Olive Films has released the now obscure 1941 British film noir "Pimpernel Smith" starring Leslie Howard, who also directed. The movie (known as "Mister V" in the United States) was released in 1941 at a time when England was hanging on by a thin thread as Hitler dominated most of Europe. As with all of the countries involved in WWII, the British film industry relied heavily on top stars appearing in inspiring movies that would boost public morale. This was especially true in England which saw its major ally, France, capitulate to Hitler in a matter of weeks, leaving the island nation standing alone against the Nazi menace. . At the time "Pimpernel Smith" was released in July 1941 (American would not enter the war until the bombing of Pearl Harbor in December of that year), the Brits were enjoying a spate of good news. After the disastrous experience of the British expedition force in Dunkirk, the nation had been subjected to the Blitz, the daily bombing by the Luftwaffe. London was especially hard hit in what Hitler had hoped to be a strategy that would have destroyed the RAF and led to his massive invasion of England. Instead, after a year of bitter fighting, the RAF had defeated the Luftwaffe and Hitler put his invasion plans on hold as he dealt with the consequences of his misguided incursion into the Soviet Union. With the Battle of Britain now over, the Brits could catch their breath and resume normal activities such as attending the cinema without worrying about being bombed into oblivion. Apparently "Pimpernel Smith" was an especially popular boxoffice hit in 1941, though the film's reputation as faded into oblivion in the decades since.
Howard's film production is a modern, loosely-based version of the classic "The Scarlet Pimpernel"- one of the first famous tales in which the dynamic hero hides behind a meek and mild alter ego to keep his identity secret. The story is set in the months before England went to war with the Axis powers following Germany's invasion of Poland. Howard plays Prof. Horatio Smith, a tweedy, eccentric academic who teaches at Cambridge. He arranges to take a group of his male students on a field trip to Germany ostensibly to undertake an archaeological expedition to prove that an ancient Aryan culture had once existed there- a notion that appeals to the xenophobic Nazi establishment. In reality, Smith is the unlikely anonymous hero whose exploits are filling the newspapers with tales of adventure, much to the delight of the British and the consternation of the Germans. Through daring schemes that border on the outrageous, Smith has been able to rescue important political prisoners from jails and concentration camps. His latest foray into Germany is designed to rescue Sidmir Koslowski (Peter Gawthorne), a Polish intellectual who is of value to the Allies. He has been arrested by the Germans on suspicion of being a spy. As the field trip gets under way, Smith plays up his role as an absent-minded professor, much to the amusement of his students. However, when he receives a flesh wound during one of his nocturnal secret missions, the boys catch on and insist that they be enlisted into helping Smith free Koslowski. Smith reluctantly concedes to accept their help. On the surface, Smith is treated as an honored guest by the Germans but the local military commander, General von Graum (Francis L. Sullivan) strongly suspects he is actually the "Pimpernel" and is determined to prove it and arrest him before any more prisoners can be freed. Von Graum forcibly enlists the services of Koslowski's beautiful daughter Ludmilla (Mary Morris) and makes her serve as a spy, holding her father's well-being over her head as collateral. Her mission is to seduce Smith if necessary in order to get proof of his extracurricular activities. Predictably, the two fall in love and Smith now not only has to rescue Koslowski, but his daughter as well.
Despite the fact that Leslie Howard was at the height of his career coming off of his role as Ashley Wilkes in "Gone with the Wind", "Pimpernel Smith" is a low-budget film that resembles a Poverty Row production. Perhaps resources and funding for films in wartime Britain were scarce even for a movie with strong propaganda value such as this. Virtually the entire film was shot on soundstages- and rather claustrophobic ones at that. City views glimpsed through windows are represented by low-grade matte paintings and there are only a few fleeting shots of actual exteriors. It's to Howard's credit as star and director as well as the screenwriters that the movie overcomes these distractions with a highly engrossing story line that builds in interest and suspense during the two-hour running time. Howard is in top form and he is more than matched by Francis L. Sullivan who makes for a larger-than-life villain in both the figurative and literal sense of the term. Sullivan uses his considerable girth and wry delivery to channel the best characteristics of Charles Laughton and Sydney Greenstreet. The witty script allows some wonderful byplay as Smith and von Graum maintain a superficial politeness even though they both regard each other as mortal enemies engaged in a cat-and-mouse game of strategy. Mary Morris makes for a lovely leading lady though the male actors who play Smith's students are so wholesome as to come across as absurd. It doesn't help matters that the styles of the era make them appear to look older than Smith.
It's a pity that there were no further adventures of Pimpernel Smith. However, real-life tragedy intervened when Leslie Howard was flying back to England from neutral Portugal in 1943 aboard a civilian aircraft. The plane was shot down by German fighters and all aboard were killed. Germany claimed the tragedy was an error but theories persist that his may have been targeted because of rumors that Churchill was aboard. Another theory was that the Germans wanted Howard dead in retribution for an Allied propaganda campaign he had been carrying out in Spain and Portugal. (For full analysis of the conspiracy theories behind Howard's death, read this entry on Wikipedia.) Thus, one of the film industry's most popular leading men had his life cut short due to the war even though he wasn't serving in combat."Pimpernel Smith" is a modest film but one that resonates very well today and gives us a full appreciation of Howard's talents as both actor and director. The Olive Blu-ray is sans any extras, which is a pity because of the aforementioned dramatic elements of Howard's life that would make for a good commentary track. However, the picture transfer is very impressive and does justice to the fine cinematography of Mutz Greenbaum.