The Definitive Guide to Pride and Prejudice on Film: 1940 Hollywood Edition

The Definitive Guide to Pride and Prejudice on Film: 1940 Hollywood Edition

The first film adaptation of Pride and Prejudice came out in 1940.  I’m a big Jane Austen fan–I love the 1995 and 2005 P&P adaptations–and I’d heard some enthusiastic buzz about the 1940 version, centering on Laurence Olivier’s performance as Darcy.  Still, I’d never actually viewed this classic version until recently.

Did 1940 live up to the hype? I’ll tell you what I think….but first, the details:

What’s this version like?

Pride and Prejudice is a grand MGM production done up in Old Hollywood style.  This version–which was specifically based off Helen Jerome’s 1936 stage adaptation–is a buoyant comedy of manners.  1940 A-listers Olivier and Greer Garson star as Darcy and Elizabeth.

The movie is just under two hours long, and the plot was radically simplified to keep the film short–we see little of Caroline Bingley, no Gardners, no Georgianna. Despite this streamlining, the film contains quite a few added scenes of considerable length that are not in the book, and don’t do much to drive the plot. (Like the frantic horse-and-carriage race between the Lucases and the Bennets to secure the privilege of visiting Mr. Bingley first.)

The director makes up for lost time in an overdone climax that compresses numerous events into one extended scene in the Bennets’ living room. All of this makes the pacing feel frantic.

Who is Elizabeth in 1940?

Greer Garson embodies the “sweetness” and “archness” of Jane Austen’s character, and she does make a spirited (although frequently weepy) Elizabeth. This Elizabeth is likable enough, but she’s not compelling.

Even in 1940, Garson was criticized as looking too old to play Elizabeth.  (She was 36 in 1940.)  To be fair, the actresses portraying all the sisters are considerably older than in the novel.

Sadly, 1940 Elizabeth is largely static. The major shift from loather to lover of Darcy is made in an instant: she hears the truth about Wickham, and immediately declares to Jane that she loves Darcy after all. This instant transformation is convenient for speeding the plot along, but it damages her character–she’s not won over, she’s just flighty.

Who is Darcy in 1940?

Laurence Olivier makes a dashing Mr. Darcy, although he doesn’t share much in common with Jane Austen’s idea of the man. Olivier is less reticent than the Darcy of the novel or any of the other adaptations–his manner is much more friendly and open. He’s far too charming, and his sense of humor is too apparent.

Mr. Darcy refuses to dance with Elizabeth at the first ball, but he quickly regrets his decision and spends the rest of the film pursuing her. His first proposal is much less surprising than in the other versions. He’s not nearly as rude, either–he has little objection to a match with Elizabeth. There’s just too much Olivier in Olivier’s Darcy.

What’s to Love in the 1940 Version

The film has an airy, lighthearted feel, perhaps because much of the activity has been moved outdoors. The film itself (notice the gorgeous sets) is pleasing to the eye–as you would expect from a Best Art Direction Oscar winner.

Kitty and Lydia are as silly as silly can be, which seems entirely faithful to Austen’s novel. They’re giddy and giggly–and they’re actually doing shots with the men at the Netherfield ball.

What’s Not as Lovable in the 1940 Version

Pride and Prejudice doesn’t play well as a comedy of manners. It is too over-the-top. The bouncy, bubbly tone of the film doesn’t suit the content, and doesn’t do justice to Austen’s work.  The film’s 118 minutes are taken up with too many extraneous scenes to give the characters any room to develop:it’s disappointing to see a Darcy and an Elizabeth who seem so shallow.

Also, these costumes are ridiculous. This version was set thirty years later than the book to make elaborate costumes appropriate.  While Anne of Green Gables would adore the giant puffed sleeves that won’t fit through the doorways, they don’t work for Jane Austen. Other Pride and Prejudice versions may employ too many bonnets, but you won’t mind bonnets a bit after seeing these ridiculous hats!

Bizarre Addition

The essentials of Mr. Wickham’s storyline are intact in the 1940 version, which made Darcy’s compliment Elizabeth on her vehement defense of Mr. Wickham very odd:

I rather admired what you did this afternoon, Miss Elizabeth.  Your resentment of what you believed to be an injustice showed courage and loyalty.  I could wish that I might possess a friend who would defend me as ably as Mr. Wickham was defended today.

Is this really Mr. Darcy? I fear he’s lost his essence.

Favorite Original Scene:

At the Netherfield ball, Elizabeth is trying desperately to evade Mr. Collins and his unwanted attentions.  Darcy helps Elizabeth hide, and then sends Mr. Collins off in the wrong direction in pursuit of her.  They exchange sneaky smiles for outwitting her pursuer.

Scene That Makes You Cringe:

I couldn’t help rolling my eyes at this heavy-handed bit of dialogue. 

Elizabeth: “You’re very puzzling, Mr. Darcy. At this moment, it’s difficult to believe that you’re so…proud.”

Darcy:  “At this moment, it’s difficult to believe that you’re so…prejudiced. Shall we not call it quits and start again?”

Sacrilege!

Spoiler Alert! The 1940 Pride and Prejudice has a radically different ending. Lady Catherine is turned into Darcy’s co-conspirator.  She secretly admires Elizabeth–and thinks it’s an excellent match!  (“She’s right for you, Darcy.  You were a spoiled child, and we don’t want to go on spoiling you. What you need is a woman who can stand up to you.  I think you’ve found her.”)

Darcy enlists Lady Catherine’s help to put Elizabeth to the test–and find out if she really loves him for more than his money.  Elizabeth passes with flying colors, and all ends well.

Fun Facts

  • Aldous Huxley (the author of Brave New World) is one of the screenwriters.
  • Vivien Leigh was a contender to play Elizabeth but she was deemed “too beautiful” for the part.
  • Colin Firth was reluctant to play Darcy for the 1995 BBC productionbecause “Olivier was fantastic and no one else could ever play that part.” 

The Final Word

I don’t recommend the 1940 Pride and Prejudice for general viewing.  Give 1940 a try if you delight in period films, or if you’re a devoted Olivier or Garson fan.

I was very interested in viewing Olivier’s performance after reading Colin Firth’s discussion of the long shadow Olivier cast over the role of Darcy.  If you are similarly interested, 1940 is worth watching.  Otherwise bank your two hours, and invest it more wisely in the 1995 BBC adaptation.

25 comments | Comment

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25 comments

  1. Linda says:

    The 1940’s version of Pride and Prejudice was the first one I saw. I liked it, because I think that Laurence Olivier is quite dashing. I have to agree with your review though. I may go borrow it from the library for old times sake…for a good giggle!

  2. Hannah says:

    I actually grew up with this version…we always watched old movies at home when I was little. I used to like it…until I actually read the book! The bonnets, especially are pretty bizarre, even for ’40s standards of costuming!

  3. Lacey says:

    That IS sacrilege! Such a strange addition. I think I will stick with the 95 and 05 versions, but thank you for going through that for us!

  4. Brenda says:

    I remember reading, quite recently in fact, that the costumes for this version of P & P were all recycled from Gone With the Wind…hence, the reason they seem to place the story at a later date than was intended by Austen. I’ve never seen the version you’ve reviewed here. I may have to see if I can borrow it from the library, as I do like Sir Laurence Olivier and Greer Garson.

  5. Joy Lattin says:

    This is one of my favourite movies. Obviously it can’t cover the whole novel in 2 hours as the TV series did. The film was made in 1940 and still gives pleasure which is more than can be said if the dreadful film version made in 2005. This movie should be treasured.

  6. J. Blair says:

    Olivier and Garson are talented, and entertaining. However, it is too different from the book. Of the 3 versions of this movie that I have watched, Melville Cooper is the BEST Mr. Collins. However, over all, the 1995, A&E BBC mini-series is the best version. Great acting and great staying close to the book.

  7. Liz Moore says:

    Greer Garson as Elizabeth Bennet is “frequently weepy”? No, I cannot agree with you.

  8. Susan says:

    One thing I’ve noticed that has escaped a lot of people: Mr. Collins in this version is NOT a clergyman! He is specifically changed to Lady Catherine’s “librarian”. Obviously, in the world of the 1940’s, a clergyman could not be a figure of ridicule!

  9. Lisa says:

    I think the 1940 version is a funny movie, and watch it just because it’s so “wrong”. I don’t have much experience watching Laurence Olivier movies, and have always wondered why he had such a great reputation as an actor because this is one of the very few movies I have seen him in, and he’s so bad in it. And can I just say that I think the 2005 movie is horrible. The actor playing Mr Darcy is horrible, Donald Sutherland is terrible as Mr. Bennett, Mr. Bingley is too soppy, and even Elizabeth is not right. I know I’m in the vast minority in this opinion, but I can’t stand to watch it.

    • Susan says:

      Oh, NO, you are NOT! I may disagree with you somewhat on Donald Sutherland, but *everything else* is EXACTLY what I have thought! But, I do have to give the director credit: when Keira Knightley laughs, she scrunches up her face in a way that is so overwhelmingly “un-vain” that I can see why the director chose her. But Matthew McFadyen (sp?) is completely unbelievable, and the proposal scene? The WORST I have seen (he races through his lines & repeats them mindlessly! It’s *painful* to watch!) – and that includes the Olivier one!

  10. LJones41 says:

    I don’t regard Greer Garson’s interpretation of Elizabeth Bennet as “weepy”. It’s interesting that so many claim that this version of the novel is so “wrong”, when the other versions – namely the 1980, 1995 and 2005 adaptations – were not completely faithful and made their own changes. Worse, both the 1980 and 1995 versions, like this 1940 movie, got the costumes wrong. “PRIDE AND PREJUDICE” is a story set in the late 1790s, not the Regency era. Apparently, the 2005 version directed by Joe Wright got the setting right.

  11. alexandra says:

    this movie was all typical old hollywood bling & blah. the wrong period costumes drove me nuts. as did the ruination of the original story. it was nothing of jane austens vision. the laughing friendly darcy-they ruined him! and greer garson as elizabeth was like having meryl streep playing elizabeth instead of kiera knightly. pass on this fluff.

  12. Linda says:

    Watched it today for the first time. It “felt” American. I could tell straight away that it hadn’t been filmed in England. Hollywood rarely manage to capture the true feel of England. The costumes were so over the top it was laughable. The pace was too frenetic. Acting was childish in parts and the characters unbelievable. I gave it up after 40 minutes as it began to get annoying.

    • alexandra says:

      old hollywood, i agree. what did you think of the last version of pride & prejudice with keira knightley & matthew macfadyen in 2005? a brit-american production. i enjoyed that one.

      • Linda says:

        Hi Alexandra
        I’ve not yet seen that production from 2005, so I cant really comment. I’ll try and get my hands on a copy and check it out. Thank you for the heads-up!

        • alexandra says:

          yes, check it out when you’re in the mood. it got mixed reviews, but i enjoyed it. let us know.

  13. V. Taylor says:

    “Definitive Guide” is perhaps an overstatement, but I would agree that this review is the purist’s guide. I find the 1940 version utterly delightful. It was the first version I saw as a teenager before I read the book. Greer Garson and Lawrence Olivier are particularly charming and endearing, and the character of Lady Catherine is endlessly entertaining. Even after reading the book and watching the other versions this one holds a special place in my heart although it is admittedly Hollywood-ized. If one puts aside an assiduous knowledge of the book and comparisons to other versions one will enjoy this version tremendously. It could be said that one must overcome one’s own pride and prejudice.

  14. Joanna Sakievich says:

    My Media and Literature professor completely agreed with your take on this version, but I still disagree. Have read all of Jane Austen’s novels more than once and seen the 3 versions of movies referenced in this article. While what you say makes sense, what I take away from the 1940 version might well be influenced by the overall “feel” that I believe it tried to capture, which perhaps, I’ve colored in on my own. But, a movie generally does the novel a disservice if it tries too hard to capture every aspect of the novel it’s based upon. I find the later versions to be a little to “self aware” somehow–with a sense of something akin to worship of the fame of the author and story. I love the Jane Austen–she’s my favorite author, male or female–largely because she’s utterly free of pretence. The 1940 version, in my opinion (again, with no personal knowledge of the producers’ intentions to back it up), chose to deemphasise the darkness in the characters and focused on the silliness of social norms and character flaws, typical of the day: “It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune must be in want of a wife…he is considered as the rightful property of someone or other of their daughters.” I can’t help but wonder if many of this version’s production choices were intended to contribute to that: to capture Austen’s sublime gift of sarcastically mocking the norms of her day. It may be part of the choice of costuming, since what they wore added to the comedy. Then there’s the casting of Karen Morley as the woman who became Mrs. Collins. That actress was beautiful, yet referred to as less attractive, as society frivolously dictated. The relationship between Mr. and Mrs. Bennet was less heavy in this movie, without completely ignoring the couples’ differences, and the change in the ending (Lady Catherine’s condoning of the marriage) is simply wishful thinking and artistic license (In the book, Bambi leaves Faline to perish. Do we wish Disney hadn’t changed that?). I’m not a huge advocate of movies trying to copy a novel, but rather, it’s preferable that they attempt to portray an element of what made that novel great. There are different ways of going about that, and this movie successfully manages to portray what makes me laugh out loud while reading the book. These comments aren’t well worded, but my attempt to offer a few words of support for the 1940 movie, which I watch over and over again.

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