Friday, February 24, 2012

Friday Favorites - Leslie Howard and The Scarlet Pimpernel

The first time I "saw" The Scarlet Pimpernel, it was one o'clock in the morning. I was standing next to our Sony Trinitron, one hand on the rabbit-ear antenna, looking at the screen sideways so I could make minute adjustments to the position of the antenna, and to the several yards of tinfoil I had added to the antenna to improve reception. The flick was being broadcast from a station in Detroit which was too far away to receive, but it was a clear night and sometimes you got lucky.

The picture was all fuzzy -- too much snow to see anything but the vague movement of shadows -- but you could hear it. Sort of.

"We fzzzt him here. We fzzz zzzt there. Those Frzz-ies fzzz him every-zzzz...."

Stap me! But it was a demmed difficult time to be a movie buff! (For the Pimpernel-impaired: that's how the Pimpernel's alter ego, Sir Percy, talked.)

There was no cable, no DVDs, even Betamax was still a ways away. All we had were battered 16mm prints which bounced around the country from TV-station to TV-station, and also to libraries and schools. You could wait years to see a particular famous flick. You might never see most of the movies on your "stay up late with the tinfoil antenna" list.

And I was in love with Leslie Howard. I had fallen in love with him not long earlier, when our local PBS station had run Pygmalion during a fund raiser. (They only had them once a year, back then, and our station would run 24-hour classic movies for one segment.) He was an ideal Henry Higgins.

Howard was an even more ideal Sir Percy Blakeney, though. (More on that below.)

Baroness Orczy (pronounced "Ort-zy") was the author of The Scarlet Pimpernel. She wrote mystery, adventure and romance stories at the turn of the last century. She was an Hungarian noblewoman who had come to live in England (in middle-class splendor) as a child. One day she found out her maid was making a lot of money writing short stories for magazines. She figured that if maids and shop girls could do it, so could she.

And by golly she could. An how. She wrote a number of contemporary mystery stories, featuring Lady Molly of Scotland Yard (one of the early feminist detectives) and The Old Man In The Corner (who was the inspiration for my Happy Diner detective in Waiter, There's a Clue In My Soup!). The old man sat in the corner of a tea shop, and chatted with the Lady Journalist (who was the narrator). They would would go over the facts of famous insoluble crimes, as reported in the newspaper, and he would solve them as they talked.

Fun as those were, her real calling was historical romance and adventure, and even those usually had some sort of suspense and mystery involved. The most famous of these was The Scarlet Pimpernel, and the 15 other books she wrote in the series. (Some featured ancestors or descendants of Sir Percy, some were collections of short stories.)

The Scarlet Pimpernel was a secret hero -- like Zorro. He rescued people from the guillotine during the French Revolution. (He was not against the revolution itself, and refused to assist those who wished to violently restore the monarchy.) It was a terribly involved and difficult process - involving not only a jail break, but a long escape run to the English channel and a boat to get across, but also a lot of work keeping his identity a secret. Because he himself was hunted by the French government.

He pretended, in his real life as Sir Perceval Blakeney, Baronet, to be an utter idiot; a fellow whose highest achievement was tying his cravat (and he was exceedingly proud of it).

And the first book was structured as a suspense mystery. Who is this man, this Scarlet Pimpernel? And Orczy made use of a number of tropes which became famous (and annoying) in later romances, but she did them well. They made sense.

Margueritte Blakeney, Sir Percy's wife, is the protagonist. She has no idea that her idiot husband is anything but an idiot -- but that's not because she is an idiot, but rather because Sir Percy's charade is first and foremost designed to fool her. Because he can't trust her. She's a French woman, and she herself denounced some nobles who were sent to the guillotine.

And Margueritte is being blackmailed to find out who the Pimpernel is. So there is a lovely game of cat and mouse, spy stuff, adventures, kidnappings, hair-raising escapes. Et cetera.

Here's an interesting thing about Leslie Howard: he was a little like a Baroness Orczy character himself. He was always playing the role of the perfect Englishman, always conforming to the mode pushed on him by his mother's family who didn't approve of his Hungarian Jewish father, or the accent he had as a small child, after living in Europe. Always the effete, sensitive, intellectual, who seemed a little helpless, but as David Niven said of him, always with a "busy little mind."

Howard, like the Pimpernel, loved England with a passion that lurked underneath. After Gone With The Wind (in a role he never felt right for -- though he was too lazy to read the book and see for sure) he quit making commercial movies, and went completely over to working for the war effort. He made propaganda movies (including one called Pimpernel Smith, and updated version for the war). He flew around a warring Europe, visiting neutral countries, lobbying for them to join the allies. He was very popular, and Goebbels considered him to be the most dangerous propagandist working for the allies.

And he died when his commercial airline flight was shot down on one of those propaganda missions. The official story was that it was an accidental shooting, but there is also evidence that he was targeted. (And also wild rumors that the plane was shot down because the Luftwaffe thought that Churchill was on the plane -- however, Churchill would have had an escort, so it was unlikely that anyone would think that unescorted plane was his.)

We also can thank Leslie Howard for one more thing -- the career of Humphrey Bogart. Bogart was considered a lightweight. His roles were generally limited to being the juvenile lead -- the guy who walks in and says "Tennis anyone?" Nobody wanted him for meatier roles, until he played in The Petrified Forest on stage with Howard. Howard was a big headliner at the time, and when they went to make the movie, Hollywood wanted him to star, but they didn't want Bogart. Howard insisted. He wouldn't play without Bogie.

(Mini-factiod: Leslie Howard features very slightly in The Man Who Did Too Much, when Karla needs to explain the concept of "Six-Degrees" and she connects Kevin Bacon to Leslie Howard -- who died before Bacon was born -- to show how everybody connects to everybody if you just know how.)

In the meantime: Sunday I'll do another update post, and I'm going to talk a little about handling political incorrectness. See, the book of The Scarlet Pimpernel is one flaw, a politically incorrect scene. Orczy felt she was playing on prejudice, rather than expressing it, but uh, it didn't work. They removed it for the movie version.

The reason the scene failed (and the reason it was used in the first place) is instructional for writers even today. And I'll bring up a couple of other examples.

See you in the funny papers.

1 comment:

Ginevra DV said...

Leslie Howard was such a clever, sophisticated and sensitive man and actor! Thanks for remembering him, he still has many devoted fans.