Sink Me! Or the Scarlet Pimpernel as Superhero


“Sink me!”

If you’re familiar with that phrase, then you probably are also familiar with Lord Percy Blakeney, the rich, foppish dandy who seems to care more about the cut of a coat or whether a man is capable of tying his cravat correctly. He makes up rather childish rhymes about someone called The Scarlet Pimpernel, which draws delighted laughter from his admirers.

Little do those admirers know, however, that Lord Percy is, in fact, the Scarlet Pimpernel, the brave, dashing, master-of-disguise, who, with his trusty band of devoted followers, rescues condemned French noblemen and women from Madame Guillotine.

The other night, Turner Classic Movies showed the 1934 movie version of The Scarlet Pimpernel, which starred Leslie Howard (of Gone with the Wind fame, playing the rather hapless object of Scarlett O’Hara’s affection, Ashely Wilkes) and Merle Oberon.

I had seen the 1982 version of the movie (pictured above), which starred Anthony Andrews and Jane Seymour and loved it. I really enjoyed the 1934 version and, although I haven’t seen the 1982 version for some time, have a feeling the 1934 version was better in some ways.

Leslie Howard was wonderful as Lord Blakeney/The Scarlet Pimpernel. Howard could shift his body language and facial expression from self-indulgent frivolity to focused intensity in a nanosecond. And he was really quite funny. I’d never seen him in a comedic role before.

But what struck me as I was watching the movie was the fact that the Baroness Emmuska Orczy, who had written the book in 1905 (was originally produced as a play in 1903), had probably created the first superhero with a secret identity.

(If I’m wrong about that, please feel free to correct me. I have a feeling I am but don’t have the time to do the research to find out. I’m winging this particular post.). 🙂

What I mean is, if you look at Lord Percy and you look at, say, Bruce Wayne, they are pretty darn similar.

Bruce may not be as much of a fop as Percy is, but both are wealthy, both seem a bit more interested in spending their money than doing good, and yet both, unknown to but a few, are actually daring crusaders, fighting against what they see as the injustices of the world.

They are–when they’re not making the world a better place–in Percy’s case, a rather silly fop, or in Bruce’s case, a somewhat frivolous billionaire playboy.

For example, I love the scene in Batman Begins when Bruce is escorting two super models into a hotel. The two women commence to frolicking about in the hotel’s fountain. When the manager tells Bruce that his lady friends can’t do that, Bruce nonchalantly writes a check and tells the manager he just bought the hotel.

Bruce also, like Lord Percy, dismisses his alter ego, saying that anyone who dresses up like a bat must have serious issues, while Percy makes up inane rhymes about his alter ego.

They seek him here/they seek him there. Those Frenchies seek him everywhere.”

It’s funny but it also serves a purpose in, hopefully, drawing away any suspicions that Bruce or Percy could be other than what they are.

However, I think one of the most charming and most effective alter-ego disguises was Christopher Reeve’s portrayal in the 1978 movie Superman.

When I was a kid, they used to show those old 1950s television shows of Superman, which stared George Reeves. I remember thinking, now come on, how can anyone not know that Clark Kent is Superman. Except for the clothes and the glasses, Clark acts and talks just like Superman.

However, when I saw Christopher Reeve’s portrayal, I was amazed by the fact that he physically adjusted his body and voice whenever he moved between the two characters.

As Clark, Reeves pitched his voice high, wore those dorky glasses, of course, combed his hair differently but he also hunched his shoulders and curved his body, almost as if he were trying (as best as a man who was 6 feet four inches could do) to make himself smaller.

There’s a scene in Superman when, before he and Lois leave for a date, he’s about to reveal that he, Clark, is really Superman. He takes off his glasses, straightens his back, widens his shoulders and chest, and pitches his voice to its normal tone.

But, at the last second, he changes his mind, puts the glasses back on, hunches and curves his body and takes back on that high-pitched, nerdy voice. It’s a wonderful transition, but rather poignant for you see the price Clark has to pay to maintain his secret identity.

In the Leslie Howard version of The Scarlet Pimpernel, Lord Percy must bear the contempt of his wife who is disappointed with her husband’s apparent unconcern for the suffering of others. She even begins to fall in love with his alter-ego, The Scarlet Pimpernel. Something that Clark Kent can relate to as he watches Lois fall in love with Superman.

After the movie was over, I started to wonder if I could make use of this idea of a character who has two identities. Especially two identities that are diametrically opposed to the other.

Foppish dandy vs daring rescuer. Billionaire playboy vs masked avenger. Mild-mannered reporter vs super man.

Not necessarily writing such a character (although that would be fun) but asking myself, of every character I create, if this character could have a secret identity, what would it be. The more I thought on it, the more fun I saw it could be.

For example, let’s say I create a character who spends his days working 8 hours a day, five days a week, stuck in a cubicle, processing insurance claims all day. What would he be if he could be someone no one suspected was really him?

The reason I’d want it to be a persona that would be secret from others is that the point of the exercise would be to get into the shadow parts of the character’s personality

It would be easy enough to have him imagine himself a famous movie star or a football legend, but that really wouldn’t get me into the dark heart of my character. I’d want to know what he would be if no one ever suspected it was him.

And it wouldn’t necessarily have to be just the dark parts. Jung said that our Shadow also contains gold; those good, noble, wonderful parts of our psyche that we’re too afraid to acknowledge because we can’t see ourselves as being better than we are.

Sometimes it’s not failure that frightens us. It’s success.

So, anyway, I’ve decided, just as a creative exercise, that from now on I’m going to ask every one of my characters that question. Just to see what they say. Perhaps I’ll be surprised and discover there’s a dimension to this character I had no idea existed.

Actually, you could ask this question of yourself. Who or what would you be if no one you knew was aware that it was you?

Don’t answer that here. Remember, it’s a secret. 😉 But see what you come up with. Might even lead you to a new character for a story. Or a possible secret life. 😉

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9 Responses to Sink Me! Or the Scarlet Pimpernel as Superhero

  1. Digital Dame says:

    I saw the 1934 version of The Scarlet Pimpernel, and read the book. I didn’t even know there was a later movie version, I’ll have to look for it.

    I was thinking Zorro might have pre-dated SP, but according to Wikipedia that character was created in 1919. Close, but no cigar 😉 But again, it’s the dual identity of the foppish Don Diego Vega, vs his crime-fighting alter-ego Zorro. I wonder if that was a popular motif at the time? Maybe others simply didn’t survive in the public imagination and are lost to literary history.

  2. GutterBall says:

    Sometimes it’s not failure that frightens us. It’s success.

    Truer words were never spoken. Guh. It’s terrifying to think that we might have to live with such giddy heights…and such horrible responsibility.

    I mean, sure, it’s fun to joke around with friends about, “I’m Batman!” or “I am Iron Man”, but would you really want to be that? To feel so personally responsible for the atrocities and despair of your fellow man? To be so wrought up in protecting everyone that you can’t let yourself be close to anyone?

    Success is a terrifying, hateful prospect. Who needs it!

    *snerk*

  3. Oh, I loved this post. Secret identities are so much fun. And I’m putting Scarlet Pimpernel on my list of films to watch.

  4. Amy says:

    I am leading the secret life already. 😀

    Somewhat, as in, strangers not in my inner circle know me as another name and not my writing name.

    Did you ever see Blackadder The Third? It was a series, and they made fun of historical events happening during the time of Mad King George, and had an episode dealing with the Scarlet Pimpernel. Very funny.

  5. jennareynolds says:

    Digital Dame: Yes, I’d definitely count Zorro as falling into that camp. In that first Zorro movie that Banderas was in, he definitely played on that trope of the dandy when he goes to that party.

    Gutterball: I know I’d not want that kind of responsibility! That’s why it’s much more fun to read and write about such characters. 🙂

    Gypsyscarlett: Thanks about the post! Yes, SIs are a lot of fun. I enjoy watching movies about them. That whole struggle to keep the secret identity secret; that yearning to truly be whom one really is. Whichever of those conflicting identities one truly is.

    Amy: Non de plumes are just like secret identities, aren’t they? Hadn’t thought about them that way. 🙂

    It’s been sometime since I saw Blackadder but I do remember that show. I’ll have to see if my library has the DVDs.

  6. Digital Dame says:

    Then for a completely different spin on Zorro, there’s 1981’s version with George Hamilton as “Zorro, The Gay Blade”! 🙂 If you haven’t seen it, it’s a hoot.

  7. jennareynolds says:

    I’ve heard of that movie but have yet to see it. Will put it on my list of DVDs to get from library. George Hamiltion also did one of my favorite vampire spoofs, Love at First Bite. 🙂

  8. I’m thinking this post is rather funny in retrospect. I mean the weird thingie that’s going on with my avatar. Some places I’m showing up as Mrs. Lovett and others as Myrna Loy.

    Did you do anything, Jenna? 😉

  9. jennareynolds says:

    That is interesting. But, nope, I’m completely innocent. 🙂

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