If you can stomach the ladies’ costumes, it’s not a bad movie. “Pride and Prejudice” (1940) has all the elements of a delightful film including a well-known and beloved story by Jane Austen, two superb stars at the top of their game, and some of the best character actors of the day. Only a restoration of parts of the story line to Austen’s original intent, and the correct period costumes are all that is needed to make this an excellent adaptation.
Greer Garson and Sir Laurence Olivier are the iconic Elizabeth Bennett and Mr. Darcy, and their stagecraft and chemistry are evident. Ms. Garson’s twinkling eyes and slightly nose scrunching smile are charming, and her attentiveness to the other actors bears a history of ensemble work on stage. She is feisty, he is haughty, so far so good. Mary Boland and Edmund Gwenn are spot-on as Mr. and Mrs. Bennett, and Edna May Oliver as Lady Catherine is marvelous. Edna May Oliver as anything is generally a hoot. No actress could make pomposity as endearing as she.
In Marsha Hunt we have one of the funniest Mary Bennetts on screen, with her broad, almost campy playing of the unattractive and dull sister, particularly in her too-eager reaction when her mother admonishes her to smile at a party. The sour note she hits in her performance of “Flow Gently, Sweet Afton” is priceless.
In Mary, and in several aspects of the film we have a slapstick element being thrown in, and a tweaking of Austen’s verbiage to relate to a modern audience, as when Edmund Gwenn saves the Bennetts from looking more ridiculous by stopping Mary from performing another selection. Instead of insisting to his daughter that the other young ladies must have a chance to exhibit, he says, “Give the other young ladies a chance to make exhibitions of themselves.”
Frieda Inescort plays a suitably frosty Caroline Bingley, and she is perhaps the most recognizable element of the novel. Austen’s “Pride and Prejudice,” not surprisingly, undergoes some alteration in the interests of time, pacing, and translation to a modern audience in this film. Austen’s subtle wit is stretched to slapstick at points, and her wry observations on society are poured through a Hollywood sieve to make them commercial and relevant to what the executives felt audiences would understand and accept. The story becomes a kind of Cinderella story, with Lady Catherine playing matchmaker. Austen’s story was really more a parody of fairy tale romance, but evidently the studio felt this might not play in Peoria.
Interestingly, the aspect of five unmarried daughters desperately in search of husbands does not undergo any necessary explanation in this 1940 film, at least in the same way it does in the 2005 film starring Keira Knightley. This latest version of the story famously departed from the Regency period (more costume issues) and, according to some critics, “dumbed down” if you will, Austen’s narrative to explain a world which no longer exists to modern audiences, (younger audiences). The 1940 version was filmed in an era where the getting of a husband was still considered a career move for young ladies, and so required no explanation.
Inevitably both versions, any version of “Pride and Prejudice” is compared to the fine 1995 BBC film, which had the luxury of telling the story over several episodes, which is what such an intricate plot takes. In attempting to tell the story in under two hours, much is whittled out by necessity, and there are times when the 1940 version feels less like the novel and more like the Cliff Notes. It is odd that with so much removed, a few extra scenes including the opening segments are entirely made up and it takes a while for us to finally get to the famous line, “Netherfield Park is let at last!”
Back to the costumes. They are garish, distracting, anachronistic, and mostly left over designs by Walter Plunkett from “Gone with the Wind.” Evidently the Empire style wasn’t flashy enough, and we end up with everything from enormously cartoonish mid-19th century bonnets to Gilded Age leg-o’-mutton sleeves. The dancing sequences (you can’t have an Austen novel without a ball), are another hodgepodge of waltzing, mazurka and other dances not performed in England of Austen’s time, though “Drink to Me Only with Thine Eyes” is lovely enough to be performed wherever and whenever.
However, if one accepts this film only as a well-meaning version of “Pride and Prejudice” and not an attempt at the definitive, it remains a charming and enjoyable film, based on a novel that will undoubtedly continue to be remade, because it is just that good.
Pride And Prejudice [DVD](1940) DVD