Revisiting MGM’s Pride and Prejudice

After viewing MGM’s 1940 adaptation of Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice, comparisons with the BBC’s popular 1995 miniseries are inevitable. That’s not altogether fair to the 1940 version which is much shorter than the later miniseries (two hours vs. six hours). However, the simple fact remains that MGM’s Pride and Prejudice is now regarded as a very good film while the BBC version instantly became a pop culture phenomenon that still boasts a loyal following.

For those unfamiliar with Austen’s 1813 classic, the plot centers around the relationship between the wealthy, snobby Mr. Darcy and the headstrong Elizabeth Bennett. She comes from a modest family (though they still have a butler) headed by the sensible Mr. Bennett. Unfortunately, Mr. Bennett does not have a male heir, meaning that the family’s home will go to a clergyman named Mr. Collins upon Mr. Bennett’s death. Thus, Mrs. Bennett is focused on getting her five daughters married off to gentlemen with ample financial means.

To his surprise, Darcy (Laurence Olivier) finds himself attracted to the witty, elegant Elizabeth (Greer Garson) at a country ball. Yet, that doesn’t dissuade him from expressing his contempt for other members of the Bennett family to a close friend–a conversation that Elizabeth overhears. As a result, Elizabeth rebuffs Darcy’s invitation to dance, even though she is also interested in him. Thus begins a series of advances and retreats in the slowly-developing romance between the two.

For me, the joy of Austen’s novel (and all its adaptations) is watching the feelings of Elizabeth and Darcy evolve as the plot progresses. Elizabeth knows that Darcy’s assessment of her family is mostly accurate. Her mother is overwrought and obvious in her marital intentions for her daughters. Sister Mary insists on singing in public despite being tone deaf. Younger sisters Lydia and Kitty are just plain silly, chasing after army officers and getting tipsy at parties. And yet, it’s one thing to acknowledge the shortfalls of one’s family and another to watch as a third party scoffs at them. For his part, once he realizes that he loves Elizabeth, Darcy sets out to prove his worthiness to her–even though she has made it clear that she could never love him.

Greer Garson and Laurence Olivier fare well as Elizabeth and Mr. Darcy, even though both are too old for the parts (Elizabeth is supposed to be 20 and Greer was then 36). It’s impossible not to compare them with Jennifer Ehle and Colin Firth who played the couple in the BBC miniseries. Garson’s performance brims with intelligence and charm, but its lacks the introspection that Ehle (born in my hometown of Winston-Salem, NC) brought to it. Likewise, Olivier makes a memorable Darcy, but falls short of Firth in displaying his character’s internal struggles (especially during my favorite scene–Darcy’s first proposal to Elizabeth).

In my opinion, acting honors in the MGM film go to the always reliable Edmund Gwenn as Elizabeth’s father, Melville Cooper as the pretentious Mr. Collins (who constantly babbles about his “esteemed patroness Lady Catherine de Bourgh”), and Frieda Inescort as the haughty Ms. Bingley.

Acclaimed British noveliest Aldous Huxley (Brave New World) co-wrote the screenplay. However, credit for the excellent abridgment of Austen’s novel probably belongs to Helen Jerome. Her 1935 Broadway play served as the basis for the MGM film. Incidentally, that stage play starred British actress Adrianne Allen as Elizabeth. Ms. Allen was then married to Raymond Massey.

A recent viewing of the 1940 film reminded me, though, how much of the dialogue was penned by Jane Austen. It’s the author and her vivid characters, lively dialogue, and understanding of human nature that makes Pride and Prejudice a true classic. Cast it with good actors and I don’t think one could go wrong–whether it’s this version, the BBC one, or the 2005 adaptation with Keira Knightley and Matthew Macfadyen.