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From the Vaults: 'Pride and Prejudice' (1940)

PpposterHow can you possibly go wrong with Laurence Olivier as Mr. Darcy? The sad truth is that you can. Mr. Darcy isn't hard to get right, in my opinion -- all he has to do is be terribly rude -- but most adaptations of "Pride and Prejudice" balk at having the leading man be terribly rude. This was perhaps understandable in 1940, when there were very decided expectations for what a studio film should be, particularly a costume drama getting billed as a comedy -- I mean, check out that poster!

And really, for what it is, this movie's a fair amount of fun. It runs amok with Jane Austen's novel, but that's to be expected; I have no intrinsic problem with Regency heroines in pre-Civil War hoop skirts, or even with Lady Catherine being transformed into a good guy. It's hard to be angry with such a relentlessly good-natured movie.

The plot, for the uninitiated: Witty, strong-willed Elizabeth Bennet meets the dashing, stuck-up Mr. Darcy at a dance and takes an instant dislike to him. Meanwhile, Elizabeth's ditzy mother attempts to get Elizabeth and her four sisters married well, because the girls don't stand to inherit any money and will be penniless without husbands. (You would never know, to look at the girls' lavish hoop skirts and well-appointed mansion, that they were in any financial distress, but never mind.) Elizabeth and Darcy argue, misunderstand each other and finally end up irresistibly in love. Swoon! If only the way they got there were more satisfying.

Most of the cast here is fab. Greer Garson is a dream as Elizabeth: sly, intelligent, warmly affectionate, and funny. You can see why Darcy falls for her. I also liked Maureen O'Sullivan as luminous older sister Jane, who's gentle and kind without ever crossing the line into cloying. Karen Morley is too achingly beautiful to be plain Charlotte Lucas, and the character is sadly underdrawn here, but Morley does a nice job with what she's got.

Pp Mary Boland and Edmund Gwenn are an interesting pair as Mr. and Mrs. Bennet. In the book, Mr. Bennet is constantly poking fun at his wife without her being intelligent enough to realize it. His contempt saddens his older daughters, and sets them a dreary example of what to expect from marriage. But the movie portrays the parents as being more simpatico, which is actually rather heartwarming. I loved the moment where they open a door and study their five daughters: "What is to become of them?" she wails, and he nods dryly: "Perhaps we should have drowned some of them at birth." (Gwenn, of course, would go on to don a white beard and reunite with erstwhile daughter O'Sullivan (oops, it was Maureen O'Hara; thank you, Kira at Austen Blog, and please Santa do bring me an editor for Christmas) in "Miracle on 34th Street.")

And fans of "Gone With the Wind" should check out this movie just to see Ann Rutherford, Scarlett's innocent younger sister Carreen ("Why can't I stay up for the ball tomorrow night?"), as tiny hellcat Lydia, the youngest Bennet. Lydia runs around yelling, flirting, dancing with officers and getting drunk on punch at a party. And she gets to have premarital sex! (Offscreen, darlings; but still.) What would Ellen O'Hara say?

But Darcy, people -- oh oh oh. The heart of the story is the tension between Elizabeth and Darcy, and with Olivier making puppy-dog eyes at Greer after scene two, the tension's just impossible. After initially dissing her at the dance, Darcy almost immediately repents; he spends the rest of the movie fluttering around her like a popinjay, kissing her hand and administering compliments. What is he, Mr. Collins? Why does he keep flapping his arm in that ingratiating manner? Yes, he's supposed to be in love with her, but he's supposed to be rude! When Garson delivers her arch one-liners at him, she comes across as the rude one. That's backward! (The 2005 film had similar problems.)

Another beef: The movie's adapted from a play by Helene Jerome, and comes across as much more stagey than cinematic. Most of the scenes are very long and take place on a single set, while the characters rush in and out. In the most egregious example, Elizabeth and her mother discuss a key conversation that's just taken place offstage -- er, offscreen. How hard would it have been to just show us that moment? It really makes you appreciate the visual language of cinema -- how a movie like, say, GWTW will convey something via a close-up, or a wide shot, or swelling music.

But it's OK. "Pride and Prejudice" was definitively adapted by the BBC in 1995, and Colin Firth is the definitive Mr. Darcy (yes, I'm one of those people; but come on, look!). Everything else is just gravy --  even Olivier, bless him. *opens parasol and Chardonnay bottle; braces for comments*

-- Anne Elisabeth Dillon

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Comments (13)

Good review. Ummmh...the girls were not in financial distress as long as Dad was around to pay the bills but somewhat later if they found themselves with no husband to do the same they would have to rely on relatives or friends for money to live on. A very bad state of affairs. Dad might have paid for plenty of nice frocks but his (male) heir might not. I agree that Colin Firth was fabulous in the 1995 mini-series and I think that Jennifer Ehle was seven kinds of wonderful in it, as well. Susannah Harker, whom I absolutely adore, came across only so-so, I am afraid.

Feh. I love Greer Garson, but she was 15 years too old for the role, and in my opinion, Laurence Olivier was never anything but an overstuffed ham.

The 1940 P&P works best with the sound off. Garson and Olivier are so luminous, and Austen's sublime dialog is mangled.

But nobody EVER went wrong with Edmund Gwenn. Not Natalie Wood, not John Garfield, not even Alfred Hitchcock.

Fibber, yeah, you're right; they won't be in financial distress until Mr. Collins inherits Longbourne and turns them out to starve. I think though that you lose the contrast with Bingley and Darcy by portraying the Bennets as all swathed in hoop skirts and chandeliers. That was especially baffling with this script, which really played up the class issue: Darcy's first obnoxious line gets changed to "I am in no humor tonight to give consequence to the middle classes at play." But I'm sure there was an expectation that a costume drama comes with fancy outfits, especially with five sisters to put the outfits on!

Eve, I was expecting everyone to throw rocks at me for not being in love with Olivier -- whew!

hb, totally agreed about the dialogue; the archery scene especially was cringe-inducing. I don't even want to think about it. Oh oh oh.

Laurence Oliver was, by nature, really a Mummer, not a "Great Aktor." He was usually very good when he played a small but choice role -- a character actor, really. His portrayal as a Black Moor and holy warrior in "Khartoum" was fabulous as was his small turn as a Air Chief Marshal Dowding in "Battle of Britian." I once got a photo of him standing out in the middle of the street in front of a bar in downtown El Lay kissing the heck out of Bette Midler. He made it to every one of her concerts he could. They had met in the street on their way to an after-concert party.

I did love Edmund! Not all that familiar with his oeuvre but will be remedying that. He was perfect.

Ya gotta, hafta see Edmund Gwenn in the Fifties Nuke Scare sci-fi classic "Them" and in "Mr. 880" with Burt Lancaster.

RE: From the Vaults: 'Pride and Prejudice' (1940)
July 19, 2010 | 4:31 am

Pride and Prejudice (1940)

With all respects to British Cinema and BBC Television, and the productions of Pride and Prejudice, there are instances when a Hollywood movie cannot be surpassed. The American film version of Pride and Prejudice is superb with a perfect ensemble of actors. The English renditions and actors pale in comparison.
Wm. Dobkowski, Philadelphia, PA
16 July 2010

**Pride & Prejudice fan alert** I've always felt Colin Firth got the personality/demeanor right for Darcy, if not the looks. I somehow pictured Darcy as much more... I don't know, aristocratic. Firth has that acting down to a tee but his looks aren't... Matthew McFayden just looks depressed throughout the Keira Knightley version, so I prefer Firth's acting.

I've tried watching the Olivier/Greer film, and it's too painful to get through. Esp. Darcy. He really is the crux of the story, and you've captured the problems with Olivier's portrayal to a T.

Great review.

My God! Just realized I mistakenly credited Edmund Gwenn with a performance by his blood brother, Cecil Kellaway in 'Postman'. They both shared the qualities of twinkling eyes and eccentric decency.

My apologies to Mr. Gwenn. I do suspect that he would understand.

I disagree with your assessment of this movie. I cannot help but wonder if your negative remarks stem from the fact that the movie is set during the 1830s, instead of the period in which the novel was first published.

Laurence Olivier is great in any movie. Regardless of theme;)


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