I’ve always had a weakness for the 1940 Pride and Prejudice. I think possibly this is because I can watch it without really thinking of it as Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice. If it was closer, I might dislike it more. There’s nothing worse than a movie trying to be close to the book and missing the mark. The result is something tepid, but MGM’s Pride and Prejudice is so enthusiastically buoyant and over the top that I can enjoy it. I can’t help analyzing its inaccuracies, but that doesn’t dint the fun.
Elizabeth Bennett is played by Greer Garson, who admittedly is too mature to be Elizabeth. The only explanation that makes sense to me is that in the movie, Elizabeth is actually the oldest sister instead of Jane. She does interact with Jane as though she were the elder, always comforting Jane and looking out for her health. I can accept that, though. As long as it makes sense within the movie.
She has the funniest expressions, though. When she is sitting in a chair, literally leaning back, radiating offense when Mr. Darcy tells her that he loves her despite her inferior family, it always makes me laugh. It’s not a nuanced reaction, but seems suited to this exaggerated comedy of manners.
Though truthfully, everyone is shockingly rude to each other and there’s very little good manners to be seen. Elizabeth even refuses to dance with Mr. Darcy and then turns around and dances with another man – an unthinkable breach of propriety in reality. In the book, when Elizabeth is trying to avoid dancing with Mr. Collins, the only polite way she can do so is to not dance with anyone.
Mr. Darcy is played by Laurence Olivier. His Mr. Darcy is a bit of a fop; he even wears a polka dotted necktie at one point (I’m trying to imagine Colin Firth in a polka dot necktie). He’s also much more openly in pursuit of Elizabeth, so much so that Lady Catherine (played with hilarious aplomb by Edna May Oliver) notices it. In the book, no one noticed except Elizabeth’s friend Charlotte and even she wasn’t sure.
Elizabeth’s family in the movie is really not all that embarrassing as in the book. To put up with her family all that is really necessary is to loosen up and go with it, which Mr. Darcy evidently learns to do by the end. Mrs. Bennett is played by Mary Boland, still silly and fluttery, but rather lovable despite it. Edmund Gwenn (Santa Clause from Miracle on 34th Street) makes a good, slightly absent-minded Mr. Bennett who likes to make almost affectionate fun of Mrs. Bennett. Jane is played by Maureen O’Sullivan, a lovely, though slightly weepy and more outgoing Jane. When Mr. Darcy tells Elizabeth that he observed Jane and his friend Mr. Bingley together and did not think Jane was really in love, I do not believe him.
One of my favorite characters in the movie is Melville Cooper as the pompous and foppish Mr. Collins. For some reason – perhaps code reasons – he is not a clergyman in the movie, but Lady Catherine de Bourgh’s librarian. He is Mr. Bennett’s nephew and comes to the Bennett’s home, Longbourn, to make amends for the fact that he will inheriting Longbourn by marrying one of the daughters. He eventually settles on Elizabeth and his proposal is possibly the funniest moment in the movie (and even the book – it has translated well to nearly every adaptation I’ve ever seen). He can’t seem to understand that when Elizabeth says no, she really means no.
And you have to watch the way he sits down. He does so in one smooth movement of sitting, swishing his coat tales back and inserting himself in the chair.
You can tell that the screenplay was adapted from a play that was adapted from the book. The film has very distinct and extended scenes: scene at Longbourn, scene at Netherfield Park, scene at Rosings Park and so on. Multiple events from the book are squished into these individual scenes. At the end, Mr. Wickham, Lady Catherine de Bourgh, Mr. Collins, Mr. Bingley and Mr. Darcy all manage to visit in the same day! Needless to say, it is rather crowded in the house with all these people coming in and out.
The dynamics between Elizabeth and Mr. Darcy are also slightly different, though relatively consistent within the context of the film. In this case, Mr. Wickham does not tell Elizabeth his lies about Mr. Darcy until later in the film. This allows Elizabeth, although prejudiced against Mr. Darcy because he is so rude to people, to experience some glimmerings of liking. They even temporarily make friends until he is scared away by her loud relations. And when Wickham does tell her about Darcy’s supposed perfidy, she is surprised, as though she has trouble believing it of Mr. Darcy. In the book, Elizabeth is extremely eager to believe anything bad about Mr. Darcy.
And when Darcy proposes in the movie, she is deeply offended (and I would be, too – this Darcy’s real problem is that he has no tact), but after she leaves there is a look of distinct regret, like she’s sorry he’s such a pill because she actually kinda likes him.
The ending is a bit too pat. I’m not a fan of making Lady Catherine de Bourgh a good egg after all. It lessens her comic bite. I’m also not a huge fan of conveniently finding potential husbands for every single Bennett sister, but I suppose that since this family is not really dysfunctional and actually are quite affectionate, they deserve to be happy.
What really sells this movie for me – apart from the irrepressible way the characters bounce through the film – are the gowns. The gowns were designed by Adrian and are the reason that the film was moved out of the Regency period into the early Victorian era. The gowns are practically characters of their own. Seriously. If you ever watch the movie, look carefully at the gowns and hats. There are bows everywhere (in Elizabeth’s hair, on her shoulders, on the front of her dress); massive puffed sleeves, lace and frills and pleats and feathers and flowers and ruffles. Even simple dresses have complicated patterns. It’s fun to just watch the costumes go by.
The movie was adapted by Aldous Huxley and I’m impressed at how much of the dialogue of the book he did weave into the film after all. But he weaves it in smoothly. One of the things that drove me nuts about the 2005 adaptation was how they seemed to chop up the dialogue into little bits. I would have preferred if they’d just made up entirely new dialogue.
Since it’s so far from the book, for a while it puzzled me why I am able to enjoy the 1940 Pride and Prejudice and not the 2005 remake. I finally concluded that the real reason I can forgive it for straying from the book is that I like the genre. It’s period drama farce and I would have watched it even if it was not an adaptation of Austen’s book. I would not have watched the 2005 Pride and Prejudice if it had not been Pride and Prejudice. Modern romance in period garb with people walking through the fields in their nightdress? I’d rather watch Frankenstein or something. Or Greer Garson and Laurence Olivier.