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!
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?”
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.
- 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.