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Friday Film Review: Pride and Prejudice (1940)

Pride and Prejudice (1940)

Genre: Romance

Grade: C+/B-

What?! A grade less than fabulous for one of Jane’s masterpieces? Sorry but yes. While I enjoyed some aspects of this interpretation there are just too many eye popping, “oh, tell me they didn’t just do that!” issues for me to overlook. Had I seen this before some of the more recent TV/Film versions of the story, I would probably have cheerfully overlooked or not even noticed the face-palm moments but as it is, Hollywood did a number on it.

“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.”

With a running time of just under two hours, some things have to be cut or combined in order to hit the high points of the plot. The film opens with Mrs. Bennett, Jane and Elizabeth picking out fabric for new evening gowns for the local Assembly dance when out of the shop window they see the arrival of a fine carriage conveying the new inhabitants of Netherfield through Meryton. Mrs. Bennett wastes little time in finding out who the two gentlemen are and – more importantly, that they’re not married. She and Lady Lucas are like two bloodhounds on the scent which results in a funny carriage race between the two sets of women in order for them to get their menfolk to call at Netherfield first.

At the Assembly Ball, a compression takes place with Elizabeth meeting and flirting with Wickham after a smouldering and haughty Darcy initially denigrates the assembly then reluctantly asks her to dance. The Bingley Ball is transformed into an afternoon garden party while Jane’s trip to London is removed altogether. We get the full impact of Melville Cooper as Mr. Collins annoying the Bennets with his bumbling presence before his cackhanded proposal to Elizabeth then the film fast forwards to her trip to see the newly married Charlotte. Lady Catherine de Bourgh is as condescending as ever but Elizabeth’s trip to Hunsford appears to be shortened and she travels back home with the Collins where they discover Lydia’s elopement with Wickham.

The entire Lake Country trip is eliminated, Georgiana never appears and Elizabeth only learns of Wickham’s true past with the Darcy family after Darcy appears at Longbourne to offer his services in finding Lydia. After he leaves, Elizabeth confesses his proposal to Jane and admits she loves him. A rather lengthy time elapses before Lydia and Wickham are found during which the Bennetts prepare to move to another part of the country to escape the condemnation heaped upon them due to Lydia’s behavior. Lady Catherine shows up at Longbourne only minutes after the Wickhams to rake Elizabeth over the coals and then proceeds to do a 180 degree turn from the novel after which both Darcy and Bingley show up and propose to their lady-loves.

As I said, if I didn’t know what was supposed to happen, these cuts and changes wouldn’t have bothered me. As it is, I can actually live with a lot of the cuts and compressions since the high points of the story are still maintained. One cut actually works better for me. In the 1995 version, Elizabeth doesn’t begin to change her opinion of Darcy until after she sees his magnificent house which in my opinion always made her appear a touch mercenary after her lofty arguments turning down his initial proposal. Here, she starts to change – or admit her change – after Darcy unselfishly reveals the true reasons behind his dislike of Wickham and nobly offers to help find Lydia. What I absolutely did not like is how Lady Catherine de Bourgh’s character and her actions are changed at the end of the movie. When her real motives for visiting the Bennet family at Longbourne are revealed, it somehow lessens Lizzie’s verbal jousting triumph. Darcy’s final proposal also melts into mushiness and seems out of character. Yes, I expect true love from him but not sappy, puppy eyed emotion.

The 1830s costumes are another issue with this movie but at least they stay consistently off throughout the film. Meryton is also as perfect as only a studio backlot could be. Perhaps the clodhopping dancing at the Assembly Ball is supposed to show how far from London high society the Netherfield party is but my sneaking suspicion is that Hollywood simply couldn’t be bothered to have these people look polished. And while we’re wearing clothes from the wrong era, we might as well throw in some period incorrect dances such as the polka and mazurka while we’re at it. The background music is typical of a movie made at this time tending towards lush violins and sap.

I find the casting fairly good except for the fact that Garson looks too old as Elizabeth. Other than that, I think she does a good job in the role. But can someone tell me, does Lizzie resort to tears as much as is shown here? Olivier is as haughty as anyone could want – for the first half of the film. But after that he tends to show his emotions a touch too much with his “My Darling” proposal and public smooch. In private with Elizabeth? – sure, show me the passion. In front of everyone else? – not so much PDA. I don’t have any complaints about the other actors and particularly enjoyed Melville Cooper as Mr. Collins and Edna Mae Oliver as Lady Catherine – even if I don’t like how her character was changed. Mary Boland does a nice flighty Mrs. Bennet while Edmund Gwenn does a serviceable Mr. Bennet. I did keep expecting Maureen O’Sullivan to show up in a leopard print short dress, though.

Given what I’d heard about this version, I actually ended up liking it more than I thought I would. I’m not such a Austen purist that I can’t enjoy what’s here but I can’t help but wish that they’d at least done a better job with the costumes. The essence of the plot is retained though it seemed to me that Hollywood was going for a more screwballish first part and melodramatic ending. Taken for what’s actually here, it’s okay. As a faithful adaptation of the book, I think there are better ones to see.

~Jayne

Another long time reader who read romance novels in her teens, then took a long break before started back again about 15 years ago. She enjoys historical romance/fiction best, likes contemporaries, action- adventure and mysteries, will read suspense if there's no TSTL characters and is currently reading very few paranormals.

20 Comments

  1. carmen webster buxton
    Oct 19, 2012 @ 07:53:20

    This version makes Lady Catherine nice? That is just so wrong! Half the satisfaction of the ending of P&P is that Lady Catherine is left with her nose thoroughly out of joint.

    On Lizzie only accepting Darcy after she sees how grand his house is, I consider that a somewhat specious argument, as she knows from day one he is filthy rich. Also, one thing Lizzie discovers (at least in the book) in visiting Pemberley is that the housekeeper thinks of him as a good, kind man who is nice to the servants, and that Wickham, the source of much of her bad info about Darcy, is the one who is not a good person.

  2. Eggletina
    Oct 19, 2012 @ 08:48:20

    Not even Olivier and Garson could save this one for me. Austen provides some very fine, witty dialogue, but this film turns it into something terribly insipid. I actually hated this version and wish I could strike it from my memory. Interestingly enough, Aldous Huxley was one of the screenwriters for the film. IMDb reports that the costumes were recycled from Gone with the Wind. Of course, back then, I think this was a common cost-saving measure in making films, but it’s hard not to cringe at such an obvious anachronism. And, of course, it was made during the war so…

  3. Caro
    Oct 19, 2012 @ 08:54:31

    This is such a weird mash-up of a film, but an almost perfect example of how MGM handled adaptations in its golden era. You’ve got a script by Aldous Huxley in his first Hollywood screenplay (though probably with considerable help from Jane Murfin, who was an old studio hand and is also credited). Costumes were done by the fabulous Adrian, who knew they weren’t correct, but convinced the producer the picture would look much better in the later period. No, they weren’t recycled from GWTW; that was filmed by Selznik studios and only released through MGM. MGM’s costume department was large enough that they could recycle from their own pictures, and while the main character’s outfits would be new, secondary characters and extras were certainly pulled from the extensive racks.

    Mr. Collins is a librarian because the Production Code specifically prohibited mockery of clergymen: Section VIII:2 Ministers of religion in their character as ministers of religion should not be used as comic characters or as villains. No one can argue that Mr. Collins is anything but a comic character, so they had to make him a librarian.

    I’ve always found a certain charm to the film — though it is most certainly not Austen’s charm — and I have a soft spot for their Lady Catherine, though that’s more because I am a fan of Edna May Oliver than anything. I haven’t seen it in a while, though; maybe it’s time to give it another look.

  4. Jayne
    Oct 19, 2012 @ 08:57:12

    @carmen webster buxton: She’s suitably snobby at first but then works with Darcy in the end to determine if Lizzy might be finally ready to accept him. I was shocked at Lady Catherine’s final about-face.

  5. mdegraffen
    Oct 19, 2012 @ 08:58:22

    I have tried to watch this version and it is so bad, so grating I have never made it through. If Austen were alive she should have sued.

  6. Sandy James
    Oct 19, 2012 @ 09:31:05

    I’ll be avoiding this version. P&P is one of my favorite stories ever, and the Kiera Knightley movie, as well as the Colin Firth miniseries, are so deep in my heart, I don’t have room for a “bad” telling of such a wonderful tale.

  7. Barb in Maryland
    Oct 19, 2012 @ 09:58:48

    I first saw this in the early 1960′s as a young teen. This was it as far as screen adaptations went. I enjoyed it so much I was moved to Read The Book! That makes it a winner all around, as I fell madly in love with the book.
    Of course, having read the book I could see what all they had changed. It is no longer my favorite adaption, but I do not scorn it.

  8. Kathryn
    Oct 19, 2012 @ 10:06:21

    I agree with many of your criticisms–especially that rewriting of Lady Catherine’s character makes absolutely no sense and in fact weakens the ending. But I still have a soft spot for this version and will pop it into the DVD player from time to time to watch. I just accept it not so much as an adaptation of P&P, but rather as a light historical romance.

    As Caro mentions part of the choices made for this film were driven by realities of that era of Hollywood filmmaking–especially MGM’s sense of their brand. The women’s costumes are completely from the wrong era–but were partly chosen because in a black and white film, they would look more dramatic and eye-catching than the more simple silhouettes of Regency dresses. (Look at how many old Hollywood costume historicals are set in periods of full, often hooped, skirts.) Greer Garson (who may look too old for the part, but who does handle the role well) was under contract to MGM and one of its stars.

    This was the first big-screen adaptations of P&P–its release encouraged penguin to offer the first mass-market pb issue of P&P and it introduced P&P to many Americans who had never heard of Austen (hard to believe these days).

  9. Jennifer Lohmann
    Oct 19, 2012 @ 10:28:11

    @Eggletina:

    I saw a Jane Austen in the movies costume exhibit at the Fashion Museum in Bath years ago. The reason they gave for the Civil War costumes was that it was simply the “en vogue” and default historical costume of the 40s.

  10. joanne
    Oct 19, 2012 @ 10:28:19

    @Barb in Maryland: Yes, exactly the same for me. I think it was when we saw this version that makes it more palatable to us than to those who have seen the newer, truer to the book versions first.

    I had never see P&P before seeing this version so I had no other frame of reference. I thought the gowns and scenery were wonderful but that was before being educated on sites like this one that there is more to historical dressing then just sticking someone in a ball gown!

    Since then, yeah, the newer versions are best but this was my first and so it holds nice memories.

  11. carmen webster buxton
    Oct 19, 2012 @ 11:30:40

    @Caro: As a former librarian, I can attest to the fact that librarians have always been seen as mockery fodder. Consider It’s a Wonderful Life, a movie I otherwise love, where Donna Reed’s terrible fate — when Jimmy Stewart isn’t there for her to marry — is to become (gasp!) the town librarian!

    @Jayne: In that case, I am guessing Lady Catherine didn’t even have a sickly daughter she was trying to marry off to Darcy! Sacrilege, messing with the Austen canon like that!

  12. Estara
    Oct 19, 2012 @ 11:40:29

    Jayne if your series weren’t all about films, I would so love for you to review the 1980 BBC miniseries with the book by Fay Weldon. I personally think that Lizzie and Darcy (and Mrs. Bennet and Mr. Collins and Lady Caroline and Mary) are the non-plus-ultra, but I admit I never watched the Colin Firth version (he went into the water? Wet shirt? What??).The dialogue and the perfect period look and outdoor scenes of the 1980s version add a lot of enjoyment, too. Ah well.

  13. Jayne
    Oct 19, 2012 @ 12:38:30

    @Estara: Oh, I hope to review that version of P&P eventually. We do occasionally review series as well as films. Janine reviewed the 1996 A&E one a few years ago. http://dearauthor.com/features/film-reviews/dvd-review-aes-the-romance-collection-special-edition-pride-and-prejudice/

  14. Estara
    Oct 19, 2012 @ 16:50:27

    @Jayne: Something to look forward to, then ^^.

  15. Sunita
    Oct 19, 2012 @ 16:55:04

    Add me to the list of people who saw this when I was young, I think after I had read the book, but I’m not sure. I loved it then, and I still watch it occasionally when it’s on and enjoy it despite seeing the faults more clearly. I didn’t like the changed ending even back then, but Edna May Oliver was so much fun that I let it go, and it really is a classic Hollywood movie of its time.

    Greer Garson was definitely a bit old for Elizabeth, but did you know Emma Thompson was almost exactly the same age in Sense and Sensibility as Garson was in P&P?

  16. Susan
    Oct 19, 2012 @ 21:00:33

    When I was in elementary school, a local TV station ran old b&w movies in the after school time slot. This is when I developed a love of old movies (as well as a burning passion for Fred Astaire, but that’s another story). Of course, one of the movies I watched was this version of P&P, and I absolutely loathed it. When I was later assigned to read the book in school, I dreaded it since I knew how horrible it was bound to be. Imagine my surprise when I disovered the book was almost nothing like the movie. I actually–gasp–loved it. And that verdict was sealed with I watched the Firth/Ehle version. For all its faults, it captured the P&P magic.

    I’ve watched the 1940 movie again quite a number of times over the years. I can’t say I’ve ever come to love it: I think both Garson’s and Olivier’s performances are probably the worst of their respective careers. But I have come to appreciate the secondary characters much more. It’s worth a viewing if just for the comparison.

  17. heidenkind
    Oct 20, 2012 @ 00:11:19

    I think I saw 20 minutes of this version and gave up. The costumes alone… lordy lordy, did they not to ANY historical research before filming this? (Silly question)

  18. claudia
    Oct 20, 2012 @ 10:18:02

    I caught this on pbs one night during sophomore year in hs and glommed on to Austen after my subsequent read of P & P.

    The film was my first exposure to Austen as she wasn’t part of my grade 6-12 curriculums.
    ’40 has many faults but it suffices when I’m in the mood for a quick bit of P &P fluff.

  19. Little Red
    Oct 20, 2012 @ 22:06:19

    This was my first exposure to a filmed version of P&P back in the early 90s. I had of course already read the book multiple times so I could pick out all the deviations from the book. I didn’t love it but it was the best I could do at the time so I took it.

  20. Nicole
    Oct 21, 2012 @ 05:06:50

    I didn’t like this version when I first saw it; thought it was sacrilege etc. But I later read somewhere that it is not a direct adaptation of the novel, but in fact a film version of a stage play that was based on the novel. This process was not uncommon. I think the first film version of Frankenstein in 1931 was also adapted from a stage play.

    Not that this makes me like it any better…

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