Friday, August 21, 2009


By the early 1940's, after hitting a career peak in TOPPER (1938), Constance Bennett was reduced to starring in B-movies. This one, the first film in which she had starred in three years, was also produced by her, and she graciously gives top billing to British music hall star Gracie Fields. The two work together quite well, and the story, which starts as a typical Hollywood version of what European resistance fighters were doing and morphs into a female bonding narrative, is OK. The main problem is that the film cannot overcome its obviously cheap production values. Bennett is a well-to-do Parisian who is totally unprepared for the invasion of the Germans; her husband (George Rigaud) thinks she's being too flippant and her friend (Fields) is in a panic to leave the city. Eventually, the two women get on the road and even find a backroads route to get around the teeming hordes of other escapees, but soon get turned back by advance German troops. While stopped at an inn (for tea!), they befriend an injured British soldier and wind up taking him back with them to Paris, and with Rigaud's help, they smuggle him out of occupied France. Bennett and Fields decide to continue their work with the Underground (there's a nice smuggling scene which involves a fake funeral held right under the Nazis' noses), but after a while, the Gestapo, angry that so many downed Allied fliers are escaping, plant a soldier in order to find the smugglers. The last part of the film works up some excitement as Fields is caught between a rock and a hard place and needs to find the resolve to kill in order to survive. There’s a well-done chase scene involving Bennett and Rigaud (who I kept thinking was going to be exposed as a Nazi), and a sentimental finale that works surprisingly well. Two familiar faces show up in supporting roles: Eily Malyon as Bennett's landlord and Kurt Kreuger as a Gestapo agent. Not a bad movie, but one in which the need for a better budget is palpable. The British title, MADAME PIMPERNEL, is quite misleading. [DVD]

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