Pride and Prejudice (1940)
MGM’s 1940 version of Pride and Prejudice was the first feature film of a Jane Austen novel, though it was certainly not the last. But this was not the first time that Pride and Prejudice had been filmed–that honor goes to a British television production from 1938. But, as TCM notes, so few people had television sets back then that the audience was probably minuscule.
Austen’s novel Pride and Prejudice was published anonymously (a common practice) in 1813, though it was written in 1796-1797, and heavily revised in 1811-12. It was her second novel after 1811’s Sense and Sensibility, and was an immediate success. Shortly after Pride and Prejudice, Austen’s publisher brought out Mansfield Park in 1814 and Emma a year later. Austen passed away in July 1817, but her brother and sister arranged to have Northanger Abbey and Persuasion published as a set that December. It was only after her death that her identity as author of the six popular novels was revealed.
Jane Austen is one of my favorite authors, and Pride and Prejudice is my favorite of her novels (though Persuasion grows on me every time I read it.) I’ve watched most of the adaptations, and the first time I saw MGM’s 1940 version, I found it fairly ridiculous. But I like it more and more, once I get over the altered setting and some of the more glaring changes. I will try not to spend the whole post comparing the novel to the film, though that will occasionally sneak in!
One reason I’m going to try to contain the comparisons is that I want to give this movie a fair reading, and also try to put myself in the original audience’s shoes. It’s important to remember that when this movie was released, Austen was not as beloved as she is now (the millions of BBC adaptations, Clueless, Colin Firth as Darcy, and Bridget Jones’ Diary were decades in the future), and Austen wasn’t a fixture in schools and universities. So audiences who saw this movie in 1940 may have been seeing the story for the first time; the changes wouldn’t have bothered them!
Anyway, most movies have a circuitous path to the screen, but this one is even squirrell-ier than normal. This Pride and Prejudice was based on Helen Jerome’s 1935 play, which ran for 219 performances on Broadway in 1939. Jerome specialized in adapting classics to the stage, and she’d written a popular play of Jane Eyre a few years earlier. That play had toured with Katharine Hepburn as Jane in 1936-37!
Irving Thalberg, MGM’s production chief, bought the rights to Jerome’s Pride and Prejudice in 1936 for $50,000, despite the fact that Austen’s novel was in the public domain and MGM could have made a movie of it for free! But Thalberg worried that Austen’s novel was too old and too little known, so he opted to have Jerome’s name and her well-received adaptation on his side. Plus, Thalberg wanted the movie to star his wife, MGM star Norma Shearer, so he wasn’t going to take any chances.
MGM began preliminary work on the film and announced that Shearer would star opposite Clark Gable. But then Thalberg decided that his wife would be better suited to Romeo and Juliet (1936), and put Pride and Prejudice on hold until she’d finished that film. (Thalberg was right: Shearer was nominated for a Best Actress Oscar for her performance as Juliet.)
When Thalberg died in September 1936, this project remained in limbo until a year later, when reports surfaced of MGM attempting to borrow Errol Flynn from Warner Bros to star opposite Shearer. That plan fell through, though, and over the next few years, MGM seemed to struggle with the property. The studio assigned nine different screenwriters to work on Jerome’s play before hiring Jane Murfin. She was a playwright and Oscar-nominated screenwriter (for What Price Hollywood? (1932) with Adela Rogers St. Johns) who worked on Alice Adams (1935) and The Women (1939.)
He would later work on Madame Curie (1943), which also starred Greer Garson, and Jane Eyre (1944). He recognized the struggle of bringing Austen’s great work to the screen, writing that it was “an odd, crossword puzzle job. One tries to do one’s best for Jane Austen, but actually the very fact of transforming the book into a picture must necessarily alter its whole quality in a profound way.”
Despite Huxley’s misgivings, he and Murfin’s script was okayed by the studio and plans for the movie were put in motion once again. In late summer 1939, MGM assigned director George Cukor and Robert Donat (though Robert Taylor and Melvyn Douglas were also reportedly considered), and the patient Ms. Shearer to the project, and announced that the movie would be filmed in England. But then September rolled around, and any plans to make movies in Europe were scuttled by WWII. As MGM scrambled to close its studios in England, they had to replace Cukor with longtime director Robert Z. Leonard because Cukor was due to direct Susan and God (1940).
Meanwhile, Shearer moved on to other projects, and Gable also lost interest, though MGM toyed with the idea of pairing Vivien Leigh and Gable in this movie after their huge success in Gone with the Wind (1939).
The rumors of Leigh’s casting helped get Laurence Olivier, who’d just had big successes with Wuthering Heights (1939) and Rebecca (1940), interested in the role of Darcy. He and Leigh had been romantically involved since 1936, despite the fact that both were married to other people. (They would get divorces and marry each other in August 1940 a few months after production on Pride and Prejudice wrapped.)
Unfortunately for Olivier, their affair made MGM nervous, and studio head L.B. Mayer decided not to cast the two in Pride and Prejudice because he was afraid of negative publicity harming the film should their affair come out.
So Leigh was cast in Waterloo Bridge (1940), and Olivier had to make do with Pride and Prejudice, though he was not happy about it. He was disappointed again when Cukor left the film, as he’d hoped to work with that director. And he received another blow when MGM cast Greer Garson opposite him. (All of this casting drama and changing crew is by no means unusual. In fact, it’s rare when movies are made with their “original” casts and directors! )
Garson wasn’t new to Olivier, though. In fact, they’d worked together twice before: once as the stars of a BBC TV production of Romeo and Juliet, and once in a 1935 play called Golden Arrow, which Olivier had produced and directed. Olivier thought she was a great actress, but all wrong for Pride and Prejudice.
But MGM didn’t listen to Olivier and cast her anyway, despite the fact that at 36-years-old, she was about sixteen years past Miss Elizabeth Bennet’s age in the novel. Plus, she radiated maturity, fortitude and common sense in her very bearing and manner (she is Mrs. Miniver!), and when she tries to sparkle with mischief like Elizabeth Bennet, it comes off as slightly forced.
Anyway, after four years of behind the scenes drama, production began in January 1940. The film opens in Meryton where the eldest Bennet girls, Jane (Maureen O’Sullivan) and Elizabeth “Lizzy” (Greer Garson) are shopping for new gowns with their mother.
Fun fact: the street we see from the window of the shop is MGM’s versatile backlot set known as “Quality Street.” It was built for a 1927 film of that name but turns up in lots of movies set in various time periods in vague European towns. For example, you can see it in The Three Musketeers (1948) as part of Paris.
Jane and Lizzy are pretty and bubbly and engrossed in muslins and silks until a fancy carriage pulls up outside with three very fancy occupants.
Town gossip reveals that it’s Mr. Darcy (very, very rich) with his friends Mr. Bingley (just very rich) and his sister, Miss Bingley (no second Bingley sister in this adaptation). Mr. Bingley has rented Netherfield Park, a large estate nearby.
Mrs. Bennet (Mary Boland) begins making vague plans immediately to ensure that her five daughters have a shot at the very eligible bachelors. But she has competition. Lady Lucas (Marjorie Wood) and her daughter Charlotte (Karen Morley) are also interested in these new rich men.
But Mrs. Bennet isn’t too worried. Apparently, it’s an accepted fact that Charlotte Lucas is a real uggo, despite her obvious beauty! Lady Lucas even says in this scene: “You may not have beauty, my love, but you have character!” Yikes! Also, don’t Lady Lucas and Mrs. Bennet look like overgrown Munchkins from The Wizard of Oz in those cartoonish bonnets? You can watch the opening scene here.
Mrs. Bennet is in a hurry to rush home and ask her husband to call on Mr. Bingley (only after that introduction has been made can the ladies meet him.) So she and her daughters scurry away to collect the other three Bennet girls. We learn that Lydia and Kitty are very silly, brash, and boy-crazy, and Mary is a humorless bookworm.
One of the first things you might notice about this movie is that the original setting of the novel in the late 18th/early 19th century has been zoomed forward a few decades. The costumes are very 1830s-1840s Victorian, not the simpler, Regency style you’ll see in more faithful versions of Austen’s work. For instance, here are the Bennet sisters in the 1995 BBC Pride and Prejudice.
MGM changed the setting mostly for visual reasons. The studio was afraid that the “nightgown” look of the Regency Period with the straight skirts and Empire waists would bore 1940s audiences. The huge skirts and sleeves of the Victorian era were considered much more exciting and romantic–plus, it allowed MGM to use some of the Civil War-era costumes from Gone with the Wind on extras!
But Marsha Hunt, who plays Mary in this movie, remembered that it was difficult to move around in the huge skirts, especially in the small bathroom stalls on MGM’s soundstages!
Adrian, MGM’s famed costume designer, took charge of the women’s costumes for this film, and Gile Steele designed the men’s. I would have expected Walter Plunkett, who specialized in period films, to design the women’s gowns, but perhaps he was too tired from Gone with the Wind (1939)!
Anyway, as I mentioned, I don’t want this post to turn into a “This is different in the movie vs. the novel” but I will point out some of the major changes and the major similarities because I think adaptations can be fascinating windows into the time in which they were made. What a film chooses to keep or change can tell us a lot about that particular era. For example, MGM clearly privileged the “look” of the movie over accuracy in setting, whereas more recent filmed versions privilege “realism” over glamour.
When Mrs. Bennet returns home after a carriage race with Lady Lucas (yup), she tells Mr. Bennet (Edmund Gwenn) about Mr. Bingley in a scene lifted almost straight from the book, including some lines of dialogue. We learn about the entail on Mr. Bennet’s estate, Longbourn: it cannot be left to a girl, and since Mr. Bennet has no sons, the estate will go to the nearest male relative when Mr. Bennet dies.
This puts his daughters in a pickle; the family isn’t rich anyway, so Mr. Bennet can’t give his daughters good dowries to entice husbands, and because of the entail they can’t be promised much on his death, either.
That’s why Mrs. Bennet is so marriage-crazy. People make fun of silly Mrs. Bennet for her mercenary attitude towards marriage, but what is she supposed to do? If her daughters don’t make good matches, they will be thrown out of the house with nothing when their father dies. She’s looking out for her family the only way she can.
Anyway, the ladies head to the Assembly Ball where they hope to meet the Netherfield Park gang. But first, Lizzy is introduced to Lydia’s favorite soldier, Mr. Wickham. He’s very charming!
Mr. Bingley (Bruce Lester), Mr. Darcy (Laurence Olivier), and Miss Bingley (Frieda Inescort) finally arrive. Miss Bingley sports a rather daring, spangled dress and matching cloak. Very sophisticated.
Mr. Bingley is immediately entranced by Jane, who is renowned for her beauty and goodness. But Mr. Darcy and Miss Bingley are proud and haughty, and they refuse to dance with anyone besides themselves.
So Lizzy dances with Wickham (Edward Ashley), and seems quite taken with the young man. There is some lovely swooping camera work that follows the three couples across the dance floor.
In this adaptation, Lizzy is clever, as she is in the novel, and a little sarcastic and witty. But she’s also very detached–as though nothing really matters, hurts, or delights her. Some of it is Garson’s age; she seems way too mature and not quite sparkly or engaging enough. But Garson also plays Lizzy as awfully arch and above it all in a way that I don’t think captures the great, somewhat subversive heroine of Austen’s novel.
Anyway, we get that great scene when Darcy insults everyone at the ball and particularly Lizzy for not being pretty enough to tempt him to dance. He doesn’t know that she hears him, but it sets Lizzy firmly against him. She thinks that he’s the proudest, most insufferable man she’s ever met.
You can watch it here:
What’s strange though, is that about two minutes after Darcy says these mean things about Lizzy, he seeks her out and asks her to dance! She refuses him–he’s stunned! His night gets worse though, because then Lizzy introduces him to Mr. Wickham. They’ve met before, but Darcy refuses to acknowledge the soldier. Interesting…
After Darcy leaves, Wickham tells Lizzy his sad tale of being the beloved son of Mr. Darcy’s father’s steward, and being included in the elder Mr. Darcy’s will. But the current Mr. Darcy refused to acknowledge his father’s wishes towards Mr. Wickham, and instead cast him out to make his own way in the world. Shocking! Lizzy hates Darcy even more, now. You can watch the scene here.
A few days after the ball, Jane is invited to Netherfield by Miss Bingley. Mrs. Bennet makes sure to send her on horseback because the skies threaten rain, and hopefully Jane will be forced to extend her stay! Clever lady.
It does rain, but Jane gets sick and has to stay at Netherfield for about a week. Lizzy hurries over on foot to help her sister, and she astounds the Netherfield gang with her muddy petticoat and “presumption” in coming all that way, alone and uninvited. But Mr. Darcy doesn’t seem to mind…though we don’t get the famous “fine eyes” line, which I miss.
Lizzy nurses Jane and then joins the others in the evening. Miss Bingley displays clear disdain for Lizzy, and also jealousy in the attentions that Darcy pays the newcomer. But Lizzy faces down Miss Bingley’s rude nonsense like a champ. It helps that she doesn’t desire Mr. Darcy’s attentions nor enjoy them when they come. You can watch the scene here.
I’ve already criticized Garson’s Lizzy, so now I’ll have a go at Olivier’s Darcy! The Darcy in the novel is handsome, masculine, a little forbidding, proud, and a little shy. He doesn’t talk very much but he’s very smart and he has a sense of humor. There’s tumultuous passion just below the refined surface.
Olivier’s Darcy is a fop, a dandy, with effeminate gestures, a soft voice, and a confusing character. Some of that last one is due to the script: why does he ask Elizabeth to dance a moment after saying he didn’t want to, for example? But a lot of it is due to Olivier’s performance. He’s just not distinguished or forbidding enough! No volcano hiding beneath a calm surface, just a peevish, affected man who can’t figure out what he wants. With a very distracting hairstyle with little curls above his ears.
Olivier admitted that he struggled with the role. (I don’t know why he didn’t just repeat his stern performance as Maxim de Winter from Rebecca!) In his autobiography, he wrote: “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.”
Plus, he wasn’t that committed to this film. He had very low hopes for its success because it was missing what he thought were important scenes, and it seemed that MGM was more focused on the costumes than on the acting.
It’s perhaps no surprise, then, that Olivier spent his time thinking about another project instead of the movie he was shooting! During the making of Pride and Prejudice, he was planning a stage production of Romeo and Juliet that would finally allow him to star opposite Vivien Leigh. He apparently spent all of his free time on the set of this film working out the set design, blocking, lighting, and even composing music for the play! He hoped to eventually turn the play into a film with Leigh, but it failed both critically and commercially, so he had to scrap his movie plans.
Back to the film! Jane recovers and comes home just in time to meet their cousin, Mr. Collins (Melville Cooper), the heir to Longbourn. He is a clergyman, though his job was downplayed in this movie quite a bit to avoid the Production Code’s rule against negative portrayals of religious personnel.
Mr. Collins has come to Longbourn to choose a wife from Mr. Bennet’s daughters, which is actually a nice idea. He’s trying to make up for the “injustice” of the entail: he will inherit their father’s estate, but he wants to marry one of the girls and thus provide for the family that way. But he’s also a ridiculous, silly, stupid man, so he’s not a catch. Unfortunately for Lizzy, he chooses her as his object.
That’s Lydia (Ann Rutherford) on the left in the top center box with Kitty (Heather Angel), and Mary (Marsha Hunt) below. You can watch the scene here.
Anyway, soon after Mr. Collins’ arrival, the family heads to Netherfield for a garden party, not the ball that happens in the book. In fact, it’s closer to the picnic that opens Gone with the Wind than anything Austen wrote about. Lydia and Kitty even enjoy some giant swings on the lawn!
Mr. Darcy patronizingly shows Lizzy the basics of archery, not knowing that she is a master. They seem to have a nice time, though.
What’s stranger than this added archery interlude is that Mr. Wickham has basically disappeared from the movie. Lizzy seems to have forgotten about him, and so has the audience. But in the book she is close to falling in love with him.
Another difference is due to the lush costumes. They backfire because we don’t get a good visual picture of the Bennet’s financial situation. The Bennets are definitely on the lower end of the landed gentry spectrum, with Bingley and Darcy far above them (Bingley makes 5,000 pounds a year and Darcy can expect 10,000).
To compare, the girls can only expect a few dozen pounds a year. But you’d never know it from the costumes! Remember the opening scenes when Jane and Lizzy peruse fine silks and muslins at the dress shop? They never discuss expense, and throughout the movie the Bennet sisters have lots of beautiful dresses. They don’t dress that differently from Miss Bingley, for example, though they should. Their clothes should be slightly shabby and much simpler than hers, though we don’t get that from this film. And without that visual reminder, the Bennet girls’ rather urgent need to marry, and marry well, gets lost.
Anyway, Darcy and Lizzy seem close to becoming friends at the party until he watches her sisters embarrass themselves (Mary by singing, Lydia and Kitty by getting drunk with the soldiers), and then he overhears Mrs. Bennet boasting about Jane marrying Mr. Bingley, which will throw her daughters into the paths of other rich men. It’s not a great display by the Bennet family.
Lizzy endures further humiliation when Mr. Collins proposes soon after the garden party. He doesn’t take her immediate refusal very seriously. But Lizzy stands firm, even when her mother begs her to accept Mr. Collins. Fortunately, her father backs her up.
It’s only the first of the bad news: a letter arrives for Jane from Miss Bingley informing her that the whole Netherfield gang has left for London with no plans to return. Jane is heartbroken at Mr. Bingley’s abrupt departure. And Mrs. Bennet is distraught–all her grand plans have crumbled!
Mr. Wickham arrives at that moment and tells Lizzy more about his tragic backstory with Mr. Darcy. It’s a little odd of Wickham to only give the details once Mr. Darcy has returned to London, though…
The hits keep coming: Mr. Collins returns to Longbourn with Lizzy’s best friend, Charlotte Lucas, and announces that they are going to be married! Apparently he ran straight from Lizzy to Charlotte, and she has given him a more favorable answer.
In the book, we get a sad but very practical explanation of Charlotte’s decision. She is not particularly beautiful nor wealthy, she’s getting older, and Mr. Collins might be the only chance she’ll ever have of leaving her parents and running her own household. That independence is more valuable to her than the inevitable aggravations she’ll endure by being married to Mr. Collins.
Although it’s certainly not a romantic choice, we can applaud rational Charlotte’s actions because she will be getting (most) of what she wants in the only way she can. But we miss most of that in the movie, as well as Austen’s brilliant social satire of the system that makes Charlotte marry a horrible man like Mr. Collins just to live a relatively independent life.
After this startling announcement, the movie cuts to Lizzy visiting the newlyweds in Huntsford. The parsonage is next to the grand estate of Rosings, Lady Catherine de Bourgh’s grand old pile.
Lady Catherine (Edna May Oliver) is Mr. Collins’ patron (the landed gentry appointed clergymen to the parishes under their control), and she invites the parson, his wife, and his visitor to dinner.
Lady Catherine is Mr. Darcy’s aunt, so it’s not a huge surprise when Mr. Darcy walks in, though Lizzy certainly wasn’t expecting to see him.
Doesn’t Lizzy’s dress look like the famous The King and I (1956) ballgown?
Anyway, Darcy and Lizzy seem to have a pleasant time together despite Lady Catherine’s repeated attempts to call Darcy’s attention to her sickly daughter. She is hoping the cousins will marry and thus unite the Darcy and de Bourgh estates and fortunes.
After the evening at Rosings, Lizzy learns that Mr. Darcy was the one who pushed the Bingleys to leave Netherfield Park and discouraged Mr. Bingley’s interest in Jane. She is disgusted and upset when she returns to the Collins’ house, but surprise–Mr. Darcy is waiting to talk to her! Not great timing, especially because he has finally decided to propose to her! He’s been in love with her for weeks even though her family is ridiculous, poor, and embarrassing. Unfortunately, he chooses to tell Lizzy how hard he has fought not to love her for those very reasons, which doesn’t leave her inclined to be nice to him!
She tells him that not only is he proud, disagreeable, and cruel, but she could never marry the man who has ruined Jane’s happiness and destroyed Mr. Wickham’s life! He is horrified to learn that she has such a low opinion of him, as he assumed she’d be absolutely tickled by his proposal!
I find this whole scene unsatisfactory because Darcy is so low-key about it. He says that he’s overwhelmed by his passion and love, but he’s so calm and foppish! Usually this is a powerful scene because Darcy is the strong, silent type, and when he finally does tell Lizzy how he feels, you can see his inner turmoil, and it’s quite moving. But not in this version. Darcy seems just as cool and collected as he always is.
Anyway, eventually he leaves. Lizzy feels very confused, but at least she looks pretty in her polka dot gown!
In the novel, the next day Mr. Darcy brings Lizzy a letter explaining his actions (he didn’t think Jane really loved Bingley, Wickham is a terrible man who has thrown away the bequest Darcy did give him on women, gambling, and other unsavory pursuits. Plus, he tried to get Darcy’s fifteen-year-old sister to elope with him so he could get his hands on her fortune.) So Lizzy begins to think differently of Mr. Darcy.
But we don’t get that in the movie. Instead, Lizzy returns home almost immediately after Darcy’s proposal and gets some terrible news: Lydia and Wickham have run away together, but instead of getting married, they’ve disappeared. This is horrible because it means Lydia is now a “tarnished” woman and the whole Bennet family will be included in her disgrace.
If you know the novel, you might be thinking, “WHAT??” Where is Lizzy’s trip with her aunt and uncle? Where is the crucial section where they visit Pemberley, Mr. Darcy’s estate? It’s there that Lizzy witnesses his much improved behavior, and begins to appreciate his excellent qualities. That visit causes her to start falling in love, but we miss all of it in the movie. Also, Lizzy was supposed to hear the news about Wickham and Lydia when she was near Pemberley, which allowed Mr. Darcy to hear of it immediately and spring into action.
The movie changes it by having Mr. Darcy come to Longbourn to tell Lizzy about Wickham’s past with his sister and ask if he can help in any way. The stupid girl tells him, “No, thanks,” so the stupid man leaves!
And she’s sad about it, because she has started to like him, and perhaps regret refusing his proposal. She even tells Jane that she loves him! (But why? Without the Pemberley scene it makes no sense!)
Anyway, Mr. Bennet searches for Lydia in vain. Eventually, Mr. Darcy hears that Lydia and Wickham are still on the loose, so he goes after them himself. Finally! In the book, he goes to London as soon as he hears the news, which is much more heroic.
Meanwhile, the Bennet family has decided to leave Longbourn. The disgrace is too much, so they are hoping a fresh start will mitigate the damage that Lydia and Wickham have brought down on the family. The house is nearly packed up when Lydia and Wickham arrive and announce that they are married! They seem clueless about the harm their “living in sin” has caused. But the family is saved! They don’t have to leave their home.
Lizzy finds out that Wickham only married Lydia because he unexpectedly “inherited” a fortune that made her paltry dowry inconsequential. But that seems awfully strange! Lizzy is suspicious.
Then Lady Catherine shows up to talk to Lizzy. She has heard rumors that her nephew wants to marry her, and she wants Lizzy to know that it is a horrible idea and she will never accept it. Lizzy refuses to promise never to marry Darcy, so Lady Catherine retreats in a huff. Or does she…?
Darcy is waiting in the carriage outside, and we learn (to our utter shock if we’ve read the book) that Lady Catherine was his spy sent to find out how Lizzy feels about him. She gives Darcy the go-ahead, telling him cheerfully that “She’s right for you, Darcy.” But in the novel, she remains dead set against the match until long afterwards. Fun fact: this was Edna May Oliver’s penultimate film appearance. She made Lydia (1941) before retiring from the screen.
In flies Mr. Darcy. He and Lizzy go for a walk in the garden and see Bingley propose to Jane. Darcy arranged it.
Then Lizzy confirms her suspicions about the convenient fortune that Wickham “inherited;” Darcy admits that he found the pair and paid Wickham off. Lizzy now believes that Darcy is the most wonderful man she’s ever known, and it’s happily ever after for the originally mismatched pair!
But it’s one of the most awkward onscreen kisses I’ve ever seen. Both of them try to put their arms around the other’s shoulders, so Garson’s arm gets squished. Why didn’t they film another take?
Anyway, it appears that the other two daughters have suitors of their own! Mrs. Bennet can stop worrying! The End!
Pride and Prejudice was in production from late January through early April 1940, and premiered quite soon after on July 26. It was a hit, and set a record for weekly attendance for August at Radio City Music Hall. It caused a spike in interest in Jane Austen, too. MGM was an expert at marketing, and five different editions of the novel, including a 25 cent paperback, were printed to coincide with the film’s release. There would be 21 printings of the novel by 1948, thanks in large part to this movie that brought Austen to the masses.
This film also helped make classic literature a more popular screen subject. Audiences enjoyed this movie, and critics were mostly friendly, too. Studios might have been wary of tackling classic literature, but this movie showed that it could be done, and done profitably (even if it butchered some elements). It seems obvious now that Austen’s novels make good onscreen entertainment, but remember that this was the first feature film adaptation of her work!
Bosley Crowther of The New York Times “proclaimed” this movie, “the most deliciously pert comedy of old manners, the most crisp and crackling satire in costume that we in this corner can remember ever having seen on the screen.”
He goes on to explain who Jane Austen was, which is something that current reviews of filmed adaptations don’t need to do, noting that, “Jane Austen, who wrote the story away back at the turn of the nineteenth century, was an independent miss with a quick and affectionate eye for the nice little foibles and follies of her frivolous age…And she had an incomparable wit and a facility with the pen to put down all she saw and felt in one of the most delightful of English novels.”
Crowther praised MGM’s adaptation, writing that “Hunt Stromberg and his associates have managed to turn out a film which catches the spirit and humor of Miss Austen’s novel down to the last impudent flounce of a petticoat, the last contented sigh of a conquering coquette.” He concludes that
The whole thing has been accomplished through a steady flow of superlative wit—most of it out of the novel and some of it supplied by Aldous Huxley and Jane Murfin—which puts a snapper on almost every scene; and also through a consistently artful inventiveness of detail and a keen appreciation of the subtleties of Miss Austen’s characters.
It isn’t often that a cast of such uniform perfection is assembled. Greer Garson is Elizabeth—”dear, beautiful Lizzie”—stepped right out of the book, or rather out of one’s fondest imagination: poised, graceful, self-contained, witty, spasmodically stubborn and as lovely as a woman can be. Laurence Olivier is Darcy, that’s all there is to it—the arrogant, sardonic Darcy whose pride went before a most felicitous fall.
I must disagree with the casting praise, and with the end of Crowther’s overly positive review: “Pictures played in costume often have an artificial air. But for pure charm and romantic diversion, for bubbling and wholesome life, we most heartily recommend this exquisite comedy about the elegant young gentleman who was proud and the beautiful young lady who was prejudiced. Both are as real as any two young people you know today.”
This movie seems very artificial, but I don’t know how much of that comes from the mismatches between the novel and the film (particularly the setting and missing scenes) and how much of it is from the movie itself. As I noted, I’m a Jane Austen nerd so I’m harder on adaptations than the average bear. But I miss the sharp satire, Regency setting, and smart, feisty Elizabeth Bennet. And I think Olivier plays Darcy all wrong.
Even though this isn’t my favorite Pride and Prejudice, I think it’s fascinating because it tells us what MGM thought their audience wanted from Austen’s novel in 1940 (a charming romantic comedy that looked a little like Gone with the Wind). Austen’s highly specific social satire and the novel’s strong anxiety over class, wealth, reputation, marriage, and appearances is minimized or excised completely. Also, the details about why Wickham is so terrible, why it’s such a big deal for Darcy to fall in love with a woman like Elizabeth, and why the marriages matter so much in the first place are downplayed. They’re replaced by a charming, light comedy of manners in a much less rigid social structure, with huge dresses and very pretty, very clean people and places.
Compare it to 2005’s Pride and Prejudice, which revels in the dirt (both literal and figurative) as it tells the same story. The characters in that film aren’t perfectly put together, and they don’t look as though they spent hours in the hair and makeup chair. Of course, it may have taken hours in the makeup chair to get that sweaty, got-dressed-by-candelight-look, but they were definitely aiming for a different aesthetic than the glamorous, antebellum beauties of the 1940 version with every curl in place.
The 1940 version won an Oscar for Best Art Direction (Black and White), and also rocketed Greer Garson to fame. She would win an Oscar for the classic WWII drama Mrs. Miniver (1942), and would play other “great ladies” during the decade. In fact, she gained such a reputation for prestige dramas and biopics like Madame Curie (1943) that Kay Thompson and Roger Edens, songwriters and arrangers at MGM, wrote a comic musical number called “The Great Lady has an Interview.” They hoped that Garson would perform the spoof in Ziegfeld Follies (1946) but Garson and her husband did not find the parody amusing. So Judy Garland performed it, instead.
Speaking of musicals, Hollywood Reporter wrote in October 1947 that Arthur Freed, a top musical producer at MGM, was planning a musical version of Pride and Prejudice. Unfortunately, it never materialized.
Pride and Prejudice marked a rise in Garson’s Hollywood career, but the end of Olivier’s, at least for a decade. He’d been in Hollywood for about two years, but in 1941 he and Vivien Leigh went back to England to stage their ill-fated production of Romeo and Juliet. He wouldn’t return until 1952’s Carrie.