Reviewed by Colin Jacobson (July 16, 2020)
At some point, audiences may reject adaptations of Jane Austenís classic 1813 novel Pride and Prejudice. This seems unlikely to happen anytime soon, however, as Austenís work remains popular.
According to various online sources, a 1938 TV version became the first filmed take on Pride, but given how few televisions were in use back then, I canít imagine many saw it. For most, 1940ís cinematic Pride offered their initial screening of the property.
Set in the late 18th century, Pride introduces us to the Bennet family. Headed by Mr. Bennet (Edmund Gwenn) and his wife (Mary Boland), the clan includes five daughters: Elizabeth (Greer Garson), Jane (Maureen OíSullivan), Mary (Marsha Hunt), Lydia (Ann Rutherford) and Kitty (Heather Angel).
They go all atwitter when two well-off, eligible dudes arrive in their neck of the woods: cheerful, foppish Mr. Bingley (Bruce Lester) and dour Mr. Darcy (Laurence Olivier). The marriage-minded Bennet girls do their best to entice these studs, and Jane Ė regarded as the prize of the pack Ė succeeds with Mr. Bingley, at least in the short term.
Matters proceed less gracefully for the others, though a certain antagonistic spark occurs between the sullen Darcy and the snappy, intelligent Elizabeth. This doesnít set well with Bingleyís sister (Frieda Inescort), a chilly babe who seems determined to interfere in the affairs of others.
Another complication ensues when cousin Mr. Collins (Melville Cooper) arrives on the scene. Because the laws of the day wouldnít allow the family estate to pass down to the women, when Mr. Bennet dies, everything will go to Mr. Collins.
Thwarted in his desire to land Jane, he sets his sights on Elizabeth, the next most attractive Bennet girl. In addition, Elizabeth develops an interest in hunky Mr. Wickham (Edward Ashley), a ďlowly foot soldierĒ with some bad feelings toward Darcy.
This is my third review of Pride and the third time Iíve used that plot synopsis. Hey, we all need to recycle to help the environment!
As lazy as I feel for this reuse, I see no reason to rewrite an overview of the same story. If the various adaptations offered substantial narrative/character changes, Iíd redo the overview, but all three Ė this 1940 edition, a 1995 mini-series and a 2005 theatrical movie - stick pretty closely to the source tale.
Where they differ comes from the manner in which they approach that material, of course, and each one reflects its era. Given that they came out only a decade apart, the 1995 and 2005 versions donít emanate from terribly different social viewpoints. With an additional three hours at its disposal, 1995 enjoys greater scope and depth, but 2005 boasts a more vivid, vibrant telling.
Pride 1940 comes from a radically different world than what existed in 1995 or 2005, so it stands as the odd adaptation out among the three. Not that I view that as a negative, as a version of Pride from Hollywoodís Golden Age seems intriguing.
And intriguing the 1940 film is, as it presents a quality take on the material. That said, I donít think it lives up to the storyís more recent adaptations.
To my surprise, the lead actors become a drawback, mainly via Garson. For one, she was much too old for the role.
As written, Elizabeth should be 20 years old, whereas Garson was 36 during the production! This becomes a major problem, as it seems impossible to view Elizabeth in the correct light.
Garson doesnít vaguely look like a woman barely out of her twenties, so even though the film ďages upĒ others to use the 29-year-old OíSullivan as the 22-year-old Jane, it just doesnít work. For perspective, 1995ís Jennifer Ehle was 25 during the production, while 2005ís Keira Knightley was a dead-on perfect 20 at the time.
In addition, Garson simply fails to find Elizabethís charm and spunk. Whereas Elizabeth should seem intelligent and independent, Garson plays her as smug and unlikable through too much of the film.
On paper, Olivier seems like a great fit for Darcy, as he usually excels at this kind of icy character. However, Olivier plays the part with an oddly jovial nature.
Instead of the usual aloof, condescending Darcy who warms up along the way, Olivierís feels engaging from the start. This puts the film in the odd position whereby we like Darcy way more than Elizabeth, a reversal of the natural order.
At least Olivier played an age-appropriate role. Darcy should be 30, so then-33-year-old Olivier fits. It remains odd to see a Darcy whoís younger than Elizabeth, though.
I feel more pleased with the supporting cast, and Boland presents arguably the least annoying Mrs. Bennet to date. That stems more from the eraís manner of acting, though.
Films circa 1940 featured more theatrical performances in general than those in 1995 or 2005. Bolandís Mrs. Bennet remains cartoony and shrill, but the role stands out less in 1940 than she does in 1995 or 2005 because the movie features other actors who veer toward broadness.
Outside of potential casting concerns, the 1940 Pride seems like a perfectly satisfactory exploration of the property. Though twice nominated for the Best Director Oscar, filmmaker Robert Z. Leonard seems largely forgotten today, and I canít claim Pride gives us reasons to view this as a tragedy.
I donít mean that to sound as snarky as it does, for I donít have negative thoughts toward Leonardís work here. However, I also canít find anything particularly memorable in his approach to Pride. Leonard gives us a perfectly decent version of the movie, but it lacks a lot of real spark or panache.
Still, I canít complain, and the 1940 Pride turns into a mostly enjoyable version of the story. While it comes with some unforced casting errors, it remains largely engaging, albeit not as good as its more modern cousins.