Initially scheduled to start pre-production in 1936, under the supervision of Irving Thalberg with his wife, Norma Shearer as Elizabeth Bennett, but pre-production was put to a halt after Thalberg's death.
According to Ann Rutherford, although the filmmakers were committed to begin shooting on a particular date, they discovered that David O. Selznick had used every available reel of Technicolor film in existence to make Gone With The Wind. Therefore, despite the lavish sets and opulent costumes, Pride And Prejudice had to be shot in black and white.
Phil Silvers was asked to screen test for a role as a vicar despite having a strong New York accent. It turned out to be a cruel prank by studio executives who passed the screen test around Hollywood. In his autobiography, Silvers says "These three minutes were perhaps the funniest I've ever done."
Although Jane Austen's novel was set in Regency England (late 18th-early 19th century), the period was set at a later time. This anachronism has been explained in a couple of ways. Those more favourably disposed to the studio system claim the styles of the Regency Period (when women's dresses resembled nightgowns) were thought too plain for public taste, so new gowns were created in the voluminous Victorian style of the 1830s to give it a more romantic flair. Others have pointed out that because MGM wasn't willing to put a huge budget behind the risky venture, costumes left over from Gone with the Wind (1939) were altered slightly and placed on background players to save money. New gowns in the same flouncy style were designed for the female leads.
During production, Laurence Olivier was distracted by plans for a stage production of Romeo and Juliet. He occupied his thoughts off camera with every detail of the production: blocking, lighting, set design and the total look of the play. He also took lessons in music composition and began composing motifs and flourishes for the stage production. It delighted him that he and Vivien Leigh would finally be acting together and capitalizing on their off-screen romance, after their efforts to co-star in Hollywood films had been repeatedly thwarted.
Laurence Olivier was less than thrilled with the film after production began, certain it would be a flop and complaining that key scenes were missing and that more attention was lavished on the costumes than the actors.
Laurence Olivier said of the film, "I was very unhappy with the picture. It was difficult to make Darcy into anything more than an unattractive-looking prig, and darling Greer seemed to me all wrong as Elizabeth."
MGM imagined the film as a romantic comedy, in contrast to Jane Austen's novel which was a sharp social satire. As a result, dance scenes were added, a pivotal plot point set at Pemberly was removed, and some of Elizabeth's witty and biting dialogue was softened.
This film sparked a large interest in Jane Austen's Pride and Prejudice. At least five editions of the novel were printed to coincide with the film's release. In less than a decade after the film's release, the novel had grown so popular that it had gone through twenty-one printings.
Acting on behalf of MGM, Irving Thalberg purchased the rights to Helen Jerome's stage adaptation of Pride and Prejudice in 1936. Jane Austen's original novel had gone into public domain by that time, so Jerome's work was the only version of the story that held a copyright. Thalberg's friend, Harpo Marx, suggested the purchase after attending Jerome's play. The studio paid Jerome $50,000 for the rights to the play.
Key characters from the novel underwent changes during scripting, filming and editing. To avoid the Production Code taboo against portraying the clergy in a negative light, the theological occupation of the Bennets' hypocritical, toadying cousin Mr. Collins was considerably downplayed. Either to provide a more upbeat tone to the ending or to accommodate the sort of character most often associated with the actress Edna May Oliver, the haughty and forbidding Lady Catherine de Bourgh was portrayed as a comic figure; her final visit to Elizabeth is presented as merely a ruse to test the girl's feelings for Darcy. Finally, the last scene, contrary to the novel, shows all the Bennet girls on the verge of marriage.
Production was initially scheduled to begin in October 1936 under Irving Thalberg's supervision, with Clark Gable and Norma Shearer in the leading roles. Following the death of Thalberg on September 13, 1936, pre-production activity on the film appears to have been halted.
In August 1939, Hollywood Reporter announced that George Cukor would direct Robert Donat opposite Norma Shearer, and that M-G-M was considering making the film in England. The start of the war in Europe in September 1939 soon caused the closure of M-G-M's operations in England, however. Cukor, according to Hollywood Reporter, was replaced by Robert Z. Leonard because of a scheduling conflict with his assignment on Susan and God (1940).
This marked the first time that Jane Austen's novel, Pride and Prejudice, was adapted to a theatrically-released film. Two years prior, Pride and Prejudice (1938) was released directly to British television. Television was in its fledgling stages in the United Kingdom in 1938, and the made-for-television film reached a remarkably small audience. In addition to being the first theatrically-released adaptation, this 1940 version of Pride and Prejudice was the first to achieve a wide release.
In 1947, MGM considered making a musical adaptation of this film. The studio hired Sidney Sheldon and Sally Benson to work on converting the script from this film into a musical production. Ultimately the project was scrapped and MGM abandoned attempts to convert the film to a musical.
Following an incredibly successful two years in the United States (both critically and commercially), Laurence Olivier took a twelve-year hiatus from making films in Hollywood. Olivier returned to England to work in the film and stage industries there, and spend time with his new bride, Vivien Leigh.
According to Madeleine Stowe in her introduction to the film on Turner Classic Movies, MGM ignored Laurence Olivier's pleas to cast Vivien Leigh as Elizabeth. Olivier and Leigh were both married to other people but carrying on a semi-public affair in the period when this film was being made. Studio executives felt that casting the couple as lovers in the film had the potential for negative publicity, so Louis B. Mayer personally nixed Leigh's inclusion in the film.
This film's first telecast took place in Philadelphia Friday 23 August 1957 on WFIL (Channel 6); it first aired in New York City 2 May 1958 on WCBS (Channel 2), followed by San Francisco 22 June 1958 on KGO (Channel 7) and by Los Angeles 24 December 1958 on KTTV (Channel 11).