries out the rescue plan a day earlier than he let on. Having marched into the Ministry of Propaganda disguised as the politician charged with keeping America sweet, he obtains passes for his students who act as visiting press reporters. On entering the camp Smith not only smuggles Ludmilla’s father out but also collects five other prominent Jewish prisoners as well by switching them with his students. The concentration camp set preceded our knowledge of how inhuman they really were. The portrayal in the movie reminded me of an early British holiday camp: yes that awful!

Smith takes his newfound charges by train to the Swiss border and smuggles them across with the help of a diversion orchestrated by his students, who also cross over the border. Now alone he returns to collect Ludmilla, who has become the most important person in his life, knowing that Graubitz is on to him. When he reaches the border with Ludmilla he is not surprised to find Graubitz waiting for them at the train station. Ludmilla is allowed to cross over as Graubitz now has the Pimpernel in his clutches and he intends to execute his adversary personally. After what can only be described as a war propaganda speech delivered by Smith, Graubitz becomes momentarily distracted. In the blink of an eye Smith is through the border gate. Firing his pistol into the mist while screaming, “come back” Graubitz hears a voice from the dark reply “I’ll be back- we’ll all be back”. 

Unfortunately whereas the second part of the reply proved to be an accurate prediction, Leslie Howard was killed when a flight he was travelling on was shot down by a German fighter plane, so he never went back. The movie was however in my opinion his best work. It is full of clever misdirection, ploys and sub-plots and his interpretation of the characters he played disguised or otherwise was faultless.



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