Pride and Prejudice, 1940, Metro Goldwyn Mayer. Starring Greer Garson, Laurence Olivier. Co-starring Maureen O’Sullivan, Mary Boland. Directed by Robert Z. Leonard. B&W, 117 minutes.
While busily shopping with her daughters Jane (Maureen O’Sullivan) and Elizabeth (Greer Garson), ever-vigiliant Mrs. Bennett (Mary Boland) notices the arrival of three strangers. With some sharp questioning, she soon learns they are Mr. Bingley (Bruce Lester), his sister Caroline (Frieda Inescort) and Mr. Darcy (Laurence Olivier). What’s more, the handsome gentlemen are bachelors of some means. This is good news to the meddling Mrs. Bennett, who has five daughters of marriageable age.
During a downpour, she conspires to send Jane over the estate Mr. Bingley has leased. As she hoped, her daughter catches a cold and is forced to stay with the Bingleys until she recovers. Mr. Bingley and Jane fall for each other, and at the same time, tension develops between Elizabeth and Mr. Darcy during her visits to her recuperating sister.
In the meantime, the Bennett’s cousin and heir to their estate, Mr. Collins, appears, and the pompous and somewhat effete man decides he wishes to marry Elizabeth. But her feelings for Mr. Darcy are not all antagonistic.
A convoluted series of events follows, leading all down the merry path of love and despair.
This smart and sassy version of Pride and Prejudice was based on the Broadway production, written by Helen Jerome, of Jane Austen’s classic book. Famed producer Irving Thalberg had purchased the rights to that script some years earlier as a vehicle for his wife, Norma Shearer. Eventually the script was adapted for the screen by Aldous Huxley and Jane Murfin (the latter had also worked on the screen adaptation of the the script for The Women).
Believing it would visually lend itself better to the comic side of the story, the decision was made to change the costumes from the Edwardian era in which the novel was originally set to the Victorian era, complete with bustles and voluminous petticoats. The humor wasn’t limited to the screen. Those outfits proved cumbersome and awkward, making for some clumsy moves on the actresses’ part as they maneuvered on the set.
Pride and Prejudice received one Academy Award for Best Art Direction, Black and White.
The film was shot during a time when American sentiment towards the British was sour because of their perceived part in the emerging war in Europe, and many of the cast (Both Garson and Olivier were from Great Britain, as were several others in the production) were feeling the pain of that prejudice. Cast members later recalled the strangeness and disconnect of that time: hearing the war news over the radio shortly before stepping into the period costumes of another era.
There have been several productions of Pride and Prejudice over the years, some very good, and this one stands out as one of the best. Just as with the novel, the biting and satiric nature of the story holds up today. This is a film worth the watch.