A Thousand Sabers Flash in Conquest!
Somehow the sequel to 1934’s The Scarlet Pimpernel never takes off. As most astute viewers will know from the get go is that the follow-up The Return of the Scarlet Pimpernel lacks any sense of star power. Instead of Leslie Howard and Merle Oberon who we got accustomed to in the original, we have Barry Barnes and Sophie Stewart. The downward step in palpable. The real name in the cast is a very young James Mason, on an early loan out in his long career.
Though the sequel picks up the story roughly where the original leaves off, the lack of originality and any real suspense makes The Return of the Scarlet Pimpernel more than a bit lacking. Chauvelin again tries to entice the Pimpernel (Barrry Barnes) back to France where he can be trapped and guillotined. The modest twist now is that Chauvelin merely kidnaps the Pimpernel’s wife, taking her to France as cheese for a mouse.
What follows is a bit of running around and hints of action and at times things feel almost as if they are going to get suspenseful. But several times what appears as a crisis is a mere momentary diversion from the matter at hand, with each situation put aside after a conversation or two completely resolved and forgotten. Perhaps the rather muddled screenplay and the threesome who wrote it realized how thin the plot was and needed a little fluff to get a feature length picture.
Though a London Film Production, the casting choices are surprising even given that this isn’t a Hollywood production. Barnes is devoid of most any charisma, and the fact that he is the leader of the group is never believable. And though partly the result of the character as written in the original books, Barnes seems never able to decide when to be a fop and when to be a revolutionary. The result is 76 minutes of meh.
The highlight of Barnes’ role comes when he is in disguise and undercover, which he does a few times throughout the film. These come off as slightly humorous, which at least in the first case (where the Pimpernel masquerades as a deaf Colonel of Artillery) must be intentional. Not only is his conversation with the server and the Chauvelin (at the next table) amusing, but on his way out the would-be Colonel runs into the man he is disguised as.
Sophie Stewart in the role of the Pimpernel’s wife fares somewhat better, though we are left in her case thinking what she could have done with a better written role. There seems to be quite a bit of lost potential here. Her affection for her husband is legitimate, which is made all the more surprising with his rather dubious act of derring-do.
Though he fails to measure up to the standard the Raymond Massey set as Chauvelin in the original, Francis Lister doesn’t give up without a fight. Luckily, he has at his disposable the only decent part in the picture. Being in most scenes of the picture, Lister is adept both in banter with the Pimpernel or scolding threats to his wife. He also has several well done scenes with Robespierre, played by Henry Oscar.
And that leaves us with the one chap who seemingly went somewhere from here, James Mason. He was much of the draw in playing this one. One seeing him in fourth billing I wasn’t unsurprised, knowing this was an early picture for him. As the final curtain dropped, I have to admit I wondered why they bothered getting Mason on a loan-out- though perhaps it was just to fulfill a contractual obligation.
Poor Mason as Tallien has very little to do and really only has two scenes, with the first being merely to introduce him to the viewer so that we aren’t jarred by his return in the final reel. Mason gives a suitably powerful speech in the final reel, set in the National Assembly. With obvious allusions equating Robespierre with the then-current threat of Hitler, Mason sways the Assembly from tacit agreement with Robespierre to open rebellion.
Coupled with Barnes’ disguises, this final oration by Mason makes up the two strong points of the film. It is extremely odd to see Mason used so little when featured so prominently in the promotional collateral.
On screen, The Return of the Scarlet Pimpernel doesn’t look all that bad, though director Hanns Schwartz’ effort here- his last picture- is average as best. Though obviously set-bound, the atmosphere is good for such a would-be action picture. Fans of the original picture will spot more than a couple of shots reused from the earlier entry in the series along with some recycled sets. Perhaps this recycling, though not uncommon for the time, is another sign that there really wasn’t enough in the funnel to work into a feature.
For those counting, that’s the third element of note- the first being the fluffed script with the numerous faux crises, the second being a rather tired last effort from a retiring director and the final piece being the recycled footage and sets.
Sadly, The Return of the Scarlet Pimpernel doesn’t offer much for today’s viewer outside of those who may be Mason completists.