Sunday, August 1, 2010

They Seek Him Here, They Seek Him There.....

Time to get your swashbuckle on, we're talking about The Scarlet Pimpernel today!

As I mentioned before, I consider the character of Sir Percy Blakeney to be one of the earliest models for a superhero -- particularly Batman. He has something of a tragic past -- his mother went "mad" and his father spent all his time and attention taking care of his beloved wife and so largely ignored the boy. He "trained abroad", he was an expert fighter, a master of disguise, a brilliant strategist and a keen student of human nature. And he 'disguises' himself as a bored, wealthy playboy. Sink me, if that ain't Batman!

Of course, most people know the basic plot of the story -- 1792, The Reign of Terror is in full swing, the French Revolution has taken a bloody turn and French aristocrats are being rounded up under the thin pretext of being "enemies of the revolution" and beheaded. Of course, Orczy's story does not at all match up with history but, then again, when has history ever stood in the way of telling a good story? On with the plot! Into this comes the mysterious figure of the Scarlet Pimpernel -- a code name used by an unknown British man who has been sneaking aristocrats out of Paris, helping them escape from the guillotine. The Scarlet Pimpernel does not act alone, he has a band of young men who also help him pull off his daring escapades -- the League of the Scarlet Pimpernel.

In England the Scarlet Pimpernel is all the rage -- except, perhaps, to the slow-witted, fashionable fop Percy Blakeney. But Sir Percy has money, a title, and most of all a new wife from France who is considered one of the most beautiful and intelligent creatures to ever grace court. Marguerite had actually found much to love in Percy but after he discovered that she unintentionally supplied information which sent an entire aristocratic family to the guillotine he has turned cold to her.

When Marguerite's brother is captured in France as a spy for the Scarlet Pimpernel Marguerite turns to the Pimpernel for help and along the way discovers that her husband is not at all the man she thought he was! But is it too late? For Marguerite has unwittingly betrayed her husband to the man who wants to kill him -- Armand Chauvelin. Marguerite will risk everything to save the man she loves... or die with him.

Many people who just know the story might be surprised to learn that the original story (1903) by Baroness Orczy actually reads more like a romance than an action-adventure novel. The story mostly reflects Marguerite's viewpoint and as such many of the iconic things that people remember do not actually occur in 'real time' but rather are recounted later by members of Percy's band. Orczy does her best to keep the audience guessing at the true identity of the Scarlet Pimpernel for at least the first part of the book. Of course to modern readers it is obvious that Percy is the Pimpernel but Orczy routinely stages scenes where it is not obvious who the Pimpernel is or at least leave readers to wonder "is he or isn't he?" It isn't until much farther along that the truth is revealed.

Of course this element of mystery in the book fits considering Orczy's other semi-famous character creation -- "the old man in the corner" Bill Owen. The character appeared in a series of short stories once sold to magazines and was reasonably popular for a time. His detecting schtick was that he simply sat in his chair in the corner of a tea shop tying complicated knots in a piece of string and would solve mysteries based on getting the facts from either the accounts of other people or newspaper stories. In the 100 years or so since the character first appeared, however, he has largely been forgotten. Agatha Christie played tribute to the character in her 1929 collection of short stories Partners in Crime. In the book young Tuppence and Tommy Beresford agree to take over running a detective agency which has been a front for a spy ring. Not knowing anything about being detective per se Tuppence and Tommy decide to take on different fictional detective personas for their cases. One of the personas Tommy adopts for one case is that of the Old Man in the Corner.

But I am getting off-track. Back to the book. Most people also may not realize that the book does NOT actually end with a big sword fight/showdown between Percy and his foil Chauvelin (see what I did there -- sword fight - foil? Because another name for a rapier is foil? Oh, whatever) but much of the media based on the book usually adds such for dramatic tension. They also usually add a few extra daring escapes cobbled together from the sequel books Orczy penned following the success of The Scarlet Pimpernel.

There have been a number of adaptations of the story over the years. There are three, however, which tend to stand out the most -- the 1934 movie with Leslie Howard as Sir Percy, Merle Oberon as Marguerite and Raymond Massey as Chauvelin, the 1982 BBC production with Jayne Seymour as Marguerite, Anthony Andrews as Percy and Ian McKellen as Chauvelin, and the 1999 BBC series with Richard E. Grant as Percy, Elizabeth McGovern as Marguerite and Martin Shaw as Chauvelin. There was also a 1998 musical with Douglas Sills as Percy, Rachel York as Marguerite and Terrance Mann as Chauvelin in the original Broadway cast.

Of these the 1934 movie is the most faithful to the book. There are scenes and lines of dialogue lifted straight out of the book and the costuming and sets were gorgeous. The whole production is top notch and Leslie Howard turned in a great performance as Percy. Raymond Massey was also wonderful as Chauvelin and the sequence where he believes he has succeeded in seeing Percy killed is a very model for villain gloating.

The 1982 production is.... well, from what I've seen online, seems to be a favorite for a number of people. I found it sorely lacking. It strays from the book in a number of ways -- not all of them for the better. There is a plot with Percy and his men trying to save the Dauphin -- the young son of King Louis and Queen Marie Antoinette -- that really feels tacked on. The movie also spends quite a bit of time seeing Percy courting Marguerite which then gives short shrift to their later estrangement -- and it was the estrangement and the healing of that rift which was the romance at the heart of the original book. There is also the now traditional sword fight between Percy and Chauvelin. I will give this production one thing, it was beautifully filmed and had excellent locations. There is one sequence in which we see the Prince's Ball in England with everyone dressed in pastel finery and right in the midst of all of this is the black clad Chauvelin -- looking like a dark, inky blot. The performances are fine but there is something about Andrews which is off-putting although I will give him an A+ for the make-up and accents he uses when Percy is disguised. These are all top rate. Ian McKellen, fine actor as he is though, just never manages to be a menacing enough villain and I find Jane Seymour's Marguerite to be too slight.

The 1999 BBC/A & E series is the most recent and also the one that takes the most liberties with the books. Characters die who never died in the books, characterizations for many of the supporting characters are completely off, and Percy is no master of disguise here and often relies on brute force rather than cunning. Despite all of that, Richard E. Grant injects an infectious kind of charm into the role and Martin Shaw's Chauvelin is just coated in craftiness and double dealing -- one gets the feeling from him that he is quite intelligent and possibly Percy's match. Elizabeth McGovern's Marguerite is also quite intelligent and in this departure from the books she is given several stirring, dramatic speeches.

Then there is the musical. I got to see this live when it was in it's first nation-wide tour and loved it. It wasn't until I recently saw the 1982 production for the first time, however, that I realized just how much the musical seemed to have taken it's inspiration from it. In point of fact, it seems a bit of a mixture of the original book and the 1982 movie.... only with songs. It may seem an odd subject for a musical but then again, Orczy began by writing The Scarlet Pimpernel as a play and then turned it into a book so turning the book into a musical was not so much of a stretch. The musical enjoyed a modest success and is still produced by regional professional and amateur groups across the world. There have even been some high schools to tackle the production despite the fact that the staging, sets and costumes would not be easy to pull off. In the original Broadway production Douglas Sills not only did a wonderful job acting as Percy he had a tremendous singing voice. Terrance Mann, also a great singer, brought a new level of sensuality to Chauvelin. In his scenes with Marguerite are probably the most seductive of any version of the story. Rachel York, however, Too. Much. Vibrato. One of my friends had the original cast album when it was released and it was actually my first exposure to the musical. Upon listening to it my friend and I quickly dubbed York "goat girl" since her heavy vibrato made it sound more like she was bleating than singing. But if you ever get the chance check the musical out it's a lot of fun and has some great songs in it.

For over 100 years the Scarlet Pimpernel has captured hearts and imaginations. The character has been parodied (see the Warner Brothers, Daffy Duck cartoon "The Scarlet Pumpernickel"), tributed and used as the inspiration for any number of other characters. When she set out to pen a swashbuckling romance novel Baroness Emma Orczy could have no idea of just how far her character would go and, with it having lasted this long, it's only a matter of time before good Sir Percy pops his foppish head up again somewhere. Demme me if it ain't so!


  1. Hello,
    quick correction:

    The original cast AND recording does not star Rachel York as Marguerite, but Christine Andreas (currently in "La Cage Aux Folles".) Rachel York took over after Christine, and then continued to tour with The Scarlet Pimpernel...goat girl is a little harsh don't you think? And I agree, Douglas Sills is unparalleled in his swashbuckling talents and demonstrated true star power as Sir Percy.

  2. Thanks for the correction. And "Goat Girl" may have been a bit harsh. At the time my friend and I were heavy into Broadway and we saw a lot of touring companies and I suppose we'd gotten used to a more smooth style of singing. In recently re-listening to the album I've found her vibrato isn't quite as noticable... but I still think she overused the vibrato.

  3. I agree...that Piaf vibrato is an acquired taste.