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Pride and Prejudice (1940)

PrideundprejudiceI’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 has just expressed himself badly and Elizabeth is offended

Mr. Darcy has just expressed himself badly and Elizabeth is offended

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.

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The Bennett Family: Heath Angel, Marsha Hunt, Edmund Gwenn, Greer Garson, Ann Rutherford, Maureen O’Sullivan and sitting is Mary Boland

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.

Elizabeth is listening to Mr. Darcy make rude and cranky comments about people

Elizabeth is listening to Mr. Darcy make rude and cranky comments about people

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.

Check out thatdress

Check out that dress!

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.

 
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Posted by on June 17, 2015 in Movies

 

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Wuthering Heights (1939) – Obsessive, Destructive Love

2d12ebee08d87e1ad3836ff31ed48921I’ve wanted to see Wuthering Heights for a very long time. I’d heard about it and read about it and understood that it is one of those films that made 1939 the greatest year in film history. And because I like a good gothic tale (especially if it is a movie) I was predisposed to love the film.

So I was quite disappointed when I didn’t love it, though it had nothing to do with how the movie was made and everything to do with the story. It is a beautiful film, finely acted, but I could not view the film as a great romance, which seemed to be how the story was presented.

I have to admit here, however, that I have not yet read the book, so I cannot compare how well the movie follows Emily Brontë’s 1847 novel and don’t know if my difficulties with the story stem from her original book or from how it was adapted to film.

The movie is constructed as a flashback. A man named Lockwood (Miles Mander) has sought shelter at Wuthering Heights during a snowstorm and is told the story of the ghost who haunts the house and particularly haunts the master of the house, Heathcliff (Laurence Olivier). The story is told by Ellen (Flora Robson) who now serves Heathcliff, but used to serve the young lady who haunts the house, Cathy (Merle Oberon).

Wuthering Heights 1

Heathcliff and Cathy

Before everything went to rack and ruin, she says, Wuthering Heights was a fine house that belonged to Mr. Earnshaw (Cecil Kellaway), who had two children, Hindley and Cathy. He goes to London and when he returns he has a small gypsy boy who was starving in London. Mr. Earnshaw calls him Heathcliff and he and Cathy treat him like one of the family, but Hindley resents him and when Mr. Earnshaw dies, Hindley becomes the master of the home and relegates Heathcliff to stable boy.

As they grow up, Heathcliff puts up with all sorts of ill treatment and refuses to leave so he can remain near Cathy. The two of them are like flower children of the moor, retreating to their place on the moor called Peniston Crag, which they call their castle. However, as Cathy grows into a woman she becomes more interested in fine clothes and their elegant neighbors, the Lintons, especially Edgar Linton (David Niven).

As Cathy finds herself attracted to the world of Edgar, Heathcliff grows angry, possessive, and even physical, evening hitting Cathy several times when she insults him as being hired help with dirty hands (this man is definitely the type that would kill his wife in a rage of jealousy). However, they both tell Ellen at separate times that they need each other, that they are essentially one person. But Cathy comes to this realization a little too late, when Heathcliff goes off to find his fortune (which is what Cathy had been urging him to do all along so that he could come back and take her away). Convinced that he’ll never return, Cathy marries Edgar.

Cathy with Edgar

Cathy with Edgar

Ellen tells Lockwood that Cathy managed to forge a happy life for herself, not exciting or grandly passionate, but a good one. However, Heathcliff comes back a very wealthy man and acquires Wuthering Heights from the alcoholic and disintegrating Hindley by buying up all his debts. He also still wants Cathy, but Edgar’s sister, Isabella (Geraldine Fitzgerald) falls in love with him and pursues Heathcliff. Cathy begs Heathcliff not to marry Isabella because she knows he does not love her, but Heathcliff imagines that in doing so it will be revenge on Cathy, because, I guess, she will be jealous that she is not married to him.

The marriage is a tragedy, Isabella is so desperate for Heathcliff’s love that she welcomes the news that Cathy is dying. Hindley continues to drink himself into an early grave and the doctor (Donald Crisp) can only look on while people he helped bring into the world self-destruct, with Heathcliff the self-destructor-in-chief.

If it had been presented as being about destructive love, than I might have enjoyed it more. I don’t mind having a character like Heathcliff; I just mind being told he’s our romantic lead. He’s a narcissistic, jealous, obsessive stalker. If the movie acknowledged that, I’d be fine. But he comes back, like the Count of Monte Cristo, fabulously wealthy to wreak revenge on all people who did him harm in the past. And he blames Cathy for having rejected him and she even agrees with him when she is on her deathbed.

Even his love is narcissistic. When Cathy dies at the end, he says that now she is his. He says that she broke his heart, she’s a part of him, he can’t live without her. And because no one else, apparently, has even a fraction of the feeling, love and passion that he has, those people don’t count. Heathcliff has no sense of personhood, that perhaps people exist apart from him with their own feelings, motivations and lives. He doesn’t even see Cathy as a real person who exists apart from him, but just someone who’s one with him, who rejected herself when she rejected him and instead chose Edgar and society over Heathcliff and the moor.

Cathy and Heathcliff with their heather

Cathy and Heathcliff with their heather

I watched the film with my sister, who has read the book, and she tells me that there are children in the book. Cathy and Edgar have a daughter, Hindley has a son and Heathcliff and Isabella have a son. Cathy apparently dies in the middle of the book and the rest is taken up quite prominently with Cathy’s daughter. My sister felt that with removing the children, it changed the story significantly. Now, the story is just about Heathcliff and Cathy and not about Heathcliff’s attempts to control and destroy the second-generation, and how, despite his attempts, the second generation does achieve a kind of redemption at the end.

According to the critic John Sutherland the 1939 movie is largely responsible for the romantic interpretation of the book and that people in Brontë’s time might not have been likely to see Cathy as haunting Heathcliff because she was waiting for him to join her, but because she was angry and didn’t want him to steal her daughter’s inheritance. Interestingly, the director William Wyler did not want to include the famous ending with the ghost of Heathcliff and Cathy walking off towards Peniston Crag (I guess so they can be perpetual flower children with their heather), which cements the film’s romantic status. It is a rather upbeat ending for a man who destroyed everyone else’s lives.

I’m ranting a bit. As I said, it’s really not a bad movie; I was simply frustrated. Perhaps I will be able to enjoy it more on a second viewing now that I have gotten my rant out of my system. I am really curious, though, to read the book and see how Brontë portrays Heathcliff. I have it coming now from the library!

thCKCSG6YONotes: The score by Alfred Newman is simply lovely and haunting, with his theme for Cathy being especially notable. Here is a link to the violinist Itzhak Perlam performing the theme with the Boston Pops Orchestra.

Olivier credited Wyler with showing him him how to adapt his acting style for the stage to that of the screen. He helped him tone down some of the expansiveness of his acting and also to get over his initial contempt for the movies, as opposed to the stage. Wyler thought that making movies was a wonderful art form and Olivier apparently came to agree with him.

 
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Posted by on November 24, 2014 in Movies

 

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