Friday, March 14, 2014

Pride and Prejudice (1940)

Darcy proposes to Elizabeth

I've long been skeptical about the 1940 MGM Pride and Prejudice with Greer Garson and Laurence Olivier—the glossy classic Hollywood treatment just seemed wrong for Jane Austen. And the 1995 BBC adaptation with Jennifer Ehle and Colin Firth is so good that I haven't been eager to seek out other versions.

But lately my partner and I have been seeing a lot of films from the 1930s and 1940s, including Mrs. Miniver (1942), which featured Garson in the title role as a stalwart wife and mother trying to hold her family together during the Blitz. Garson was wonderful in that role, and it made me curious about her Elizabeth Bennet.

Greer Garson as Elizabeth Bennet
My misgivings about the MGM Pride and Prejudice weren't misplaced, but Garson is almost reason enough to watch it. She's a bit mature for the role of Elizabeth: she was in her mid-30s at the time of filming, while in the novel Elizabeth reluctantly tells Lady Catherine that she is "not one-and-twenty." Many actresses can successfully play characters a decade or more younger than their actual age: Jean Arthur played 20-something ingenues well into her forties, and in the 1995 Pride and Prejudice Julia Sawalha does a brilliantly convincing job as the 15-year-old Lydia Bennet (although Sawalha was actually older than Jennifer Ehle, who played Elizabeth). It's not only Garson's looks that are a bit too mature for Elizabeth, though, but her characterization—Ehle captures more of her vulnerability and uncertainty. Even so, Garson is highly enjoyable in the role, conveying all of Elizabeth's intelligence, wit, and kindness (and of course, she has many of the best lines).

Laurence Olivier as Darcy
The other key role in Pride and Prejudice is, of course, Mr. Darcy. And on the basis of his smoldering Maxim de Winter in Rebecca (1940), Laurence Olivier would seem to be perfect for the role. But while he captured Darcy's fundamental shyness as well as his arrogance, I wanted more evidence of the passions under all that aristocratic composure. Olivier plays the role with a coolness that at times seems to border on detachment.

Edmund Gwenn as Mr. Bennet
The rest of the mixed cast of North American and British actors is generally good, although none of the other Bennet daughters looks the age of her character either. Maureen O'Sullivan, the adventursome Jane Parker in the Johnny Weismuller Tarzan movies, is cast against type as the reserved Jane Bennet, although she is scarcely believable as Elizabeth's older sister. And Ann Rutherford, Scarlett O'Hara's flirtatious sister Carreen in Gone With the Wind (1939), plays the flirtatious Lydia. Edmund Gwenn is an excellent Mr. Bennet, and Mary Boland a suitably annoying Mrs. Bennet (although again, she's a bit too old—she could be the girls' grandmother).

Mary Boland as Mrs. Bennet
If you poke around online you'll discover that the costumes come in for a great deal of criticism, and indeed (especially for the women) they're far out of period. The novel was published in 1813, but full skirts with layers of crinoline date from the 1830s at the earliest, as do enormous puffed sleeves. And the absurd dinner-plate bonnets depicted in the film are a Hollywood version of those worn by actresses onstage to keep their faces unshadowed by stage lighting; they would never have been allowed near the heads of women who wanted to appear respectable (or avoid looking ridiculous). The fashions of Jane Austen's day were much simpler:

Jane's niece Fanny Knight; watercolor by Jane's sister Cassandra (ca. 1810)
But the variable accents of the cast and the out-of period or inauthentic costumes can be forgiven. Where this version really fails is in Aldous Huxley and Jane Murfin's script, adapted from a play based on Austen's novel by Helen Jerome. It's at least one layer of adaptation too many. While it's to be expected that compressing a 350-page novel into a film with a 2-hour running time requires major cuts, some of the missing scenes are critical—for example, there's no visit to Pemberley, the moment in the novel when Elizabeth begins to view Darcy differently.

But worse than what's missing is what's changed: there are scenes with no counterpart in the novel, alterations of the plot, and modifications of the characters. The changes are most notable in the actions and character of Lady Catherine de Bourgh (Edna May Oliver in one of her last roles), and they have implications that radically shift the story. There's no way to discuss these without giving away the ending, so be forewarned that spoilers follow.

First, the changes in plot: In her interview with Elizabeth towards the end of the movie, Lady Catherine claims to be able, as the trustee of her sister's estate, to "strip Mr. Darcy of every shilling he has." In the novel this is not a possibility, nor is it a claim ever made by Lady Catherine. Also, the revelation to Elizabeth (and us) of Mr. Darcy's role in Lydia's marriage to Wickham comes from Lady Catherine during this interview, and not (as in the novel) from the thoughtless Lydia.

After her interview with Elizabeth, Lady Catherine goes out to her carriage, where (in another departure from the novel) it turns out that Darcy is waiting. She tells him,

She's right for you, Darcy.
Edna May Oliver as Lady Catherine
What?! Lady Catherine approves of Elizabeth as a match for her nephew? The implication is that the interview was intended as a test by Lady Catherine (and perhaps Darcy, who seems to have had advance knowledge of it) to see if Elizabeth is fortune-hunting. It also implies that Lady Catherine's revelation of Darcy's role in forcing Wickham to marry Lydia was intended as a signal to Elizabeth of Darcy's continuing romantic interest in her—again, perhaps with Darcy's foreknowledge if not outright collusion.

This utterly changes the meaning of the scene and the character of Lady Catherine (so splendidly portrayed by Barbara Leigh-Hunt in the 1995 Pride and Prejudice), not to mention Darcy himself. She and Darcy become calculating co-conspirators sounding out Elizabeth about her feelings (and giving her a strategic nudge or two). Needless to say, this has nothing whatsoever to do with the characters created by Austen.

In Chapter 8 of Pride and Prejudice Austen has Darcy remark of women's romantic stratagems, "Whatever bears affinity to cunning is despicable." To which I'll only add that the word applies as well to those who apparently felt that their inspirations improved on those of Jane Austen.


  1. I remember how excited I was when it was about to play on TCM (back in the late 90s), and how completely my hopes were dashed. This was the first non-Indian Pride & Prejudice I had seen, and I was so disappointed in it that I could not make it past the first 30-40 minutes or so. (I still cannot stand Laurence Olivier, and I hold this film largely responsible for my dislike!) This and the Kiera Knightley one are the only two film versions I have seen, and my biggest problem with both is that the movie-makers have taken Jane Austen's writing and turned it into a Harlequin Regency romance!

    1. Bollyviewer, from the "white shirt" reference in your delightful Old is Gold post "Let's Make Pride and Prejudice in Hindi," I felt sure that you'd seen the 1995 BBC adaptation. Or perhaps you're not counting it as a film, since it was made for television? In any case, if you somehow haven't yet seen it I recommend it strongly. The added scenes, unlike those in the 1940 version, don't (in my view, anyway) violate the spirit of Austen's novel; and (apart from that notorious white shirt) Andrew Davies' script is amazingly faithful to the book. The cast is superb, the period costumes and settings are gorgeous, and the story and characters are given space to unfold and develop—we could only wish it were longer than its 6-hour running time, not shorter.

      Kiera Knightley is simply not my idea of Elizabeth Bennet, nor is Matthew Macfadyen my idea of Darcy. Apart from the miscasting, the 2005 version makes almost no effort to place its characters in the social context of the period. Instead, as you so rightly say, writer Deborah Moggach and director Joe Wright turn it into a romance novel. Austen's book is much more subtle, layered, nuanced, and funny than you would suspect from that simplistic and forgettable movie.

      Thanks for your comment!

    2. Of course I've seen the 1995 version - I tend to think of it as a TV adaptation, not film. It is, by far, the best adaptation of P&P I've seen. The trouble with all P&P adaptations is that they never quite get Darcy the way I imagine him! I first read the book in early teens and have since, re-read the book several times. So I have this mental image of Darcy that no onscreen Darcy ever lives up to (except Colin Firth in the Bridget Jones series). Plus, I saw the 1995 P&P around the same time as I saw The Importance of Being Earnest where Firth plays Jack Worthing with nearly the same expressions as he plays Darcy. So I kept thinking that Jack Worthing has strayed into P&P!

      The only book adaptation where I absolutely loved the casting, and even liked the deviations from the book, was North and South. Mr. Thornton looked younger (and way better looking) than Gaskell intended, and most of the important characters were just as they should've been. Have you seen it?

    3. Bollyviewer, Darcy is one of those characters that it's hard to imagine any real-life actor fully embodying. The first time I heard someone talking about Colin Firth's Darcy I raised a doubtful eyebrow; the only thing that I knew him from at that point was the film version of Nick Hornby's Fever Pitch (1996). But I have to say that actually watching the BBC adaptation of Pride and Prejudice removed my doubts. I think he's terrific as this very complicated, multifaceted and multilayered character.

      I have seen the 2004 adaptation of North & South and liked it very much, especially Brendan Coyle's Nicholas Higgins. (He, Julia Sawalha and Claudie Blakely were three of the chief reasons to watch Lark Rise to Candleford.) But I've never read Elizabeth Gaskell's novel, so I couldn't make comparisons to the book. We also enjoyed the BBC versions of Wives and Daughters (1999) and Cranford (2007-2009). I'm wondering, and not for the first time, whether I should start reading Gaskell's books; your comment makes me think perhaps I should.

  2. If anyone proved that Pride and Prejudice could be dull, these filmmakers did. I did watch ALL of this one back in high school, and I couldn't for the life of me figure out why they chose to cut and paste together the scenes from the book that they did. I'm not even an Austen purist (I liked the 2005 version, which did not please the many Austen purists among my friends) and I found this version almost blasphemous. You (amusingly) summed up this movies long list of faults . . . among which, I think the costumes may be the worst failure. I mean, like you said, this film was got the glossy Hollywood treatment, and yet, they couldn't manage to come up with period-ish costumes? I don't mind a few embellishments and fabrics that take liberties with an era's limitations (Gone with the Wind does that all over the place, but it takes over-the-top styles and makes them even more outlandish, and it works). But even a person with only a limited grasp of historical fashion could see that this is treading closer to the Bronte Era than that of the Austen. Also, even though I do like Laurence Olivier, I think he himself probably slept through this performance; because, a long the lines of what you said, I hardly believed that he felt anything, much less love for Greer's Elizabeth. As a theatre-trained Britisher, maybe he too was regretting his choice to propagate such a skewed version of the original.

    1. Miranda, as horrible as the costumes are, I could forgive them if the script wasn't such a travesty of Austen's novel. I liked your idea of Olivier sleepwalking through the role of Darcy as a way of distancing himself from a movie he disliked. Apparently Olivier was a pretty nasty person; he was disdainful of many of his co-stars throughout his movie career, and thought film an inferior medium to the stage, so your theory makes a lot of sense. Darcy is conflicted, reserved, and has a keen sense of his social position, but he's anything but detached to the point of somnolence.

      Thanks for your comment!