“PRIDE AND PREJUDICE” (1940) Review

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“PRIDE AND PREJUDICE” (1940) Review

There have been at least eight adaptations of “Pride and Prejudice”, Jane Austen’s 1813 novel. But as far as I know, only four are well known or constantly mentioned by many of the novelist’s present-day fans. And one of the four happens to be the movie adapted in 1940 by Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer. 

Directed by Robert Z. Leonard, “PRIDE AND PREJUDICE” told the story of the five unmarried daughters of a 19th century English landowner and the efforts of his shrill wife to get them married before his estate is inherited by a distant male cousin. For years, this version of Austen’s novel has been highly regarded by fans and critics alike. But ever since the advent of numerous Austen adaptations in the past 15 to 20 years, these same critics and fans have been incredibly harsh toward this Hollywood classic. Many have complained that the movie failed to be a faithful adaptation of the 1813 novel.

Many of the complaints volleyed by recent Austen fans include:

*The movie’s fashions and setting changed to the late 1820s and early 1830s
*The deletion of Elizabeth Bennet’s trip to Derbyshire and Pemberly
*Mr. Darcy’s slightly less haughty manner
*Instead of a ball, Charles Bingley held a fête for the Hertfordshire neighborhood
*The change in Lady Catherine de Bourgh’s reason for visiting Longbourn

The 1940 movie was the first version of Austen’s novel I had ever seen. Since then, I have become a major fan of some of the adaptations that followed – including the 1980 miniseries, the 1995 miniseries and the 2005 movie. So, when I had decided to watch this version again, I wondered if my high regard of the film would remain. Needless to say, it has.

“PRIDE AND PREJUDICE” had a running time of 117 minutes. To expect it to be a completely faithful adaptation of the novel seemed ridiculous to me. If I must be frank, I have NEVER SEEN a completely faithful adaptation. But I can say this about the 1940 movie, it remains as delightfully entertaining as ever.

However, the movie is not without its faults. And I was able to spot a few. One, I found Laurence Olivier’s portrayal of the haughty Fitzwilliam Darcy as not quite so haughty . . . especially in his pursuit of Elizabeth Bennet during the Netherfield Fête. The time span between Elizabeth’s departure from the Collins household in Kent and Darcy’s arrival in Hertfordshire, to announce his knowledge of Lydia Bennet and George Wickham’s elopement seemed ridiculously short. Since the movie was nearly two hours long, it could have spared a scene in which Colonel Fitzwilliam had revealed Mr. Darcy’s part in Charles Bingley’s departure from Hertfordshire. Instead, we are given a scene in which Elizabeth angrily conveyed the colonel’s revelation to her friend, Charlotte Lucas. And speaking of Charlotte, I was rather disappointed by her portrayal. It made Gerald Oliver Smith’s (Colonel Fitzwilliam) appearance in the movie rather irrelevant. I found nothing wrong with Karen Morely’s performance. But screenwriters Aldous Huxley, Helen Jerome and Jane Muffin failed to do justice to Charlotte’s character or her friendship with Elizabeth.

Despite these disappointments, I managed to enjoy “PRIDE AND PREJUDICE” as much as ever. A good deal of Austen’s words and wit remained in the screenplay. And the screenwriters also added some of their own memorable lines that left me laughing aloud. After my recent viewing of the movie, I believe this “PRIDE AND PREJUDICE” is one of the funniest Austen adaptations I have ever seen. Director Robert Z. Leonard has been nominated for a Best Director Academy Award at least twice in his career – for 1930’s “THE DIVORCEE” and 1936’s “THE GREAT ZIEGFIELD”. It seems a pity that he was never nominated for “PRIDE AND PREJUDICE”, because I believe that he did an excellent job of injecting a great deal of atmosphere, humor and zest into the film. And his pacing of the film is top-notch. Not once did I ever have the inclination to fall asleep, while watching it.

While many Austen fans were busy bemoaning that the movie was not completely faithful to the novel, I was too busy enjoying it. And if I must be brutally honest, there was one major change to Austen’s story that really impressed me. At the Netherfield Fête, Elizabeth began to show signs of warming up to Mr. Darcy, following her demonstration of her prowess as an archer. But when he noticed the less pleasant sides of the Bennet family, Mr. Darcy withdrew himself from Elizabeth, deepening her dislike toward him even further. This was a creation of the screenwriters and to my surprise, I ended up enjoying it.

As I had hinted earlier, I found it to be one of the funniest adaptations I have ever seen. There were so many scenes that either had me laughing on the floor or smirking (with delight). Some of them included the Bennet family’s introduction to Mr. Collins, poor Mary Bennet’s attempt to entertain the guests at the Netherfield Fête, Mrs. Bennet and Lady Lucas’ race to reach their respective homes in order to order their husbands to call upon Charles Bingley, Elizabeth’s first meeting with George Wickham at the Meryton Assembly, and Caroline Bingley’s attempt to express interest in Mr. Darcy’s letter to his sister Georgiana. But the few scenes that I consider my personal favorites were the interaction between Elizabeth and Mr. Darcy during a game of archery, Mr. Collins’ marriage proposal to Elizabeth and the dinner sequence at Rosings with the verbose Lady Catherine de Bourgh.

I tried to find a performance that seemed out of step for me. The only one that left me feeling less than satisfied came from Karen Morely, who portrayed Charlotte Lucas. Her Charlotte seemed to fade into the background, in compare to the other characters. I suspect that the problem had more to do with Huxley, Jerome and Muffin’s screenplay than the actress’ performance. But everyone else seemed to be at the top of their game. Both Ann Rutherford and Heather Angel were outrageously silly as the younger Bennet sisters. Marsha Hunt was hilarious as the Bennet family’s wallflower, Mary. Bruce Lester was charming as the extroverted Charles Bingley. He also made a strong screen chemistry with Maureen O’Sullivan, who was equally charming as the eldest Bennet sibling, Jane. Frieda Inescort was both convincingly cool and sometimes rather funny as the imperious and ambitious Caroline Bingley. Edward Ashley Cooper gave what I believe to be the second best portrayal of the roguish George Wickham. He was charming, smooth and insidious. And Edmund Gwenn gave a subtle, yet witty performance as the quietly sarcastic Mr. Bennet.

However, there were five performances that really impressed me. One came from Melville Cooper, who had me laughing so hard, thanks to his hilarious portrayed the obsequious William Collins, Mr. Bennet’s annoying heir presumptive for the Longbourn estate. Equally funny was the unforgettable character actress, Edna May Oliver as Mr. Darcy’s overbearing aunt, Lady Catherine de Bourgh. Her role as an English aristocrat seemed so convincing that I was amazed to discover that she was an American from Massachusetts. Mary Boland gave a superb and entertaining performance as the equally overbearing and gauche Mrs. Bennet. In fact, I have to say that her portrayal of Mrs. Bennet is my absolute favorite. My God . . . that voice! She really knew how to put it to good use. Fresh from his success in 1939’s “WUTHERING HEIGHTS”, Laurence Olivier tackled the role of Fitzwilliam Darcy, regarded as the favorite Austen hero by many fans. Personally, I thought he did an excellent job, although his Darcy never struck me as haughty as the other interpretations I have seen. From what I have heard, he was not that fond of the picture or his role. I was also amazed that he had such a strong screen chemistry with his leading lady, considering that he thought she was wrong for the part. Olivier had this to say in his autobiography:

“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.”

I thought it was nice of Olivier to call Greer Garson “darling”. But I do not think I can take his comments about her performance that seriously . . . especially since he wanted Vivien Leigh – his paramour at the time and soon-to-be future wife to portray Elizabeth. Personally, I am glad that Garson ended up portraying Elizabeth. I thought she was superb. Garson had a deliciously sly wit that she put to good use in her performance . . . more so than any other actress I have seen in this role. Some have commented that in her mid-thirties, she was too old to portray Elizabeth. Perhaps. But Garson did such an excellent job of conveying Elizabeth’s immaturities – especially when it came to passing judgment on Mr. Darcy that I never gave her age any thought. All I can say is that she was brilliant and I heartily disagree with Olivier.

Many fans have commented upon Adrian’s costume designs for “PRIDE AND PREJUDICE”. They seemed to have taken umbrage that he designed the costumes from the late Georgian Era – namely the late 1820s or early 1830s, claiming that Austen’s story should have been set during the Regency Era. However, Austen first wrote the novel in the late 1790s. And she did not change it that much before it was finally published in 1813. There was no law that “PRIDE AND PREJUDICE”had to be set in the 1810s – especially when one considers there was a version set in early 21st century India. Personally, I found Adrian’s costumes beautiful, even if they were filmed in black-and-white. And since “PRIDE AND PREJUDICE”was not a historical drama, I simply do not understand the fuss.

After reading so many negative comments about “PRIDE AND PREJUDICE” in recent years, I wondered how I react to watching it again after so many years. To my surprise, I discovered that I still love it. Even after so many years. I admit that it is not perfect. But neither are the other versions I have seen. The magic of Greer Garson, Laurence Olivier and director Robert Z. Leonard still holds up after so many years.

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JANE AUSTEN’s Rogue Gallery

Below is a look at the fictional rogues – male and female – created by Jane Austen in the six published novels written by her. So, without further ado . . . 

 

JANE AUSTEN’S ROGUE GALLERY

   

John Willoughby – “Sense and Sensibility” (1811)

John Willoughby is a handsome young single man with a small estate, but has expectations of inheriting his aunt’s large estate. Also, Willoughby driven by the his own pleasures, whether amusing himself with whatever woman crossed his path, or via marrying in order to obtain wealth to fuel his profligate ways. He does not value emotional connection and is willing to give up Marianne Dashwood, his true love, for more worldly objects. Although not my favorite rogue, I feel that Willoughby is Austen’s most successful rogue, because he was able to feel remorse and regret for his rejection of Marianne by the end of the story. This makes him one of Austen’s most complex rogues. Here are the actors that portrayed John Willoughby:

1. Clive Francis (1971) – I must admit that I did not find him particularly memorable as Willoughby. In fact, my memories of his performance is very vague.

2. Peter Woodward (1981) – I first became aware of Woodward during his brief stint on the sci-fi series, “CRUSADE”. He was also slightly memorable as Willoughby, although I did not find his take on the character as particularly roguish. His last scene may have been a bit hammy, but otherwise, I found him tolerable.

3. Greg Wise (1995) – He was the first actor I saw portray Willoughby . . . and he remains my favorite. His Willoughby was both dashing and a little bit cruel. And I loved that he managed to conveyed the character’s regret over rejecting Marianne without any dialogue whatsoever.

4. Dominic Cooper (2008) – Many television critics made a big deal about his portrayal of Willoughby, but I honestly did not see the magic. However, I must admit that he gave a pretty good performance, even if his Willoughby came off as a bit insidious at times.

   

George Wickham – “Pride and Prejudice” (1813)

George Wickham is an old childhood friend of hero Fitzwilliam Darcy and the son of the Darcy family’s steward, whose dissipate ways estranged the pair. He is introduced into the story as a handsome and superficially charming commissioned militia officer in Meryton, who quickly charms and befriends the heroine, Elizabeth Bennet, after learning of her dislike of Darcy. Wickham manages to charm the entire Meryton neighborhood, before they realize that they have a snake in their midst. Elizabeth eventually learns of Wickham’s attempt to elope with the young Georgiana Darcy. Unfortunately, he manages to do the same with her younger sister, Lydia, endangering the Bennet family’s reputation. He could have been the best of Austen’s rogues, if it were not for his stupid decision to elope with Lydia, a young woman whose family would be unable to provide him with a well-endowed dowry. Because I certainly cannot see him choosing him as a traveling bed mate, while he evade creditors. Here are the actors that portrayed George Wickham:

1. Edward Ashley-Cooper (1940) – This Australian actor was surprisingly effective as the smooth talking Wickham. He was handsome, charming, witty and insidious. I am surprised that his portrayal is not that well known.

2. Peter Settelen (1980) – He made a charming Wickham, but his performance came off as a bit too jovial for me to take him seriously as a rogue.

3. Adrian Lukis (1995) – His Wickham is, without a doubt, is my favorite take on the character. He is not as handsome as the other actors who have portrayed the role; but he conveyed all of the character’s attributes with sheer perfection.

4. Rupert Friend (2005) – I think that he was hampered by director Joe Wright’s script and failed to become an effective Wickham. In fact, I found his portrayal almost a waste of time.

  

Henry Crawford – “Mansfield Park” (1814)

I think that one of the reasons I have such difficulties in enjoying “MANSFIELD PARK” is that I found Austen’s portrayal of the roguish Henry Crawford rather uneven. He is originally portrayed as a ladies’ man who takes pleasure in seducing women. But after courting heroine Fanny Price, he falls genuinely in love with her and successfully manages to mend his ways. But Fanny’s rejection of him (due to her love of cousin Edmund Bertram) lead him to begin an affair with Edmund’s sister, Maria Rushworth and is labeled permanently by Austen as a reprobate. This entire storyline failed to alienate me toward Henry. I just felt sorry for him, because Fanny was not honest enough to reveal why she had rejected him. Here are the actors that portrayed Henry Crawford:

1. Robert Burbage (1983) – As I had stated in a review of the 1983 miniseries, I thought his take on Henry Crawford reminded me of an earnest schoolboy trying to act like a seducer. Sorry, but I was not impressed.

2. Alessandro Nivola (1999) – In my opinion, his portrayal of Henry was the best. He managed to convey the seductive qualities of the character, his gradual transformation into an earnest lover and the anger he felt at being rejected. Superb performance.

3. Joseph Beattie (2007) – His performance was pretty solid and convincing. However, there were a few moments when his Henry felt more like a stalker than a seducer. But in the end, he gave a pretty good performance.

  

Mary Crawford – “Mansfield Park” (1814)

Ah yes! Mary Crawford. I never could understand why Jane Austen eventually painted her as a villainess (or semi-villainess) in “MANSFIELD PARK”. As the sister of Henry Crawford, she shared his tastes for urbane airs, tastes, wit (both tasteful and ribald) and an interest in courtship. She also took an unexpected shine to the shy Fanny Price, while falling in love with the likes of Edmund Bertram. However, Edmund planned to become a clergyman, something she could not abide. Mary was not perfect. She could be superficial at times and a bit too manipulative for her own good. If I must be honest, she reminds me too much of Dolly Levi, instead of a woman of low morals. Here are the actresses who portrayed Mary Crawford:

1. Jackie Smith-Wood (1983) – She gave a delightful and complex performance as Mary Crawford. I practically found myself wishing that “MANSFIELD PARK” had been a completely different story, with her as the heroine. Oh well. We cannot have everything.

2. Embeth Davidtz (1999) – Her portrayal of Mary was just as delightful and complex as Smith-Wood. Unfortunately for the actress, writer-director Patricia Rozema wrote a scene that featured a ridiculous and heavy-handed downfall for Mary. Despite that, she was still superb and held her own against Frances O’Connor’s more livelier Fanny.

3. Hayley Atwell (2007) – After seeing her performance as Mary, I began to suspect that any actress worth her salt can do wonders with the role. This actress was one of the bright spots in the 2007 lowly regarded version of Austen’s novel. Mind you, her portrayal was a little darker than the other two, but I still enjoyed her portrayal.

   

Frank Churchill – “Emma” (1815)

Frank Churchill was the son of one of Emma Woodhouse’s neighbors by a previous marriage. He was an amiable young man whom everyone, except Mr. George Knightley, who considered him quite immature. After his mother’s death he was raised by his wealthy aunt and uncle, whose last name he took. Frank may be viewed simply as careless, shallow, and little bit cruel in his mock disregard for his real fiancee, Jane Fairfax. But I find it difficult to view him as a villain. Here are the actors who portrayed Frank Churchill:

1. Robert East (1972) – It is hard to believe that this actor was 39-40 years old, when he portrayed Frank Churchill in this miniseries. He did a pretty good job, but there were a few moments when his performance seemed a bit uneven.

2. Ewan McGregor (1996) – He did a pretty good job, but his performance was hampered by Douglas McGrath’s script, which only focused upon Frank’s efforts to hide his engagement to Jane Fairfax.

3. Raymond Coulthard (1996-97) – In my opinion, he gave the best performance as Frank. The actor captured all of the character’s charm, humor, and perversity on a very subtle level.

4. Rupert Evans (2009) – He was pretty good as Frank, but there were times when his performance became a little heavy-handed, especially in later scenes that featured Frank’s frustrations in hiding his engagement to Jane Fairfax.

 

John Thorpe – “Northanger Abbey” (1817)

I would view John Thorpe as Jane Austen’s least successful rogue. I do not if I could even call him a rogue. He seemed so coarse, ill-mannered and not very bright. With his flashy wardrobe and penchant for mild profanity, I have doubts that he could attract any female, including one that was desperate for a husband. And his joke on Catherine Moreland seemed so . . . unnecessary. Here are the actors that portrayed John Thorpe:

1. Jonathan Coy (1986) – He basically did a good job with the character he was given. Although there were moments when his John Thorpe seemed more like an abusive stalker than the loser he truly was.

2. William Beck (2007) – I admit that physically, he looks a little creepy. But the actor did a first-rate job in portraying Thorpe as the crude loser he was portrayed in Austen’s novel.

 

Isabella Thorpe – “Northanger Abbey” (1817)

The lovely Isabella Thorpe was a different kettle of fish than her brother. She had ten times the charms and probably the brains. Her problem was that her libido brought her down the moment she clapped eyes on Captain Frederick Tilney. And this is what ended her friendship with heroine Catherine Moreland, considering that she was engaged to the latter’s brother. Here are the actresses who portrayed Isabella Thorpe:

1. Cassie Stuart (1986) – She did a pretty good job as Isabella, even if there were moments when she came off as a bit . . . well, theatrical. I only wish that the one of the crew had taken it easy with her makeup.

2. Carey Mulligan (2007) – She gave a first-rate performance as Isabella, conveying all of the character’s charm, intelligence and weaknesses. It was a very good performance.

  

William Elliot – “Persuasion” (1818)

William Elliot is a cousin of heroine Anne Elliot and the heir presumptive of her father, Sir Walter. He became etranged from the family when he wed a woman of much lower social rank, for her fortune. Sir Walter and Elizabeth had hoped William would marry the latter. After becoming a widower, he mended his relationship with the Elliots and attempted to court Anne in the hopes of inheriting the Elliot baronetcy and ensuring that Sir Walter never marries Mrs. Penelope Clay, Elizabeth Elliot’s companion. He was an interesting character, but his agenda regarding Sir Walter’s title and estates struck me as irrelevant. Sir Walter could have easily found another woman to marry and conceive a male heir.“PERSUASION” could have been a better story without a rogue/villain. Here are the actors that portrayed William Elliot:

1. David Savile (1971) – He made a pretty good William Elliot. However, there were times when his character switched from a jovial personality to a seductive one in an uneven manner.

2. Samuel West (1995) – His portrayal of William Elliot is probably the best I have ever seen. He conveyed all aspects of William’s character – both the good and bad – with seamless skill. My only problem with his characterization is that the screenwriter made his William financial broke. And instead of finding another rich wife, this William tries to court Anne to keep a close eye on Sir Walter and Mrs. Clay. Ridiculous.

3. Tobias Menzies (2007) – I found his portrayal of William Elliot to be a mixed affair. There were moments that his performance seemed pretty good. Unfortunately, there were more wooden moments from the actor than decent ones.