Leslie Howard in 'Pimpernel' Smith (1941)

The Playful Pimpernel

In 1934 Leslie Howard starred as Sir Percy Blakeney in "The Scarlet Pimpernel" an adaptation of Baroness Emmuska Orczy's story of an English aristocrat who under a secret identity helped French noblemen escape from a reign of terror. 7 years later Leslie Howard brought "'Pimpernel' Smith" to the British public, an amusing update of Orczy's story which sees an academic helping significant people escape from Nazi concentration camps. It is a clever idea which is very much played for laughs from Professor Horatio Smith appearing to be a bit of head in the clouds professor to the whole fun of him getting one over on the enemy who are portrayed as buffoons. And yes that does mean that "'Pimpernel' Smith" is a wartime propaganda movie but an entertainingly playful one at that which still entertains.

Lecturer Professor Horatio Smith (Leslie Howard - Gone with the Wind) leads a party of students to Germany on an archaeology trip as he seeks out evidence of an original Aryan civilization. But that is in truth his cover because Professor Smith is in fact a spy aiding important people to escape Germany and the Nazi concentration camps. When having being wounded in one of his brave rescue attempts his students discover the truth that their absent minded professor is in fact a secret agent and a thorn in the side of the Nazi's especially General von Graum (Francis L. Sullivan). When the pretty Ludmilla Koslowski (Mary Morris) asks Smith to help her father escape he is initially wary as she appears to work for von Graum but something about her convinces him to help.

David Tomlinson and Hugh McDermott in 'Pimpernel' Smith (1941)

"'Pimpernel' Smith" is probably one of the most simplest wartime propaganda movies I have ever seen because it isn't a movie of significant depth but more a playful folly about getting one over on the enemy. And that all starts with Leslie Howard's playful portrayal of Professor Horatio Smith from appearing to have his head in the clouds as an absent minded professor to the way he avoids ever saying who he is. It is one of Howard's most entertaining performances making Smith not so much cocky but having this wonderful confidence which makes his blatant toying with the enemy so amusing.

In fact for a movie all about this man helping people escape there is very little drama or action, just plenty of playfulness. That playfulness extends to the portrayal of the Nazi's and in particular General von Graum who whilst not inept is always being made a fool off to the point of being mocked. And then add to that some amusing supporting performances from Hugh McDermott as a gutsy American student and Mary Morris as the pretty Ludmilla. In fact whilst "'Pimpernel' Smith" is most certainly Leslie Howard's movie the supporting cast are a huge reason why it is still entertaining with various recognizable actors such as David Tomlinson and Francis L. Sullivan filling in the background.

Now I said that "'Pimpernel' Smith" isn't a movie of depth and it most certainly is played for laughs but for those interested in the war it does have some interest. What I mean by that is that it is one of the earliest movies to mention concentration camps, not that their portrayal is authentic but still it is one of the movies moments of seriousness along with a rousing speech from Smith at the end.

What this all boils down to is that "'Pimpernel' Smith" is a wonderfully playful propaganda movie which has a great energy and a great performance from Leslie Howard at the heart of it. Unlike other wartime propaganda movies "'Pimpernel' Smith" is still entertaining because of that playfulness of a weedy academic getting one over on the enemy.