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Article: Pride and Prejudice: 1940

Pride and Prejudice starring Greer Garson and Laurence Olivier
Flow Gently

Pride and Prejudice: 1940

"Five charming sisters on the gayest, merriest manhunt that ever snared a bewildered bachelor! Girls! Take a lesson from these husband hunters!" MGM Film Promotion

Pride and Prejudice For decades the only Jane Austen novel available on film, Pride and Prejudice (MGM, 1940, starring Laurence Olivier and Greer Garson), has received both high praise and disparaging criticism. It has been accused of gross negligence in both costumes and setting (the script, as well, leaves much to be desired, as many of Jane Austen’s greatest lines are twisted or thrown out completely) Perhaps the greatest flaw this film has, though, is not the costuming (which is easy to overlook with other such "updates" as Clueless and The Bennet Boys around for comparison), or lack of crucial scenes, but rather the deliberate and unnecessary plot twist of having Lady Catherine willingly play cupid for Darcy. Scandalous!

In her book Jane Austen’s World, Maggie Smith comments: "Though one of the co-writers of the screenplay was Aldous Huxley, this is very much Hollywood’s version of "Quaint Old England". It is significant that the film was made at the very moment when Great Britain was experiencing its "Darkest hour". Whether the sub-text was to elicit support for an English tradition in jeopardy, or to suggest that the old country’s greatness lay irretrievably in the past, this film, a travesty of the novel certainly did no service to Jane Austen. Audiences of the film can have come away with no idea of the subtlety, profundity, and timelessness of her art." Pride and Prejudice Legend has it* that the film was first suggested by none other than Harpo Marx! Apparently, he saw a stage version while in Philadelphia (Helen Jerome’s adaptation which played in New York City in 1935 and in London the following year.) and thought it would make a wonderful movie. MGM, who produced the film, is responsible for the outrageous costumes. Trying to cash in on Gone with the Wind’s success of the previous year (1939) they gave the women hoop skirts and huge puffed sleeves. After all, they reasoned, the Regency dresses were ugly "wet nightgowns" compared with Scarlett’s flying skirts. To top it all off, they are reported to have considered Clark Gable and Vivian Leigh for title roles! Mercifully, we were spared that horror. This obvious fashion change is the most glaring flaw in an otherwise lighthearted film. It is interesting to note though, that when they chose to change the time period, setting the story in the 1830’s, they updated everything else as well, including the hairstyles and the dialogue ("That’s the best news since Waterloo...."). MGM of the forties was never one to do things by halves. This attention to detail brought critical acclaim when, in 1941, Cedric Gibbons and Paul Groesse won an Oscar for best art direction and interiors for a black and white film. Only three Jane Austen films have been awarded this honor. (In 1996 Emma Thompson won an Oscar for her screenplay of Sense and Sensibility and in 1997, Emma’s Rachel Portman won for best original music or comedy score.)

Pride and Prejudice is a difficult book to squeeze into 118 minutes. Even the made for television versions recognized this, setting aside up to six hours to broadcast the program. Perhaps this is why, instead of the leisurly pace enjoyed by later versions we feel whirled through a world of giggling, flirting school girls. Though it is fun, it is a bit confusing by the time everyone reaches their natural and happy conclusions. Despite this, Pride and Prejudice (P&P0) remains a favorite of many people, for many, it was their first introduction to Jane Austen, for others, it is simply a reminder of "the good old days". Greer Garson as Elizabeth is calm and beautiful; Marsha Hunt’s classic rendition of Flow Gently, Sweet Afton is not to be missed.

* "Jane Austen In Hollywood" edited by Linda Troost and Sayre Greenfield. 

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