The very idea of the modern superhero was heavily influenced by influential characters of the past who have become social icons and symbols of justice. They were all people who saw crimes against humanity being committed and were not willing to stand by and let it happen. The Scarlet Pimpernel is often thought of as the first “Masked Vigilante” and heavily influenced the creation of Zorro, Doctor Syn, The Shadow, The Spider, The Phantom, and even Superman and Batman. Originally a stage play written by Baroness Orczy in 1903 and later became a series of Novels. Stan Lee, the co-creator of Marvel Comics, called this character, “The first character who could be called a superhero”.
In 1792, during the early stages of the French Revolution, Sir Percy Blakeney, disguised as The Scarlet Pimpernel, rescues those sentenced to the guillotine. To avoid any suspicion, he takes on a foppish, shallow, dim-witted persona. Several other English aristocrats assist Blakeney and become the “League of the Scarlet Pimpernel”. No others, besides those in the League, know his identity, not even his wife Marguerite, a French actress who has her own issues with what is happening in France. The Pimpernel is pursued by Citizen Chauvelin an envoy to England from Revolutionary France.
Through the years, several movies and television productions have been mounted using the character and are as follows:
The Scarlet Pimpernel (1917; silent)
Staring Dustin Farnum, Winfred Kingston and William Burress and is based directly off the stage 1903 stage production. Dustin Farnum would go on to become a huge star primarily in westerns. And William Burress was also quite famous appearing in more than seventy films between 1915 and 1939.
The Elusive Pimpernel (1919; silent)
Although only two years later, changes the cast to include Cecil Humphreys, Maire Blanche, and Norman Page.
I Will Repay (1923; silent)
Based on the 1906 Novel of the same name, it is once again, changes the actors playing the major roles to Holmes Herbert and Flora le Breton. It is also the first time that Chauvelin is not the main villain.
The Triumph of the Scarlet Pimpernel (1928; silent)
The last of the silent films featuring the character, the cast once again changes to be led by Shakespearean actor Matheson Lang. Famous actress Madeleine Carroll was meant to play the part of Lady Blakeney, but delays in filming made her unavailable and the part was recast with Marjorie Hume.
The Scarlet Pimpernel (1934; film)
This was the first non-silent film to feature the character. The film goes back to the original stage play and starts the series from the beginning. Staring Leslie Howard who was one of the biggest box office draws of his time. Opposite him was Merle Oberon and Raymond Massey, both also very well known. This is considered the definitive movie by many.
The film was well received and was the sixth most popular film in 1935. The critics said “The Scarlet Pimpernel’ is stirring to the pulse and beautiful to the eye, and it weaves the richly textured background of those tingling months of the French Revolution into an enormously satisfying photoplay. … Did the narrative seem a trifle leisurely in places? No matter. It was a leisurely age and here is a succulent and captivating entertainment.”
The Return of the Scarlet Pimpernel (1937; Film)
A direct sequel to the 1934 film, the leading actors are again recast with Barry K. Barnes, Sophie Steward and Francis Lister in the leading roles.
The Elusive Pimpernel (1950; Film)
Also known as The Fighting Pimpernel in the United States, this strayed from the other films and was more of a comedic take. It was originally intended to be a musical, but was reworked to be a light hearted drama. Starring David Niven who never wanted to play the part but was forced into it and is the catalyst for him severing his contract with Samuel Goldwyn. It took four years between the UK release in 1950 to the US release in 1954 due to a fall out between the two producers, Alexander Korda and Samuel Goldwyn. Oddly enough, this would be the last major motion picture to feature the character.
BBC Sunday Night Theatre (1951, 1952, 1953; Television movies)
Going back to the original source material of the 1903 play, the BBC Sunday Night Theatre broadcast three performances, two of which starred James Carney, but final performance switched to Tony Britton.
The Adventures of the Scarlet Pimpernel (1955–1956; Television Series)
The first television series to feature the character, Marius Goring pics up the mantel with Patrick Troughton famous for playing the second doctor in the long running Doctor Who series playing Sir Andrew Ffoulkes second in command in the League of the Scarlet Pimpernel. Oddly enough, the character of Marguerite does not seem to play a part within this series.
DuPont Show of the Month (1960; Television Anthology Series)
The fourth show of its fourth season, the CBS anthology series adapted the story for an episode. Starring Michael Rennie, famous for playing the alien Klaatu in the classic science fiction movie The Day the Earth Stood Still and the equally as famous Maureen O’Hara as Marguerite.
The Elusive Pimpernel (1969; Television Serial)
This was a ten part serial released by BBC One and starred Anton Rodgers, Diane Fletcher and Bernard Hepton.
The Scarlet Pimpernel (1982; Television Movie)
Taking over a decade to bring the character back, this CBS television movie has an all star cast, including Anthony Andrew as Sir Percy, Jane Seymour as marguerite and Ian McKellen as Chauvelin. This would be critically praised with call outs to Anthony Andrews and Ian McKellen’s performances, and would win the Emmy Award for Outstanding Costume Design.
The Scarlet Pimpernel (1999,2000; Television Mini-Series)
This BBC One mini-series is loosely based on the original novels and consisted of two seasons with three episodes each. The character having not been seen for almost two decades, was played by Richard E. Grant as Sir Percy and Elizabeth McGovern as Marguerite, although her character only appears in the first season.
Over the years there have been several other media adaptations of the story, a Broadway Musical and several Radio performances to just name a couple. The character is interesting, but largely forgotten by the majority of the population, even though many of the elements introduced by Baroness Orczy are still used to this day in comic books, movies and television. This character had a lasting impression on the superhero genre.
Encyclopedia of Superheroes: The Scarlet Pimpernel
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