Jane Austen's novel "Pride and Prejudice" was originally written in 1796/7 but not published until 1813. Most producers of television adaptations have been guided by the latter date and have set the story during the Regency period, although the 2005 film version was set in the 1790s. This film, however, shifts the action to the 1830s or 1840s, that is to say 20 or 30 years after Austen's death. Two explanations have been given for this change. The official one is that the studio, MGM, wished to use more flamboyant costumes than the relatively restrained and simple ones of the Regency era. The other is that MGM had recently made another film set during the early Victorian period and wanted to re-use the sets and costumes. The film was originally intended to be in colour, to which it would have been well suited, but ended up being made in black-and-white because "Gone with the Wind" had used up all MGM's stocks of colour film.
I will not say much about the plot because it is so well-known. The film does, however, differ from the novel in a number of ways. Most of these are fairly minor; whenever a novel is adapted for the screen some scenes will inevitably need to be shortened or omitted altogether if the film is not to become intolerably long-winded. In the novel the insufferable Mr. Collins was a clergyman, here he becomes a librarian, a change driven by the Production Code which forbade unsympathetic portrayals of the clergy. (This piece of censorship would have disappointed the devoutly Christian Austen, who was using Collins to satirise those who entered the priesthood out of mercenary, self-seeking motives rather than genuine religious feelings). The film ends with all five Bennet sisters married or about to be married, unlike the book which ends with only Jane, Elizabeth and Lydia married or engaged.
Perhaps the most significant change is that made to the character of Lady Catherine de Bourgh, in the novel a monstrous old snob and hypocrite but whose personality is here considerably softened, again blunting Austen's satire. She is still a formidable old lady, but is actually sympathetic towards Elizabeth's proposed marriage to Darcy, something which in the book she does her damnedest to prevent.
The film was made in the United States by an American studio, but in the thirties Hollywood was generally respectful towards the British classics so Austen's English setting is kept. (This would not be something we could take for granted today; when Alfonso Cuaron made a film of Dickens's "Great Expectations" he not only switched the action to America but also gave it a contemporary setting). This meant that the cast, most of whom were American themselves, had to put on their best English accents, and most cope well with the challenge, although one or two occasionally slip.
Laurence Olivier, who here plays the proud Mr. Darcy, had the previous year acted in another adaptation of a nineteenth-century classic, "Wuthering Heights". Superficially Heathcliff and Darcy are quite different characters, but both are passionate men, the difference being that in Darcy's case his passion is constrained beneath a formal exterior of manners and breeding. With Olivier's performance one always senses the strong emotions hidden beneath his immaculately starched shirt. With all due respect to admirers of Colin Firth's interpretation, and of Matthew MacFadyen's (if he has any), Sir Laurence is still for me the greatest Mr. Darcy.
As for Greer Garson as the prejudiced Elizabeth Bennet, she is fine if one can overlook the fact that at 36 she is considerably older than the character imagined by Jane Austen (21 in the book). In the early nineteenth century young women were regarded as being well on the way to becoming an old maid if they were still unmarried in their late twenties, like Charlotte Lucas here or Anne Elliott in "Persuasion". Austen would have been very surprised had she known that in the twentieth century her heroines would be played by actresses in their late thirties. The original choice for Elizabeth was Norma Shearer, two years older even than Garson. Emma Thomson was a similar age when she played Elinor in "Sense and Sensibility", but that seems to matter less as the ultra-sensible Elinor is very much an old head on young shoulders. Nevertheless, Garson brings out well Elizabeth's determination and sense of self-respect; we sense that she and Darcy are a fine match for one another.
Maureen O'Sullivan makes a sweet and lovable Jane, even if she is one of those who occasionally let their accents slip. (O'Sullivan is best remembered today for playing another Jane, in the "Tarzan" films). I also liked Edmund Gwenn as Mr. Bennet; the contribution I liked least came from Edna May Oliver as Lady Catherine, although the fault may lie less with the actress than with the changes made by the scriptwriter.
Now that Jane Austen is so firmly established as good box office, it is strange to think that this "Pride and Prejudice" was the first feature film to be based on her work. Stranger still that it remained the only one until the nineties. It is very different from a modern "heritage cinema" adaptation, but as an example of a 1940s romantic comedy it is an excellent one, keeping a lot of Austen's wit and powers of characterisation. 9/10
A goof. We see carriages driving on the right-hand side of the road, but we Brits drive on the left, and did so even in the horse-and-carriage days of the nineteenth century.
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