Pride and Prejudice – Best Pictures of 1940 (#5)

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?

Laurence Olivier and Greer Garson flirt in "Pride and Prejudice"

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.

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8 Comments

Filed under 1940, Yearly Best Pictures

8 responses to “Pride and Prejudice – Best Pictures of 1940 (#5)

  1. Jon

    Yes I agree and it’s kind of a guilty pleasure for me although I shouldn’t really feel guilty any time Laurence Olivier and Greer Garson are involved. It’s a very solid Hollywood picture of the time.

    • Thanks for stopping by and commenting Jon. I’m glad to know I’m not entirely alone on this one. I still expect to hear from some dissenters, but I think this is a fine, fun movie. Not as good as the book, or as good as other versions, but good nonetheless. Thanks again and I hope to hear from you on future posts.

      • Jon

        Jason I’m looking forward to your continued countdown of 1940. I have some ideas of what else might be on the list so we’ll see. I’ll have to give you my top 5 from 1940 when you’re done. Then it’ll be on to 1941 eh?

        • Thank you Jon, I’m glad you are enjoying the countdown and I look forward to seeing your own favorites of 1940. And yes, then it will be on to 1941.

  2. Pingback: Gilbert & Sullivan’s “H.M.S. Pinafore,” Murnau’s “Sunrise,” Kubrick’s “Barry Lyndon” and Ichikawa’s “The Makioka Sisters” on Monday Morning Diary (May 23) « Wonders in the D

  3. I like it too Jason. Quite a bit. And like you I don’t have any misgivings, as it’s a quality work. I am not so sure I would include it among the best films of the year, but it certainly pushes close. I am also a big fan of Joe Wright’s recent version, and count myself as a lifelong Austenite. Garson, Olivier, Gwenn, etc, all wonderful. And quite a well-written and observant piece here.

    • I’m not sure why, but I had a feeling you would be one who would disagree with my high esteem for this movie. Maybe it’s because I know you to be a strong Austen fan. So I’m pleased to hear you also enjoy this film. I expected more blow back from Austen purists. But, like you say, it is a quality work.

  4. Afraid I’m a naysayer on this one. Not sure if that makes me an Austen purist – maybe I am to some extent, though I do admire some adaptations which make a lot of changes to her novels. But I just don’t think turning Pride and Prejudice into a screwball works – it seems as if Austen’s sharp humour is replaced with a sweeter, cosier version, and the turning of Lady Catherine de Bourgh’s snobbishness into Edna May Oliver being lovable is the last straw for me! (Admittedly, she’s an actress I don’t warm to much at the best of times, so that may colour my response.)

    I do like some of Olivier and Garson’s scenes together and I think Olivier somehow manages to hold on to the essence of Darcy’s character through it all, but in general this is a film which I found a huge disappointment.

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