I suspect that many fans of the DC Comics character "Batman" and the "Zorro" character would be nonplussed at the idea that a novel written by a Hungary-born aristocrat had served as an inspiration for their creations. Yet, many believe that Baroness Emmuska Orczy de Orczi's 1905 novel, "The Scarlet Pimpernel" provided Western literature with its first "hero with a secret identity", Sir Percy Blakeney aka the Scarlet Pimpernel.
There have been at least nineteen stage, movie or television adaptations of Orczy's novel. Some consider the 1934 movie adaptation with Leslie Howard, Merle Oberon and Raymond Massey as the most definitive adaptation. However, there are others who are more inclined to bestow that honor on the 1982 television adaptation with Anthony Andrews, Jane Seymour and Ian McKellen. I have seen both versions and if I must be honest, I am inclined to agree with those who prefer the 1982 television movie.
"THE SCARLET PIMPERNEL" - namely its 1982 re-incarnation - is based upon the 1905 novel and its 1913 sequel, "Eldorado". Set during the early period of the French Revolution, a masked man and his band of followers rescues French aristocrats from becoming victims of the Reign of Terror under France's new leader, Maximilien de Robespierre. The man behind the Scarlet Pimpernel's mask - or disguises - is a foppish English baronet named Sir Percy Blakeney. For reasons never explained in the movie, Sir Percy has managed to gather a group of upper-class friends to assist him in smuggling French aristocrats out of France and sending them to the safety of England. During a visit to France, Sir Percy meets a young French government aide and the latter's actress sister, Armand and Marguerite St. Just. He eventually befriends the brother and courts the sister.
Sir Percy also becomes aware of Armand's superior and Marguerite's friend, Robespierre's agent Paul Chauvelin. Angered over Marguerite's marriage to Sir Percy, Chauvelin has the Marquis de St. Cyr - an old enemy of Armand's - executed in her name. After being sent to England to learn the identity of the Scarlet Pimpernel, Chauvelin discovers that Armand has become part of the vigilante's band. He blackmails Marguerite - now Lady Blakeney - into learning the identity the identity of the Scarlet Pimpernel. Meanwhile, the Blakeney marriage has chilled, due to the news of the Marquis de St. Cyr's execution and Marguerite's alleged connection. But a chance for a marital reconciliation materializes for Marguerite, when she discovers the Scarlet Pimpernel's true identity.
Thirty years have passed since CBS first aired "THE SCARLET PIMPERNEL". In many ways, it has not lost its bite. Thanks to Tony Curtis' production designs, late 18th century England and France (England and Wales in reality) glowed with elegance and style. Not even the questionable transfer of the film to DVD could completely erode the movie's beauty. The movie's visual style was aided by Carolyn Scott's set decorations, Dennis C. Lewiston's sharp and colorful photography, and especially Phyllis Dalton's gorgeous costume designs, as shown in the following photographs:
I feel that screenwriter William Bast made the very wise choice of adapting Baroness Orczy's two novels about the Scarlet Pimpernel. In doing so, he managed to create a very clear and concise tale filled with plenty of drama and action. He also did an excellent job in mapping out the development of the story's main characters - especially Sir Percy Blakeney, Marguerite St. Just, Paul Chauvelin and Armand St. Just. I was especially impressed by his handling of Sir Percy and Marguerite's relationship - before and after marriage. Sir Percy's easy willingness to believe the worst about his bride provided a few chinks into Sir Percy's character, which could have easily morphed into a too perfect personality. More importantly, Bast's script gave Paul Chauvelin's character more depth by revealing the latter's feelings for Marguerite and jealousy over her marriage to Sir Percy. Bast's re-creation of the early years of the French Revolution and Reign of Terror struck me as well done. However, I wish he had not faithfully adapted Orczy's decision to allow the Scarlet Pimpernel and his men to rescue the Daupin of France (heir apparent to the French throne), Louis-Charles (who became Louis XVII, upon his father's death). In reality, Louis-Charles died in prison from tuberculosis and ill treatment at the age of ten. Surely, Bast could have created someone else important for the Scarlet Pimpernel to rescue.
"THE SCARLET PIMPERNEL" received a few Emmy nominations. But they were for technical awards - Costume Designs for Phyllis Dalton, Art Direction for Tony Curtis and even one for Outstanding Drama Special for producers David Conroy and Mark Shelmerdine. And yet . . . there were no nominations for Clive Donner and his lively direction, and no nominations for the cast. I am especially astounded by the lack of nominations for Anthony Andrews, Jane Seymour and Ian McKellen. In fact, I find this criminal. All three gave superb performances as Sir Percy Blakeney; Marguerite, Lady Blakeney; and Paul Chauvelin respectively. Andrews was all over the map in his portrayal of the fop by day/hero by night Sir Percy. And yet, it was a very controlled and disciplined performance. Jane Seymour did a beautiful job of re-creating the intelligent, yet emotional Marguerite. At times, she seemed to be the heart and soul of the story. This was the first production in which I became aware of Ian McKellen as an actor and after his performance as Paul Chauvelin, I never forgot him. Not only was his portrayal of Chauvelin's villainy subtle, but also filled with deep pathos over his feelings for Marguerite Blakeney. He also had the luck to utter one of my favorite lines in the movie in the face of his character's defeat:
"Oh, the English, and their STU-U-U-UPID sense of fair play!"
The movie also featured some first-rate performances by the supporting cast. Malcolm Jamieson did an excellent job in portraying Marguerite's older brother, Armand. I was also impressed by Ann Firbank, who was first-rate as the embittered Countess de Tournay; James Villiers as the opportunistic Baron de Batz; Tracey Childs as the lovesick Suzanne de Tournay; and Christopher Villiers as Sir Percy's most stalwart assistant, Lord Anthony Dewhurst. Julian Fellowes made a very colorful and entertaining Prince of Wales. And Richard Morant proved to be even more subtle and sinister than McKellen's Chauvelin as Maximilien de Robespierre.
After my latest viewing of "THE SCARLET PIMPERNEL", I found myself surprisingly less supportive of the Scarlet Pimpernel's efforts than I used to be. Perhaps I have not only become more older, but even less enthusiastic about the aristocratic elite. It was then I realized that despite the presence of Marguerite and Armand St. Just, "THE SCARLET PIMPERNEL" is based on two novels written by an aristocrat, with views that were probably as liberal as Barry Goldwater. Oh well. I still managed to garner a good deal of entertainment from a movie that has held up remarkable well after thirty years, thanks to some lively direction by Clive Donner, a first-rate script by William Bast and superb performances by the likes of Anthony Andrews, Jane Seymour and Ian McKellen.
Below is an article I had written during the middle of Season One for ABC's "AGENTS OF S.H.I.E.L.D.":
"AGENTS OF S.H.I.E.L.D.": THE LAST STAND AGAINST MEDIOCRITY
The age of serial drama or adventure is over. It is over. I came to this conclusion after learning the dismal ratings for the last episode of ABC's "AGENTS OF S.H.I.E.L.D." called (1.10) "The Bridge". And ironically, my statement is not a criticism directed at the series or its latest episode.
I recently learned that the ratings for "The Bridge" had dropped considerably. Many fans would see this as a sign of the show's not-so-sensational quality. I realize that "AGENTS OF S.H.I.E.L.D." is not flawless. There is no such thing as a flawless show. But it has the potential to become a first-rate one, as the quality of its writing grow with time. But judging from the reaction to the show from the past two months, I can clearly see that American television viewers and critics now lack the patience to deal with a serial drama. They will not allow shows like "S.H.I.E.L.D." to develop at a steady pace. They want instant perfection right off the bat.
I blame televisions series like "LOST", the new "BATTLESTAR: GALACTICA", and "ONCE UPON A TIME". All three shows gave television viewers an excellent First Season that seemed to blow their minds. And thanks to shows like the one I had just listed, an excellent first season is what many viewers have come to expect from a TV show in the sci-fi/fantasy genre. Superb shows like "BABYLON 5", "BUFFY THE VAMPIRE SLAYER" and "ANGEL" did not have perfect first seasons. First first seasons were decent, but flawed. But in time, all three developed into excellent shows by their second and third seasons. And this is why I consider them among the finest series in television series. I am also reminded of cancelled shows like "FLASHFORWARD" and "THE EVENT". I might as well be frank. The first half of their single seasons never struck me as exceptional or impressive. But both shows managed to develop in quality by the end of their seasons. And both shows promised great potential, as well. But the respective networks refused to give them a chance and cancelled them, instead of giving them a second season.
Considering that the writing for television series like "BABYLON 5" and "BUFFY THE VAMPIRE SLAYER" managed to slowly develop over time, I now realize that I can never consider shows like "LOST" and "ONCE UPON A TIME" among the best in television history. Sure, they were entertaining and revealed flashes of brilliant writing. Unfortunately, I believe that the writing for "LOST" flip-flopped in quality during its remaining five seasons. Despite some first-rate story arcs and plot twists over the years, it never reached the same level of quality that it had enjoyed during its first season. Many fans were dazzled by "ONCE UPON A TIME" during its first season. But the series is now in the midst of its third season. And I feel that eventually, it will suffer the same fate of inconsistent quality as "LOST" did.
The first season of "AGENTS OF S.H.I.E.L.D." reminds of those first seasons for shows like "BABYLON 5" and "BUFFY". Like the two now defunct shows, the first season for "S.H.I.E.L.D." is obviously flawed. But I feel that it has potential, especially in the story line regarding the agency's battle with an organization called Centipede. When the series first began, I could barely stand characters like Grant Ward, Leo Fitz and Jemma Simmons. I found the former aggressively bland, and the other two rather annoying and out of place. The series has just finished airing its tenth episode and I have grown to appreciate all three characters. This is due to their fleshing out as interesting characters, instead of remaining mere cliches.
For me, this is a sign of why I like the production styles of television producer/writers like Joss Whedon and J. Michael Straczynski. They do not try to wow the audience off the bat with a spectacular premiere or first season. Both Whedon and Straczynski, and other show creators like them, are willing to allow their stories and characters to develop with time . . . like true storytellers. But today's television viewers do not seem to appreciate real storytelling. They do not appreciate a steady development of story and characters. They want to be dazzled right off the bat. And the creators of shows like "LOST" and "ONCE UPON A TIME" are willing to feed them dazzling premieres to automatically draw in viewers. Because of this new style of storytelling and lack of audience patience, I fear that "AGENTS OF S.H.I.E.L.D." will not last beyond a first season. And if it does last, I fear that the networks might force Whedon and his brother, Jed Whedon will transform the series into an episodic one that allow guest starring costume heroes to push the main characters into a back seat.
Oh well. There is nothing I can do about it. In fact, all I can do is sit back and speculate on the future of "AGENTS OF S.H.I.E.L.D.". If it ends up cancelled by the end of the season or is transformed into episodic television; the show's fate will become another step down in the quality of television writing - especially for the sci-fi/fantasy genre. I fear culture is in serious danger of going to the dogs.
The past thirty to forty years have seen a great deal of movies, documentaries and television productions about one of the most famous political families in the U.S., the Kennedys. But none of them have garnered as much controversy or criticism as this latest production, an eight-part television miniseries that aired last April.
Directed by Jon Cassar, "THE KENNEDYS" chronicled the family’s lives and experiences through the 1960s – mainly during President John F. Kennedy’s Administration. The miniseries also touched upon some of the family’s experiences and relationships before JFK first occupied the White House through flashbacks in Episode One, which also focused upon Election Day 1960. And Episode Eight covered the years between JFK’s assassination and the death of his younger brother, Robert F. Kennedy in June 1968. But the meat of the miniseries centered on the years between January 1961 and November 1963. Unlike most productions about the Kennedys, which either covered JFK’s public experiences as President or the family’s private life; this miniseries covered both the public and private lives of the family.
Much to my surprise, "THE KENNEDYS" attracted a great deal of controversy before it aired. The miniseries had been scheduled to air on the History Channel for American audiences back in January of this year. However, the network changed its mind, claiming that "this dramatic interpretation is not a fit for the History brand.". Many, including director Jon Cassar, believed that the network had received pressure from sources with connection to the Kennedy family not to air the miniseries. Several other networks also declined to air the miniseries, until executives from the Reelz Channel agreed to do so. That network failed aired "THE KENNEDYS" back in April and other countries, including Canada and Great Britain also finally aired it. After viewing the miniseries, I do not understand why the History Channel had banned it in the first place.
The miniseries not only attracted controversy, but also mixed reviews from the critics. Well, to be honest, I have only come across negative reviews. If there were any positive commentary, I have yet to read any. For me, "THE KENNEDYS" is not perfect. In fact, I do not believe it is the best Hollywood production on the subject I have seen. The miniseries did not reveal anything new about the Kennedys. In fact, it basically covered old ground regarding both JFK’s political dealings with situations that included the Bay of Pigs, the Civil Rights Movement and the Cuban Missile Crisis. It also covered many of the very familiar topics of the Kennedys’ private lives – including the adulterous affairs of both JFK and Joseph Senior. Hell, even the miniseries' take on the Cuban Missile Crisis seemed more like a rehash of the 2000 movie, "THIRTEEN DAYS". In fact, the only aspect of this miniseries that struck me as new or original was the insinuation that First Lady Jacqueline Kennedy may have received amphetamine shots (also taken by JFK) from a Doctor Max Jacobson, to boost her energy for the numerous duties of her office. And I have strong doubts over whether this is actually true.
I have one other major complaint about the miniseries – namely the final episode. Episode Eight covered Jacqueline and Bobby’s lives during the remainder of the 1960s, following JFK’s death. For me, this was a major mistake. Although Part One mainly covered Election Day in November 1960, it also featured flashbacks of the family’s history between the late 1930s and 1960. But the majority of the miniseries covered JFK’s presidency. In my opinion, ”THE KENNEDYS” should have ended with JFK’s funeral, following his assassination in Dallas. I realize that the miniseries also featured the lives of Bobby, Jacqueline, Joseph Senior, Rose and Ethel’s live in heavy doses, it still centered on Jack Kennedy. By continuing into one last episode that covered Jacqueline and Bobby’s lives following the President’s death, it seemed to upset the miniseries’s structure. If that was the case, the setting for ”THE KENNEDYS” should have stretched a lot further than the 1960s.
But despite my complaints, I still enjoyed "THE KENNEDYS". For one thing, it did not bore me. The pacing struck me as top notch. And it lacked the dry quality of the more well-received 1983 miniseries, "KENNEDY". Although I believe that particular miniseries was superior to this new one, it sometimes felt more like a history lesson than a historical drama. It is possible that the additions of sequences featuring the family’s personal lives and scandals may have prevented me from falling asleep. But even the scenes that featured JFK’s presidency struck me as interesting – especially the scenes about the failed Bay of Pigs invasion in Episode Three. I also enjoyed the flashbacks that supported the miniseries’ look into Joseph Kennedy Senior’s control over his children and the shaky marriage between JFK and Jacqueline. At least two particular flashbacks focused upon JFK’s affair with Hollywood icon Marilyn Monroe, and its near effect upon younger brother Bobby. One scene that really impressed me was Bobby’s first meeting with the starlet. Thanks to Cassar’s direction, along with Barry Pepper (Bobby Kennedy) and Charlotte Sullivan’s (Marilyn Monroe), the scene reeked with a sexual tension that left viewers wondering if the pair ever really had a tryst. Both Greg Kinnear and Katie Holmes gave outstanding performances in two particular scenes that not only featured the explosive marriage between the President and First Lady, but also the depths of their feelings toward one another. The miniseries also scored with Rocco Matteo’s production designs. I was especially impressed by his re-creation of the White House, circa 1961. I was also impressed by Christopher Hargadon’s costume designs. He did a first-rate job in not only capturing the period’s fashions for both the male and female characters, but also in re-creating some of Jacqueline Kennedy’s more famous outfits.
Aside from the pacing, the miniseries’ biggest strength turned out to be the cast. I have already commented upon Charlotte Sullivan’s excellent performance as Marilyn Monroe. But she her performance was not the only supporting one that impressed me. Kristin Booth gave a top-notch portrayal of Bobby Kennedy’s wife, Ethel. And she did this without turning the late senator’s wife into a one-note caricature, unlike other actresses. I was also impressed by Don Allison’s turn as future President, Lyndon B. Johnson. However, there were moments when his performance seemed a bit theatrical. I also enjoyed how both John White and Gabriel Hogan portrayed the rivalry between a young JFK and Joseph Junior during the late 1930s and early 1940s, with a subtlety that I found effective. However, both Tom Wilkinson and Diana Hardcastle really impressed me as the heads of the Kennedy clan – Joseph Senior and Rose Kennedy. They were really superb. Truly. I was especially impressed by Wilkinson’s handling of his New England accent, after recalling his bad American accent in 2005’s "BATMAN BEGINS". And I had no idea that Diana Hardcastle was his wife. Considering their strong screen chemistry, I wonder if it is possible for husband and wife to act in front of a camera together, more often.
The best performances, in my opinion, came from Greg Kinnear, Katie Holmes and Barry Pepper as JFK, Jacqueline Kennedy and Bobby Kennedy, respectively. For some reason, Pepper’s portrayal of Bobby seemed to keep the miniseries grounded. He did a great job in capturing the former senator and Attorney General’s ability to maintain solidarity in the family; and also his conflict between continuing his service to JFK and the family, and considering the idea of pursuing his own profession. Greg Kinnear’s take on JFK struck me as different from any I have ever seen in previous movies or television productions. Yes, he portrayed the style, charm, intelligence and wit of JFK. He was also effective in conveying the President’s conflict between his lustful desires for other women, his love for his wife and any "alleged" guilt over his infidelity. There seemed to be a slightly melancholy edge in Kinnear’s performance that I have never seen in other actors who have portrayed JFK. But I feel that the best performance came from Katie Holmes in her portrayal of First Lady Jacqueline Kennedy. Personally, I thought it was worthy of an award nomination. However, I doubt that anyone would nominate her. Pity. I thought she did a superb job in capturing not only the style and glamour of the famous First Lady, but also the latter’s complex and intelligent nature.
I am well aware that most critics were not impressed by the miniseries. Hell, I am also aware that a good number of viewers have expressed some contempt toward it. I could follow the bandwagon and also express a negative opinion of "THE KENNEDYS". But I cannot. It is not the best production I have ever seen about the famous political family. It did not really provide anything new about the Kennedy family and as far as I am concerned, it had one episode too many. But I was impressed by Jon Cassar’s direction, along with the outstanding cast and first-rate production and costume designs. And thinking about all of this, I still do not understand why the History Channel went through so much trouble to reject the miniseries’ airing on its network.
Below is my current list of favorite movies set in the 1920s:
TOP TEN FAVORITE MOVIES SET IN THE 1920s
1. "Some Like It Hot" (1959) - Billy Wilder directed and co-wrote with I.A.L. Diamond this still hilarious tale about two Chicago jazz musicians who witness a mob hit and flee by joining an all-girls band headed for Florida, disguised as women. Marilyn Monroe, Tony Curtis and Jack Lemmon starred.
2. "Those Daring Young Men in Their Jaunty Jalopies" (1969) - Ken Annakin directed this funny tale about competitors in the Monte Carlo Rally in 1929. The movie starred Tony Curtis, Susan Hampshire and Terry-Thomas.
3. "Bullets Over Broadway" (1994) - Woody Allen directed and co-wrote with Douglas McGrath this funny tale about a struggling playwright forced to cast a mobster's untalented girlfriend in his latest drama in order to get it produced. John Cusack, Oscar winner Dianne Weist, Jennifer Tilly, and Chazz Palminteri starred.
4. "Singin in the Rain" (1952) - A movie studio in 1927 Hollywood is forced to make the difficult and rather funny transition from silent pictures to talkies. Starring Gene Kelly, Donald O'Connor and Debbie Reynolds starred in this highly entertaining film that was directed by Kelly and Stanley Donen.
5. "The Great Gatsby" (2013) Baz Luhrmann produced and directed this energetic and what I believe is the best adaptation of F. Scott Fitzgerald's 1925 novel. Leonardo DiCaprio and Tobey Maguire star.
6. "Five Little Pigs" (2003) - Although presently set in the late 1930s, this excellent adaptation of Agatha Christie's 1942 novel features many flashbacks in which a philandering painter was murdered in the 1920s. David Suchet starred as Hercule Poirot.
7. "The Cat's Meow" (2001) - Peter Bogdanovich directed this well-made, fictionalized account of producer Thomas Ince's mysterious death aboard William Randolph Hearst's yacht in November 1924. Kirsten Dunst, Edward Herrmann, Eddie Izzard and Cary Elwes starred.
8. "The Painted Veil" (2006) - John Curran directed this excellent adaptation of W. Somerset Maugham's 1925 novel about a British doctor trapped in a loveless marriage with an unfaithful who goes to a small Chinese village to fight a cholera outbreak. Naomi Watts, Edward Norton, Toby Jones, Diana Rigg and Liev Schreiber starred.
9. "Changeling" (2008) - Clint Eastwood directed this excellent account of a real-life missing persons case and police corruption in 1928 Los Angeles. Angelina Jolie, John Malkovich, Michael Kelly, Jeffrey Donovan and Colm Feore starred.
10. "Chicago" (2002) - Rob Marshall directed this excellent adaptation of the 1975 stage musical about celebrity, scandal, and corruption in Jazz Age Chicago. Renee Zellweger, Oscar winner Catherine Zeta-Jones, Queen Latifah, John C. Reilly, and Richard Gere starred.