There have been many screen adaptations of Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice, that perennial favorite, often sublime human comedy of errors examining the caste, mores and social politics of courtship some 200 plus years ago;’ rituals that, in one form or another, continue to resonate with contemporary audiences for more than their relative quaintness. Arguably, none is more bountifully appointed or exquisitely pedigreed than Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer’s 1940 version; and this, in an era where such extravagances were almost an afterthought. Others have tried to bottle the elixir of Austen’s ageless characters; updating and/or changing the pastoral English setting, or even extending Austen’s prose into miniseries format. But MGM’s Pride and Prejudice has Greer Garson and Laurence Olivier; ideally bred as perspicacious Elizabeth Bennet and her haughtily handsome suitor, Mr. Darcy. Augmenting their formidable talent, Garson and Olivier have that intangible and elusive quality known as screen ‘presence’ and ‘chemistry’. There is also a great deal to be said for star power. It separates rarified creatures from the status quo, thus making them instantly memorable at a glance. Olivier’s stiff-britches theatricality is the perfect foil for Garson’s lilting Irish wit – herein ever so slightly tweaked to mimic the appurtenances of the well-brought up British lass. The two are sheer magnetism on the screen; her slightly devious good nature tempting his honorable intentions while throwing the rigidity of his high-borne vanity and anointed self-importance right back in his face.
The movie would suffer if not for Olivier and Garson’s frequent and delicious sparring; the guy who thinks he can manage both his equals and, even more assuredly, his lessers with the same offhanded scorn; she, recognizing almost immediately his mask of virtue is little more than pomposity made in pretend to shield him from his own heart while keeping the rest of the world safely locked outside. As is so often the case, though particularly with the works of Austen, it is the asserting female influence that breaks through these conventions of anticipated, though never entirely fulfilled romantic worship; Austen intently illustrating how one woman’s heart – just as breakable, if gently free-spirited – can nevertheless complete, rather than subtract from a man’s world, ever more becoming something greater than just his decorous appendage. The screenplay by Aldous Huxley and Jane Murfin, already once removed from Austen and borrowing heavily from Helen Jerome’s successful stage dramatization of the novel, is fraught with memorable vignettes that play to the strengths of these two co-stars. In virtually every way, this Pride and Prejudice manages the minor coup of 'improving upon' Austen’s masterpiece to make it even more palpably satisfying as cinema art.
MGM’s Louis B. Mayer was undeniably the Tiffany of star makers. At its zenith, Metro boasted ‘more stars than there are in the heavens’ – forgivable hyperbole, given just how many A-list names above the title the studio had under contract for a time. True, both Garson and Olivier were established in their native Britain long before Mayer brought either of them to Hollywood; Garson, under an ironclad seven year contract with a star-making turn in 1939’s Goodbye, Mr. Chips; Olivier, as the occasional freelancer, already signed by agent, Myron Selznick and having broken out to international acclaim in 1939’s Wuthering Heights, for Sam Goldwyn, and, 1940’s Rebecca for Hitchcock, but whose mark on American movies thereafter would remain arguably spotty; Olivier dividing his time and energies between appearances on the screen and works committed to his first love - the stage. Under VP in Charge of Production, Irving Thalberg, MGM had excelled at period costume dramas throughout the 1930’s. But Thalberg’s untimely death in 1936 was not as earth-shattering an event for the studio as predicted in the trades, primarily because Mayer – whose foresight often preceded his tact – had installed his own entourage of producers, affectionately known around the lot as ‘the college of cardinals’. Although, in time, Mayer’s executive logic would prove top-heavy and detrimental to MGM’s profit margin, necessitating the installation of ‘another Thalberg’, at least throughout the 1940’s, Mayer’s meticulous planning in the event of Thalberg’s demise ensured MGM’s reign would endure, the focus ever so slightly shifting away from the more costly period costume dramas, to homespun, if as glossy musicals.
MGM may not have invented Jane Austen but it was certainly the studio most likely to have pleased the witty authoress, as much for its opulence as its backdoor machinations; a festive assortment of sinners and saints cavorting to the tune of Austen’s most celebrated central theme – looking for love in all the wrong (and occasionally right) places. Perhaps more than any other novel in Austen’s illustrious canon, Pride and Prejudice boasts excellent repartee between its romantically challenged couples; the conversations revealing the foibles, farce and folly in England’s courtly managed courtships with nods to more pressing intrigues. Austen was, arguably, disinterested in the politics of romance, except to exploit it for the purposes of amusing her readership with reflections on the futility and superficiality of what was then considered contemporary, ‘polite’, society. The fact her writing has not only endured, but also been so readily exalted over the years is a testament to Austen’s universal appeal as a clairvoyant in her astute observations about life in general and the ritualized mating dance performed by its male and female players. For all intent and purposes, Jane Austen was probably the greatest ‘people watcher’ of all time and her meticulous crafting of traits and mannerisms for each character in Pride and Prejudice provides a sumptuous template for the most basic intricacies behind human understanding.
MGM’s Pride and Prejudice is no less accomplished; given the full Monty in discriminating taste. Cedric Gibbons’ as usual impeccable art direction and Edwin B. Willis’ set decoration (cribbing extensively from MGM’s vast storehouse of props – many easily identifiable from Thalberg’s uber-lavish production of Marie Antoinette 1938; also using redressed free-standing back lot facades from the studio’s production of David Copperfield 1935) resurrects ‘period’ opulence; part authentic/part fanciful Hollywood re-interpretations for which MGM was genuinely noted and readily admired. Attention to ‘period’ can only take you so far, and throughout the 1940’s Hollywood in general, and MGM in particular, was as much about detail as it exercised pure escapism. Gone are the true to ‘period’ empire waistlines, as example, replaced by some exceptional re-interpretations of the latest fashion by MGM’s in-house couturier, Gilbert Adrian – known simply as ‘Adrian’. Absent as well, are the sweeping hills and rolling landscapes easily recognizable to Britons; the war in Europe preventing MGM from even entertaining the notion to go abroad with a second unit and photograph some exterior plates for rear-projection. Like other studios from this vintage, MGM exercised tight control, shooting within the confines of their own opulent and copiously appointed playground. What they needed they built with the help of miniatures and mattes to extend the grandiosity beyond what mere painted plywood and plaster could imply. Herein, Pride and Prejudice immeasurably benefits from Metro’s illustrious past with just enough authenticity and originality to mark it as a class ‘A’ production.
Greer Garson and Laurence Olivier make for an eloquent pair of would-be lovers; Garson’s spasmodically stubborn pertness, invigoratingly rich in poise and pragmatisms, matched by Olivier’s rather droll and severe, often arrogant, yet perversely tortured man of means, driven to boredom by his summer holiday amongst the common folk. These regal sparring peacocks are surrounded by an utterly charming roster of MGM’s best contract players; Mary Boland as the scattershot matriarch, Mrs. Bennet; Edmund Gwenn (better known as everybody’s favorite Santa Claus from Miracle on 34th Street), herein, clean-shaven and subtly humorous as the kindly sage, Mr. Bennet; Maureen Sullivan (Tarzan’s Jane), herein cast as a different Jane entirely; Melville Cooper as the appropriately stuffy vicar, Mr. Collins; Edna May Oliver, the austere Lady Catherine de Bourgh - benefactress to half the county and virtually all of the town. With such a cast in place, it is near impossible to consider Pride and Prejudice as anything less than an exceptional portrait of rural 19th century social mores. From beginning to end, director, Robert Z. Leonard’s Pride and Prejudice champions and channels both Austen’s ‘sense’ and ‘sensibilities’ of a different kind, advancing the period ever so slightly to take advantage of Adrian’s more sumptuous costume, but maintaining fidelity to the straitjacketed social mores Austen herself had no compunction to playfully expose.
We begin in town with the buoyantly unfocused Mrs. Bennet (Mary Boland) and her two eldest daughters; demure, Jane (Maureen O’Sullivan) and genteel, Elizabeth (Greer Garson) shopping for fabric for new dresses. Their excursion is not without its surprises. A stately cavalcade of carriages with two handsome young men in front passes through town. Through her gossipy connections, Mrs. Bennet quickly discovers their identities: Mr. Bingley (Bruce Lester) a bachelor who has just let the imposing Netherfield country estate for the summer, and, has an income of five thousand pounds a year, his sister, Caroline (Frieda Inescort) and their eligible friend, Mr. Darcy, rumored to be worth twice as much, thanks to his aunt, Lady Catherine de Bourgh (Edna May Oliver). Mrs. Bennet collects the rest of her brood with haste; Kitty (Heather Angel) and Mary (Marsha Hunt), each indiscriminate in their playful romantic tastes for men in uniform, and, Lydia (Ann Rutherford), who prefers to have her head stuck in a book. However, before the Bennets can adjourn to their modest family home – Longborn – with Mrs. Bennet thus plotting a formal introduction of her girls to Messrs Bingley and Darcy, the family is confronted by the capricious Lady Lucas (Marjorie Wood), whose own daughter, Charlotte (Karen Morley) also happens to be Elizabeth’s best friend. Mrs. Bennet touts her knowledge of the amiable bachelors, sparking a friendly rivalry to see which family will be the first to goad Mr. Bingley into a forced invitation to Netherfield.
Upon returning home, Mrs. Bennet is beside herself when Mr. Bennet (Edmund Gwenn) appears noncommittal about obliging these concerns. How could he be so cruel, his wife wonders? They have five unmarried daughters without dowry and no prospects as yet. Mr. Bennet is a very cool customer indeed, already having made Mr. Bingley’s acquaintance – and furthermore, with prior knowledge on good authority, suspecting both he and Mr. Darcy will be attending the local ball. However, the mood at this social gathering is fraught with pensive electricity, particularly when the Bingleys and Mr. Darcy fail to show up as anticipated. Arriving late, Elizabeth is, at first, intrigued by the brooding Mr. Darcy; that is, until she overhears him discussing her in private with Mr. Bingley. It seems that while Mr. Bingley has become quite sincerely enchanted with Jane, Mr. Darcy can find absolutely nothing to recommend Elizabeth. Her pride ever so slightly wounded, Elizabeth’s impression of Mr. Darcy is further colored by a confession from would-be suitor/officer, George Wickham (Edward Ashley Cooper) who suggests that a ‘great wrong’ was done to him by Mr. Darcy; a denial of considerable inheritance since made Mr. Darcy a very rich man at his expense.
Elizabeth is genuinely shocked when Mr. Darcy – goaded by Mr. Bingley – asks her to dance. Clever girl that she is, Elizabeth uses this opportunity to ever so politely – though directly - refuse Darcy’s ignoble gesture; then, almost immediately accepts another invitation from Mr. Wickham in his place. A short while later Jane receives an invitation to Netherfield from Caroline Bingley. Having assessed the purpose of the visit, Mrs. Bennet elects to send Jane on horseback instead of by carriage. Her bedraggled arrival at Netherfield in the middle of a torrential downpour is compounded by an abominable head cold, forcing Jane to stay on under the Bingley’s care for several days. Eventually, Elizabeth comes to inquire about her sister’s health. Once more, she and Mr. Darcy butt heads, he becoming tenderly intrigued by her willful rejection of his modest kindnesses. Meanwhile, the Bennet’s cousin, Mr. Collins (Melville Cooper), who will one day inherit Longborn, arrives for a cordial visit. In search of a wife, Mr. Collins attempts to ingratiate himself with overbearing and rather obvious compliments. Mr. Bennet tolerates Mr. Collins. But he does not respect him. Mrs. Bennet, however, is gracious to a fault. But the girls – particularly Elizabeth and Jane - are merely amused by this fop in cleric’s collar. After Mr. Collins suggests he may wish to marry Jane, Mrs. Bennet dissuades him to reconsider Elizabeth instead; much to the latter’s chagrin. Mr. Bingley elects to give a grand party at Netherfield. Naturally, the Bennets attend. But Elizabeth is mortified when her family becomes the center of amusement for Caroline Bingley, who thinks the whole lot uncouth and ridiculous. Even worse, after attempting a détente, Mr. Darcy withdraws from Elizabeth upon overhearing Mrs. Bennet confiding to Mrs. Lucas she has orchestrated the whole affair between Jane and Mr. Bingley to ensure a love match.
Not long thereafter, the Bingleys and Mr. Darcy depart Netherfield and Mrs. Bennet becomes overwrought. Will Jane ever marry a man of good character, qualities and, of course, property? Mr. Collins seizes the opportunity of Mrs. Bennet’s distress to propose to Elizabeth. The match would ensure the family’s financial stability. But Elizabeth denies Mr. Collins, much to Mr. Bennet’s relief. Mr. Bennet would rather see them all thrown into the street than sell his most cherished possession – his daughter – in marriage to a man she did not love. Not long thereafter, Mr. Collins enters into an agreement with Charlotte Lucas instead. After they are married, Elizabeth pays a visit to Charlotte and Mr. Collins where she becomes reacquainted with Mr. Darcy and is introduced to his glowering aunt, Lady Catherine de Bourgh (Edna May Oliver). Darcy makes Elizabeth what he considers a very unaffected proposal of marriage. Though drawn to him, Elizabeth resists – partly due to Mr. Wickham’s story, but also because she suddenly realizes Darcy was responsible for Mr. Bingley’s separation from Jane.
Conflicted, Elizabeth returns to Longborn where she learns from her distraught mother that Lydia has eloped with Mr. Wickham. Mr. Darcy compounds the family’s displeasure when he insists Wickham will never marry Lydia. The silly girl has been disgraced and has, in turn, disgraced her family by running off with the man who tried to elope with Darcy’s fifteen year old sister, Georgiana. After Darcy departs Longborn, Elizabeth suddenly realizes the true depths of her feelings for him. Only what can she do about them now? The Bennets make ready to leave their ancestral home in shame. But Lydia and Wickham return mere hours before their decampment – Lydia with a band of gold about her ring finger. Wickham has made an honest woman of her. But how…and why? It seems Mr. Darcy has interceded on the family’s behalf, setting Mr. Wickham up with a handsome annuity in exchange for his marriage to Lydia. The family rejoices in their good fortune; momentarily at least, until Lady Catherine arrives to test Elizabeth’s fidelity to Mr. Darcy. Lady Catherine tells Elizabeth she could disown Mr. Darcy, thus leaving him penniless if he chooses to marry her. Elizabeth denies any such proposal has been made, but also suggests that if Mr. Darcy were to enter into an agreement she would not deny him – rich or poor. Her reply impresses Lady Catherine, who immediately confides in Darcy he has indeed met his match in Elizabeth Bennet. Her approval secured, Darcy rushes to Elizabeth’s side. She accepts his proposal and is overjoyed to see Mr. Bingley has also returned to make his honorable intentions known to Jane. From her window, Mrs. Bennet delights in the news, already plotting how to marry off the rest of her brood.
Pride and Prejudice is an affecting and joyous masterpiece, capturing the essential flavor of Jane Austen’s timeless authorship without slavish devotion to her every nuance and word. The studio’s devotion to quality has set the bar high for subsequent reinventions of this classic story, and, in many ways, forced competing versions to tip their own creative hats to MGM’s master craftsmen. Karl Freund’s lush cinematography adds glossy allure to the already luminous performances while Metro’s sadly/badly underrated and workaday composer, Herbert Stothart delivers yet another regal underscore, perfectly embodying the enterprising romantic silliness as lush and lovely orchestral subtext. Like Jane Austen herself, MGM’s Pride and Prejudice proves timeless; a superb evocation of the studio system functioning at the pinnacle of its powers. Austen would most certainly have approved.
Were it only true of Warner Home Video’s woeful DVD, marred by excessive gate weave and a barrage of age-related artifacts; also, a slight hint of edge enhancement. The gray scale exhibits remarkable resilience and there appears to be no undue contrast boosting. When the image is solid, as it sporadically is, and dirt and scratches do not intrude – much – this visual presentation can actually look quite acceptable. Regrettably, the aforementioned shortcomings are persistent throughout and occasionally quite distracting. The audio is mono as originally recorded. It sounds quite clean – much more pristine than the visuals – with minimal hiss and only a few minor pops. Extras are limited to two unrelated short subjects and the film’s original theatrical trailer. Bottom line: Pride and Prejudice deserves more and better than this. I am going to champion the Warner Archive take command of this deep catalog title and give us a new Blu-ray. Now there’s a disc I’d sincerely recommend!
FILM RATING (out of 5 – 5 being the best)