Pride & Prejudice (1940)

  • Director: Robert Z. Leonard
  • Rating: R
  • Starring: Greer Garson, Laurence Olivier, Edward Ashley
  • Screenplay: Aldous Huxley, Jane Murfin, Helen Jerome
  • Based on the Novel By: Jane Austen
  • Music By: Herbert Stothart
  • Cinematography: Karl Freund
  • Running Time: 118 Minutes
  • Premiered: July 26, 1940
  • DVD Release: October 10, 2006

Plot Summary: Mr. and Mrs. Bennet have five unmarried daughters, and Mrs. Bennet is especially eager to find suitable husbands for them. When the rich single gentlemen Mr. Bingley and Mr. Darcy come to live nearby, the Bennets have high hopes. But pride, prejudice, and misunderstandings all combine to complicate their relationships and to make happiness difficult. (From IMDb)

Review:  This was the first movie adaptation of Pride and Prejudice that I ever saw. I remember thinking that Laurence Olivier made a dashing Mr. Darcy, but the rest remained hazy until the second viewing.  Unlike modern adaptations that only tinker with small parts of the story, this adaptation almost rewrites the entire narrative. Released in 1940, this version is a grand MGM production done in the Golden Era of Hollywood style. It is actually based on Helen Jerome’s 1936 stage adaptation, not the book. Instead of a subtle examination of class and social standing, this version re-imagines Pride and Prejudice as a rollicking comedy of manners. For instance, the ad campaign for the film declared: “Bachelors beware! Five gorgeous beauties are on a madcap manhunt!”

At just under two hours, this is one of the shortest running adaptations. In order to keep it this short, the plot was radically simplified. Caroline Bingley barely appears, there are no Mr and Mrs Gardner, and no Georgianna. Instead of including these characters, the filmmakers added in some rather unnecessary scenes that do nothing to drive the plot forward. For instance, there is a completely unnecessary carriage racing scene between the Lucas and Bennet family to see who gets the privilege of visiting Mr. Bingley first. Even though none of the characters would have actually acted in that manner. In order to make up for the time lost with the frantic carriage race, the director compresses as many events as possible into one long running scene that all take place in the Bennet’s parlor room. It results in a slightly dizzying revolving door of characters and dialogue; which all results in a slightly panicked pace.

The film opens with Mrs. Bennet, Jane and Elizabeth picking out fabric for new evening gowns. They look out the shop window and see a fine carriage drive past carrying the new inhabitants of Netherfield. Mrs. Bennet wastes little time in finding whether or not the two gentlemen are married. Then, she and Lady Lucas have the carriage race to see who can nag their husbands into calling at Netherfield first.

At the Assembly Ball Elizabeth has her first meet and flirt session with the dashing Wickham. This comes after an obscenely haughty Darcy denigrates the assembly and then reluctantly asks her to dance. Further compression occurs when the Netherfield Ball becomes an afternoon garden party. Jane’s trip to London is completely removed. Then there is a rather disconcerting part where Mr. Collins proposes to Elizabeth and then the film fasts forwards to Elizabeth traveling to visit Mr. Collins and his new wife, Charlotte.

Elizabeth’s Lake Country trip with the Gardners is completely eliminated. Georgiana never appears. And Elizabeth learns of Wickham’s true past after Darcy appears at Longbourne to offer to help find Lydia. Once he leaves, Elizabeth confesses Jane that Darcy had proposed and admits she loves him. A lengthy amount of time elapses before Lydia and Wickham are found. During this span of time the Bennet’s were preparing to move to another part of the country in order to escape the condemnation being rained down upon them due to Lydia’s behavior. Then, in the most blatant re-write of all, Lady Catherine shows up at Longbourne only minutes after the Wickhams to rake Elizabeth over the coals. She then diverges radically from the novel and becomes Darcy’s co-conspirator by putting Elizabeth to the test and seeing if she truly loves Darcy for more than his month. Of course Elizabeth passes with flying colors, they dare not rewrite the actual ending, and Darcy and Bingley propose to their prospective heroines.

And then there is the other glaring problem of all the historical anachronisms. The costumes are from a period about 40 years after the time period of the novel. All the costumes are from the late 1830s, but at least they are consistently wrong throughout the whole movie. Apparently the costume director did not want to have to make new costumes and just wanted to reuse all the ball gowns from a previous film. Hence, this version of the Pride and Prejudice is set in a weird time period where all the clothing is from the 1830s and the mannerisms are from the turn of the century. The director decided to match the dances to the dresses and threw in some period incorrect dances like the polka and the mazurka. And all the music is a reflection of 1940s music scores and includes a lot of violin concertos and sappy orchestral movements.

Now let’s discuss the casting. Greer Garson plays Elizabeth Bennet, Austen’s plucky heroine. Garson’s version of Elizabeth is sweet, smart, witty, spirited, and rather weepier than the novel depiction.

This version of Elizabeth is likable, however, she is quite static. Though is problem arises more from poor script writing. For instance, the major shift from loathing to loving Darcy occurs in an instant. She learns the truth about Wickham and immediately declares to Jane that she is madly in love with Darcy. Unfortunately this quick change of mind might be great for plotting, but really damages the character’s integrity. She does come across as a woman who has been won over, just really flighty and inconsistent. Finally, Garson was just a little too old to be playing Elizabeth. In 1940 Garson was a 36 year old playing a 19 year old. Though, in all fairness, all the Bennet sisters were played by actress who were significantly older than their characters’ intended ages. But it is disconcerting to see a 36 year old woman adopt the mannerisms of a much younger female.

Laurence Olivier makes a rather dashing Mr. Darcy. However, his version of Darcy does not share much in common with Austen’s ideal version of a civilized gentleman. Olivier’s Darcy is a lot less reticent than the character in the novel and his manner is a lot more open and friendly. He is also far too charming and witty. Several of his actions throughout the movie are also completely at odds with what happens in the novel. For instance, when he first sees Elizabeth at the Assembly Ball he refuses to dance with here and then instantly regrets his decisions. This then leads to him passionately pursuing Elizabeth for the rest of the film. His first proposal is highly predictable. And he is not nearly as rude as the novel version either; he has no objection to marrying Elizabeth. While this version of Darcy is a great romantic hero, there is too much Olivier and not enough of Austen’s original characterization.

Overall, this version Pride and Prejudice shows that the novel just does not work as a screwball comedy. Everything is just a little too over-the-top and bubbly. In all my readings of Pride and Prejudice bubbly is never a word I used to describe the tone of the novel. Given the wonderful subtly and elegance to Austen’s writings, this version does the novel no justice. There are too many extraneous scenes and the characters’ are given no room to develop. It is disappointing to see such shallow versions of Elizabeth and Darcy.


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