“PRIDE AND PREJUDICE” (1940) Review
There have been at least eight adaptations of “Pride and Prejudice”, Jane Austen’s 1813 novel. But as far as I know, only four are well known or constantly mentioned by many of the novelist’s present-day fans. And one of the four happens to be the movie adapted in 1940 by Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer.
Directed by Robert Z. Leonard, “PRIDE AND PREJUDICE” told the story of the five unmarried daughters of a 19th century English landowner and the efforts of his shrill wife to get them married before his estate is inherited by a distant male cousin. For years, this version of Austen’s novel has been highly regarded by fans and critics alike. But ever since the advent of numerous Austen adaptations in the past 15 to 20 years, these same critics and fans have been incredibly harsh toward this Hollywood classic. Many have complained that the movie failed to be a faithful adaptation of the 1813 novel.
Many of the complaints volleyed by recent Austen fans include:
*The movie’s fashions and setting changed to the late 1820s and early 1830s
*The deletion of Elizabeth Bennet’s trip to Derbyshire and Pemberly
*Mr. Darcy’s slightly less haughty manner
*Instead of a ball, Charles Bingley held a fête for the Hertfordshire neighborhood
*The change in Lady Catherine de Bourgh’s reason for visiting Longbourn
The 1940 movie was the first version of Austen’s novel I had ever seen. Since then, I have become a major fan of some of the adaptations that followed – including the 1980 miniseries, the 1995 miniseries and the 2005 movie. So, when I had decided to watch this version again, I wondered if my high regard of the film would remain. Needless to say, it has.
“PRIDE AND PREJUDICE” had a running time of 117 minutes. To expect it to be a completely faithful adaptation of the novel seemed ridiculous to me. If I must be frank, I have NEVER SEEN a completely faithful adaptation. But I can say this about the 1940 movie, it remains as delightfully entertaining as ever.
However, the movie is not without its faults. And I was able to spot a few. One, I found Laurence Olivier’s portrayal of the haughty Fitzwilliam Darcy as not quite so haughty . . . especially in his pursuit of Elizabeth Bennet during the Netherfield Fête. The time span between Elizabeth’s departure from the Collins household in Kent and Darcy’s arrival in Hertfordshire, to announce his knowledge of Lydia Bennet and George Wickham’s elopement seemed ridiculously short. Since the movie was nearly two hours long, it could have spared a scene in which Colonel Fitzwilliam had revealed Mr. Darcy’s part in Charles Bingley’s departure from Hertfordshire. Instead, we are given a scene in which Elizabeth angrily conveyed the colonel’s revelation to her friend, Charlotte Lucas. And speaking of Charlotte, I was rather disappointed by her portrayal. It made Gerald Oliver Smith’s (Colonel Fitzwilliam) appearance in the movie rather irrelevant. I found nothing wrong with Karen Morely’s performance. But screenwriters Aldous Huxley, Helen Jerome and Jane Muffin failed to do justice to Charlotte’s character or her friendship with Elizabeth.
Despite these disappointments, I managed to enjoy “PRIDE AND PREJUDICE” as much as ever. A good deal of Austen’s words and wit remained in the screenplay. And the screenwriters also added some of their own memorable lines that left me laughing aloud. After my recent viewing of the movie, I believe this “PRIDE AND PREJUDICE” is one of the funniest Austen adaptations I have ever seen. Director Robert Z. Leonard has been nominated for a Best Director Academy Award at least twice in his career – for 1930’s “THE DIVORCEE” and 1936’s “THE GREAT ZIEGFIELD”. It seems a pity that he was never nominated for “PRIDE AND PREJUDICE”, because I believe that he did an excellent job of injecting a great deal of atmosphere, humor and zest into the film. And his pacing of the film is top-notch. Not once did I ever have the inclination to fall asleep, while watching it.
While many Austen fans were busy bemoaning that the movie was not completely faithful to the novel, I was too busy enjoying it. And if I must be brutally honest, there was one major change to Austen’s story that really impressed me. At the Netherfield Fête, Elizabeth began to show signs of warming up to Mr. Darcy, following her demonstration of her prowess as an archer. But when he noticed the less pleasant sides of the Bennet family, Mr. Darcy withdrew himself from Elizabeth, deepening her dislike toward him even further. This was a creation of the screenwriters and to my surprise, I ended up enjoying it.
As I had hinted earlier, I found it to be one of the funniest adaptations I have ever seen. There were so many scenes that either had me laughing on the floor or smirking (with delight). Some of them included the Bennet family’s introduction to Mr. Collins, poor Mary Bennet’s attempt to entertain the guests at the Netherfield Fête, Mrs. Bennet and Lady Lucas’ race to reach their respective homes in order to order their husbands to call upon Charles Bingley, Elizabeth’s first meeting with George Wickham at the Meryton Assembly, and Caroline Bingley’s attempt to express interest in Mr. Darcy’s letter to his sister Georgiana. But the few scenes that I consider my personal favorites were the interaction between Elizabeth and Mr. Darcy during a game of archery, Mr. Collins’ marriage proposal to Elizabeth and the dinner sequence at Rosings with the verbose Lady Catherine de Bourgh.
I tried to find a performance that seemed out of step for me. The only one that left me feeling less than satisfied came from Karen Morely, who portrayed Charlotte Lucas. Her Charlotte seemed to fade into the background, in compare to the other characters. I suspect that the problem had more to do with Huxley, Jerome and Muffin’s screenplay than the actress’ performance. But everyone else seemed to be at the top of their game. Both Ann Rutherford and Heather Angel were outrageously silly as the younger Bennet sisters. Marsha Hunt was hilarious as the Bennet family’s wallflower, Mary. Bruce Lester was charming as the extroverted Charles Bingley. He also made a strong screen chemistry with Maureen O’Sullivan, who was equally charming as the eldest Bennet sibling, Jane. Frieda Inescort was both convincingly cool and sometimes rather funny as the imperious and ambitious Caroline Bingley. Edward Ashley Cooper gave what I believe to be the second best portrayal of the roguish George Wickham. He was charming, smooth and insidious. And Edmund Gwenn gave a subtle, yet witty performance as the quietly sarcastic Mr. Bennet.
However, there were five performances that really impressed me. One came from Melville Cooper, who had me laughing so hard, thanks to his hilarious portrayed the obsequious William Collins, Mr. Bennet’s annoying heir presumptive for the Longbourn estate. Equally funny was the unforgettable character actress, Edna May Oliver as Mr. Darcy’s overbearing aunt, Lady Catherine de Bourgh. Her role as an English aristocrat seemed so convincing that I was amazed to discover that she was an American from Massachusetts. Mary Boland gave a superb and entertaining performance as the equally overbearing and gauche Mrs. Bennet. In fact, I have to say that her portrayal of Mrs. Bennet is my absolute favorite. My God . . . that voice! She really knew how to put it to good use. Fresh from his success in 1939’s “WUTHERING HEIGHTS”, Laurence Olivier tackled the role of Fitzwilliam Darcy, regarded as the favorite Austen hero by many fans. Personally, I thought he did an excellent job, although his Darcy never struck me as haughty as the other interpretations I have seen. From what I have heard, he was not that fond of the picture or his role. I was also amazed that he had such a strong screen chemistry with his leading lady, considering that he thought she was wrong for the part. Olivier had this to say in his autobiography:
“I was very unhappy with the picture. It was difficult to make Darcy into anything more than an unattractive-looking prig, and darling Greer seemed to me all wrong as Elizabeth.”
I thought it was nice of Olivier to call Greer Garson “darling”. But I do not think I can take his comments about her performance that seriously . . . especially since he wanted Vivien Leigh – his paramour at the time and soon-to-be future wife to portray Elizabeth. Personally, I am glad that Garson ended up portraying Elizabeth. I thought she was superb. Garson had a deliciously sly wit that she put to good use in her performance . . . more so than any other actress I have seen in this role. Some have commented that in her mid-thirties, she was too old to portray Elizabeth. Perhaps. But Garson did such an excellent job of conveying Elizabeth’s immaturities – especially when it came to passing judgment on Mr. Darcy that I never gave her age any thought. All I can say is that she was brilliant and I heartily disagree with Olivier.
Many fans have commented upon Adrian’s costume designs for “PRIDE AND PREJUDICE”. They seemed to have taken umbrage that he designed the costumes from the late Georgian Era – namely the late 1820s or early 1830s, claiming that Austen’s story should have been set during the Regency Era. However, Austen first wrote the novel in the late 1790s. And she did not change it that much before it was finally published in 1813. There was no law that “PRIDE AND PREJUDICE” had to be set in the 1810s – especially when one considers there was a version set in early 21st century India. Personally, I found Adrian’s costumes beautiful, even if they were filmed in black-and-white. And since “PRIDE AND PREJUDICE” was not a historical drama, I simply do not understand the fuss.
After reading so many negative comments about “PRIDE AND PREJUDICE” in recent years, I wondered how I react to watching it again after so many years. To my surprise, I discovered that I still love it. Even after so many years. I admit that it is not perfect. But neither are the other versions I have seen. The magic of Greer Garson, Laurence Olivier and director Robert Z. Leonard still holds up after so many years.