Pride and Prejudice (1940)

“At this moment it’s difficult to believe you are so proud.”
“At this moment it’s difficult to believe you are so prejudiced.”


The key to enjoying this movie is to divorce it in your mind completely from all other screen and television versions of the book and indeed, the book itself. This is not the romance envisioned by Jane Austen, but an adorable comedy that just begs to be watched on a rainy Sunday.

This version of the book is the least faithful of all the Pride and Prejudice adaptations I’ve seen, excepting those updated for modern times. Parts are left out of the movie, although that is to be expected. The 1995 miniseries is six hours long, whereas this movie is only two. I have more of a problem with changes to the plot that seem to have little reasoning. Mr. Collins is no longer a clergyman, but a...librarian? Instead of hosting a ball, Bingley puts on...a garden party? The most notable plot deviation is in the role of Lady Catherine de Bourgh. In the book, she is highly critical of a potential match between Darcy and Elizabeth. Here it is revealed that her memorable speech (“Are the shades of Pemberly to be thus polluted?”) was given in collusion with her nephew, in order to gauge Elizabeth’s reaction to another proposal. That’s all very cute, but I have a problem with this.


First of all, this development greatly changes Mr. Darcy. In the book, “disguise of every sort is [his] abhorrence.” Here, he willingly takes part in a deception that benefits only himself. I’m not saying it’s wrong or even that it makes him less likable, I’m just saying it is a fundamental misunderstanding of the character the way Austen wrote him. Secondly, Jane Austen is such an interesting author because her stories end happily, but not perfectly; she is frank and honest in the futures of her characters. This ties everything up a little too neatly. I have a similar problem with Wickham and Lydia’s sudden, extreme wealth. In the book (and all other movie/TV versions), Darcy’s admitted financial assistance is limited to purchasing Wickham a commission in the army. While it’s certainly not out of the realm of possibility that Darcy might have had to bribe Wickham to marry Lydia, I seriously doubt he would give them enough money to hire a dozen liveried servants.

But there are a couple of additions to the source material I find quite adorable. The carriage race between Mrs. Bennet and Mrs. Lucas is absolutely ridiculous, but oh so charming. I’m also a fan of drunk Lydia and Kitty. The garden party actually provides multiple moments of adorableness. I love Lizzy literally running away from Mr. Collins and Darcy coming to the rescue and, of course, Elizabeth’s epic line: “How clever of you my dear Miss Bingley, to know something of which you are ignorant.”

The film is the least historically accurate film version of Pride and Prejudice. The fashions are from at least twenty years after the book takes place, while several of the hairstyles are from about a century after that. Because I’m in a nitpicky sort of mood, I also have to point out that Elizabeth never would have danced with Wickham after turning Darcy down. It was highly improper to refuse to dance with one man and then to dance with another. This is a plot point in Fanny Burney’s Evelina, a favorite book of Jane Austen’s. I do have to give the filmmakers credit on the waltzing, however. There is no waltzing in the book, and the first time I saw the movie it seemed horribly out of place. However, the waltz was indeed becoming popular in England during the time, although it was largely confined to more “fashionable” circles. It is unlikely it would have been danced at Meryton at this time, but not out of the realm of possibility.

Greer Garson’s Elizabeth Bennet is decent, but her performance, like all the acting in this movie, is marked by that distinctive 1930s flavor. Words are enunciated too clearly, gestures are overacted, and raised eyebrows are sustained for the camera’s benefit. In short, the actors are all too aware that they are being filmed. This isn’t a criticism per se, many movies of the era have this sense. Perhaps it was cultivated and done on purpose for stylistic reasons. I don’t know.

Laurence Olivier is a creditable Darcy, but he is no Colin Firth. Colin Firth should honestly have “Better than Laurence Olivier” engraved on his tombstone. In my opinion, Olivier’s Darcy is too flirty with Elizabeth from the get-go. He lacks the coldness and gruffness that Firth gave the character. The result is that Elizabeth’s dislike of Darcy comes across as more irrational, which puts the audience more on his side than hers.

The supporting cast in this version is good, but largely unremarkable. The one exception in my thinking is Edmund Gwenn as Mr. Bennet. Gwenn is actually my favorite Mr. Bennet, although his interpretation is possibly the one least true to the original character. The Mr. Bennet of the novel is sarcastic, mocking, and even a little bitter at the “silly” way most of his family has turned out. Gwenn’s Mr. Bennet is warmer and softer. His descriptions of his daughters as “silly” seem to be intended in a loving, joking way instead of with derision. Would you expect any less from the man whose most famous role was Santa Claus?

Bits and Pieces:

Like in other versions, this Charlotte Lucas cannot be considered “plain.”

As in the 2005 version, Mrs. Hurst and Miss Bingley are condensed into one character, while Mr. Hurst has disappeared entirely. The movies miss nothing by losing the Hursts. Mr. Hurst is entirely comedic relief and Mrs. Hurst is largely a carbon copy of her sister minus the infatuation with Darcy.

Some of Darcy’s most famous lines are slightly altered. While this doesn’t change the substance of the character or the nature of what is being said, it is a little irritating to me to hear the lines said ‘incorrectly.’

It’s totally irrelevant, but I love the way old movies do the billing. It’s not necessarily by who’s the most famous or who got paid the most, it’s laid out by plot. It really helps the audience, particularly in movies with huge casts (cough Gone with the Wind cough). Game of Thrones honestly needs to consider this.

Favorite Moments:

The aforementioned carriage race

Mr. Collins practicing his compliments to Mrs. Bennet and examining things in the house he is one day to own

The archery scene

Lydia calling Wickham “Wicky”

Mary and Kitty getting beaux at the end of the film. Overly perfect? Yes, but also adorable.

three out of four bulls-eyes

5 comments:

a.m. said...

"Laurence Olivier is a creditable Darcy, but he is no Colin Firth."

Wow! Firth will always be my favorite Darcy, but I don't have as many references as you. That's quite the impressive compliment!

Thanks for this review, sunbunny. I will probably never see this version (I'm not a fan of classic movies) but it's fun to take a look at it through your eyes.

eternaleve said...

The reason why the fashions in this version were so inaccurate were, I have been told, that the studio didn't have the money to shell out for new costume design so just used those left over from Gone With The Wind.

sunbunny said...

Aww, thanks a.m.!

eternaleve - That's really interesting! I hadn't heard that, but it makes total sense. :)

CrazyCris said...

Aha! This one I have seen!!! But the only thing I remembered from it was a) in black and white, and b) Lady Catherine's interference which was really to help her nephew! I remember that was quite a shocker to me! :p

ChrisB said...

Finally got around to seeing this version. It is, in its own way, a lot of fun.

I am interested in eternaleve's comment about GWTW because so much of this movie reminded me of that one. Of course it did. The former had just come out and was huge. I'm sure there was an element of trying to ride the coattails.

All that aside, I enjoyed this version. But, you're right, sunbunny. You do need to go into it with an open mind!

Great review, as always!