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

July 19, 2010 |  4:31 am

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