Saturday, June 18, 2016

MGM's Pride and Prejudice (1940)

Greer Garson and Laurence Oliver.
After viewing MGM's 1940 adaptation of Jane Austen's Pride and Prejudice, comparisons with the BBC's popular 1995 miniseries are inevitable. That's not altogether fair to the 1940 version which is much shorter than the later miniseries (two hours vs. six hours). However, the simple fact remains that MGM's Pride and Prejudice is now regarded as a very good film while the BBC version instantly became a pop culture phenomenon that still boasts a loyal following.

Garson as Elizabeth.
For those unfamiliar with Austen's 1813 classic, the plot centers around the relationship between the wealthy, snobby Mr. Darcy and the headstrong Elizabeth Bennett. She comes from a modest family (though they still have a butler) headed by the sensible Mr. Bennett. Unfortunately, Mr. Bennett does not have a male heir, meaning that the family's home will go to a clergyman named Mr. Collins upon Mr. Bennett's death. Thus, Mrs. Bennett is focused on getting her five daughters married off to gentlemen with ample financial means.

Elizabeth overhears Darcy.
To his surprise, Darcy (Laurence Olivier) finds himself attracted to the witty, elegant Elizabeth (Greer Garson) at a country ball. Yet, that doesn't dissuade him from expressing his contempt for other members of the Bennett family to a close friend--a conversation that Elizabeth overhears. As a result, Elizabeth rebuffs Darcy's invitation to dance, even though she is also interested in him. Thus begins a series of advances and retreats in the slowly-developing romance between the two.

For me, the joy of Austen's novel (and all its adaptations) is watching the feelings of Elizabeth and Darcy evolve as the plot progresses. Elizabeth knows that Darcy's assessment of her family is mostly accurate. Her mother is overwrought and obvious in her marital intentions for her daughters. Sister Mary insists on singing in public despite being tone deaf. Younger sisters Lydia and Kitty are just plain silly, chasing after army officers and getting tipsy at parties. And yet, it's one thing to acknowledge the shortfalls of one's family and another to watch as a third party scoffs at them. For his part, once he realizes that he loves Elizabeth, Darcy sets out to prove his worthiness to her--even though she has made it clear that she could never love him.

Olivier as Mr. Darcy.
Greer Garson and Laurence Olivier fare well as Elizabeth and Mr. Darcy, even though both are too old for the parts (Elizabeth is supposed to be 20 and Greer was then 36). It's impossible not to compare them with Jennifer Ehle and Colin Firth who played the couple in the BBC miniseries. Garson's performance brims with intelligence and charm, but its lacks the introspection that Ehle (born in my hometown of Winston-Salem, NC) brought to it. Likewise, Olivier makes a memorable Darcy, but falls short of Firth in displaying his character's internal struggles (especially during my favorite scene--Darcy's first proposal to Elizabeth).

Melville Cooper as Mr. Collins.
In my opinion, acting honors in the MGM film go to the always reliable Edmund Gwenn as Elizabeth's father, Melville Cooper as the pretentious Mr. Collins (who constantly babbles about his "esteemed patroness Lady Catherine de Bourgh"), and Frieda Inescort as the haughty Ms. Bingley.

Acclaimed British noveliest Aldous Huxley (Brave New World) co-wrote the screenplay. However, credit for the excellent abridgment of Austen's novel probably belongs to Helen Jerome. Her 1935 Broadway play served as the basis for the MGM film. Incidentally, that stage play starred British actress Adrianne Allen as Elizabeth. Ms. Allen was then married to Raymond Massey.

A recent viewing of the 1940 film reminded me, though, how much of the dialogue was penned by Jane Austen. It's the author and her vivid characters, lively dialogue, and understanding of human nature that makes Pride and Prejudice a true classic. Cast it with good actors and I don't think one could go wrong--whether it's this version, the BBC one, or the 2005 adaptation with Keira Knightley and Matthew Macfadyen.


  1. True. It all starts with the words and Jane Austen's words are sublime.

  2. One of my all-time favorite novels, and I enjoy each adaptation for what it brings. I would have to say that though I think Greer was a delightful Elizabeth, my favorite version is still the Ehle-Firth miniseries. There was also another very good BBC version in 1980 with Elizabeth Garvie and David Rintoul.

  3. Interesting review. I've only seen the MGM version but I can definitely understand how the miniseries would be more insightful in regards to the characters. I wonder how Firth/Ehle would have handled a 2-hour film adaptation however. I'll have to check that series out!

  4. This is my favorite version of the novel; not only are the performances witty, I enjoy the detail of costumes and setting. I would agree that Melville Cooper and Edmund Gwenn steal the acting honors; I would also throw in Edna May Oliver as Lady Catherine, who brings such expression to the way she shakes the feathers on her hat!

    1. Unfortunately the costumes are 1840 not 1813 while still trying to keep the 1813 time frame for the rest of the movie which was a little jarring for me, probably because I work in the textiles/costume field. That said Greer Garson is my favourite Elizabeth.

  5. I've not seen the BBC series, but it sounds wonderful! However, I am a big fan of both the 1941 and 2005 films.

    I first saw then 1941 version many years ago when a friend hosted a Wine and Pride & Prejudice party. Everyone was gushing over Lawrence Olivier (and with good reason) but I was intrigued by Greer Garson, whom I'd never seen before. She was definitely too old for the role, but she was compelling. I'm going to have to revisit this film, methinks.

  6. I like the miniserie much more than the 1940 adaptation, but the 2005 remake of Pride & Prejudice is the best of all. Keira Knightley and Matthew Macfadyen are perfect! This is one of my favourite movies, I forget how many times I saw it.

  7. This is a sweet version but I too am in the camp who loves the Firth/Ehle miniseries best. Jane Austen penned a phenomenal story!