I’m going to come right out and say it: I love this movie. Yes, there are better versions of the book and I know this one has its detractors, especially among Jane Austen purists, but this Hollywood adaptation still captures its humor and wit and turns out to be a wonderful time at the movies. Greer Garson, a little old for the part but good nonetheless, plays Elizabeth, the intelligent, level-headed oldest sister of the Bennett clan. She, along with her four sisters, weather the choppy waters of romance and the unpredictable currents of courtship in early nineteenth century England.
Austen’s novel (incidentally one of my favorites) is a classic satire of relations between the classes and the sexes. Like another high profile literary adaptation of 1940 (which will appear higher up on the list) Robert Z. Leonard’s film excises some of the source material’s most biting social observations. Much of the pointed critiques of class have been removed in favor of a Hollywoodized ending, played for laughs instead of thoughtfulness. The snobbery of the rich and the sycophancy of their hanger-ons are presented as sources of good natured ribbing, not critical commentart. Even Lady Catherine’s final meeting with Elizabeth, during which the aristocrat tells the common born young woman to stay away from Darcy, loses its original intention. In the book the meeting was meant to sternly warn Elizabeth away from the romantic attentions of Darcy in favor of Lady Catherine’s daughter. The movie transforms Lady Catherine’s motivations into a harsh, but ultimately warm hearted, test of Elizabeth’s love. We could see that coming though. Could Edna May Oliver ever play a true snob?
The movie works in spite of its timidity. We get wrapped up in the characters and their often converging storylines that only the most ardent Jane Austen fanatics are bothered by the changes. It is a joyful, energetic film that leaves us grinning. It is played largely as a romantic comedy and, so long as we don’t turn our noses up at it, we can accept this interpretation.
Joining Garson is Laurence Olivier, perfectly cast as the brooding, mysterious Darcy. He’s able to tone down the darkness of his portrayals of Heathcliff in Wuthering Heights and Max de Winter from Rebecca to deliver a sharp but personable interpretation of the classic character. The Bennett family is alternately pulled between the frenetic scatterbrainedness of Marly Boland’s Mrs. Bennett, the sort of frivolous, mouth-moves-faster-than-the-brain characters she was born to play. And Edmund Gwenn is effective as the staid, ever-suffering Mr. Bennett. The Bennett sisters are made up of many up-and-coming young Hollywood actresses like Anne Rutherford and Margaret O’Sullivan. It really is an ideal Hollywood cast for these characters. (OK, maybe it would have been fun to see Lionel Barrymore as Mr. Bennett.)
There have been many versions of this book, some of which were produced with more fidelity to Austen’s intention. Some have been richer and more layered cinematic experiences. I’m not privileging this film over the book; I would always recommend the book over any movie. But despite the departures from the novel, there are few movies I have enjoyed so completely.