Pride and Prejudice (1940): Laurence Olivier and Greer Garson

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When you grow up with a sister, I imagine most people are aware of books like Pride and Prejudice, Little Women, Anne of Greene Gables, and Little House on The Prairie. However, especially when you’re young, you rarely appreciate them fully or comprehend how notable they are as cultural artifacts.

It’s my ever-growing esteem for Jane Austen’s Pride & Prejudice that makes me hold any adaptation to a higher standard. Otherwise, it would be easy enough to settle. But the coloring of the characters, their tete-a-tetes, the comic orchestrations, and the explorations of themes inherent in British society, make the material that much more sacrosanct. As time grows older, her works seem to draw more audiences, not less.

Thus, I’ve found myself not so much a stickler for out and out faithfulness to the source, although if it’s not broke, why fix it? Still, I desire these adaptations to stay true to the essence of what the author created.

It’s true Hollywood has always had an affection for its literary adaptations, and it was little different in the olden days of the studio system. Because what any book or intellectual property essentially guarantees is some kind of preformed fanbase to pull from. However, these attempts to capitalize always come with widely varied results. This MGM version, helmed by the all but forgotten Robert Z. Leonard, falls somewhere in the middle. It’s hardly forgettable and yet it lacks the required magic to send it in to the pantheon of Austen cinematic transcendence.

For those left unawares, Pride and Prejudice is a story of the Bennett family, consisting of five sisters, their benevolent father, and a hyperbolic mother looking for every opportunity to marry her daughters off to the man with the largest inheritance.

When two eligible young men, a kind-faced Mr. Bingley (Bruce Lester) and the rather more curt and severe Mr. Darcy (Laurence Olivier), rent the grand estate of Netherfield, along with a haughty sister, Ms. Bingley (Frieda Inescourt), it causes quite the stir in town.

The matriarch, Mrs. Bennet (Mary Boland), is the epitome of a fussy busybody who, nevertheless, has draped about her a certain maternal charm. Edmund Gwenn calmly uses his bright-eyed wit to upstage his wife’s blustering. They make a formidable pair of comics.

Among their children, Jane (Maureen O’Sullivan) is the perfectly docile beauty with the richest prospects of marriage. Elizabeth (Greer Garson) is proud and passionate. Mary (Marsha Hunt) is bespectacled and depicted as a bit of an oddball. The two youngest, Lydia (Ann Rutherford) and Kitty (Heather Angel) are tittering adolescents swayed by a dashing manner and a handsome uniform.

The story is conveniently recontextualized for the Victorian-era and the main purpose served is in the costuming department. Not only could the studio save money by repurposing some of their wardrobes, but they could also lean into a greater level of opulence that would not have been available in the actual day of the Bennetts. Except for absolute purists, I see no way in which this historical inaccuracy harms the success of the picture.

It is also the opening ball reinforcing the ensuing conflict by introducing Elizabeth’s genuine distaste that she harbors for Mr. Darcy, perceiving him to be a total supercilious snob. What’s more, her feelings are not entirely unwarranted. This dissension is borne in the title itself: The pride of Elizabeth and the prejudice of someone bearing the breeding of Mr. Darcy. For that matter, it could be the other way around, Elizabeth’s prejudice toward the upper echelon and his own inbred pride.

Every successive encounter between them, Elizabeth does everything to confirm her assumptions about him. It means they are never on amicable terms with one another, no matter the words that might leave their lips. She is hardly reticent about airing her contempt for the man.

Every slight dispensed by those purported to be above her in status is further internationalized and often finds its way out in a barbed attack on Mr. Darcy since he proves to be the easiest target of ridicule. Even as Darcy’s romantic advances continue in earnest, Elizabeth has great relish in embarrassing him over a bout of archery. The consequence is understood, but somehow it feels a bit foreign to the propriety of Austen’s universe.

In parallel and, ultimately, intertwined romances, Jane and Mr. Bingley incur and off and on relationship defined not so much by grating behavior between the two of them but the forces of inertia working around them.

Following her own flight of fancy, Kitty winds up running off with a soldier named Mr. Wickham, who seems charming enough. However, it conveniently shrouds a past of ill-repute that Darcy holds against the man while Elizabeth gives Wickham the benefit of the doubt. It’s yet another grievance she can hold against the stuffy aristocrat.

These paces are all Austen, but similar to the numerous versions of Little Women, it’s the performers who really mold it into their own. I love Greer Garson to death, and she does an amiable job but it’s hard to dismiss her predetermined disposition. She is always one of the most vivacious screen personalities and though she gets to shine in the final act, up to that point, she’s meant to be proud and brazenly foreright in the mode of her literary counterpart. It doesn’t feel quite like her temperament.

On his part, Olivier does well enough as Darcy; he certainly has a presence about him and the repute to make it seem viable. However, the romance is not as vibrant as it might have been. It feels a bit stunted, and it cannot be conveniently attributed to the social context.

Like its successor Jane Eyre (1943), it’s also rather jolting to see Aldous Huxley’s name in the screen credits. My high school days of reading A Brave New World make any period piece feel like a blatant anachronism on his repertoire. Still, this alone can hardly stand as a substantive piece of criticism.

It does feel some of the best and most well-regarded lines are not emphasized enough within the structure of the scenes and while there are certainly considerable elements of the original story, they are never done too many favors.

Mr. Collins feels like a miserable sot and a bore of a man and with the screwball caricature of Melville Cooper, it feels all the more like miscasting. Meanwhile, Mrs. Bingely has a lacerating post to maintain as the picture’s snide gossip. It appears her only function in the plot is to be mean-spirited, making Darcy incrementally more tolerable.

Edna May Oliver for one is always prepared to play a no-nonsense patroness, in this case, Lady Catherine, who orchestrates events so her dear nephew might test the waters of romance.  Because Mr. Darcy and Ms. Bennett are meant to be together and they are both able to cast aside their own issues to recognize just how much they care for one another.

Finally watching Olivier and Garson in a passionate embrace is a dream come true but, as for myself, I couldn’t help but get distracted by fond memories of Wuthering Heights and Random Harvest. How I wish I could same the same of this movie. Still, I’m clouded by my own blind spots and personal hangups. You must make your own judgment.

3.5/5 Stars