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Film Friday: "Pride and Prejudice" (1940)

Since today is Laurence Olivier's 108th birthday, I thought I would tell you about one of his films for this week's "Film Friday." I believe this was the first of his films I saw.

Theatrical release poster
Directed by Robert Z. Leonard, Pride and Prejudice (1940) opens with the arrival of wealthy bachelors Mr. Charles Bingley (Bruce Lester) and Mr. Fitzwilliam Darcy (Laurence Olivier) in the rural English town of Meryton. They cause quite a stir among all the mothers in the village, who hasten to introduce their ummarried daughters to them. The most enthusiastic of them all is Mrs. Bennett (Mary Boland), with her brood of five: Jane (Maureen O'Sullivan) Elizabeth (Greer Garson), Lydia (Ann Rutherford), Kitty (Heather Angel) and Mary (Marsha Hunt). Mrs. Bennett worries that her husband's estate will fall into the hands of his supercilious cousin, Mr. Collins (Melville Cooper), unless a male heir is produced. 

The delicate Jane immediately falls in love with Mr. Bingley, much to the disapproval of his sister Caroline (Frieda Inescort) and Mr. Darcy, who are strongly class-conscious. To end any possiblity of romance between them, Darcy and Caroline plot to have Bingley leave Meryton. The witty and independent Elizabeth is furious at the snobbery and arrogance of Mr. Darcy and uses every opportunity to criticize his aristrocratic behavior. Meanwhile, Mr. Collins arrives in town looking for a wife and decides that Elizabeth will be suitable. He soon asks her to marry him, but she bluntly refuses. Mr. Collins then becomes engaged to Elizabeth's best friend, Charlotte Lucas (Karen Morley). While visiting Charlotte in her new home, Elizabeth is introduced to Lady Catherine de Bourgh (Edna May Oliver), Darcy's aunt and Mr. Collins's employer. When she returns to Merryton, Elizabeth learns that Lydia has ran away with a dashing fortune hunter named George Wickham (Edward Ashley), who intends to use the situation for blackmail her family. Mr. Darcy comes to the rescue, providing funds for Wickham so that he will marry Lydia. He also brings Mr. Bingley back from London to be with Jane. Between all the complications and misunderstandings, Elizabeth and Darcy unwittingly fall in love, despite her pride and his prejudice.

Mr. Fitzwilliam Darcy: It's no use. I've struggled in vain. I must tell you how much I admire and love you.

In late October 1935, Harpo Marx happened to attend a Philadelphia preview of a Broadway-bound play written by an Australia named Helen Jerome. Described as "a sentimental comedy in three acts," this was a dramatization of Jane Austen's 1813 novel Pride and Prejudice. The next day, Harpo sent a telegram to Irving Thalberg, head of production at MGM: "Just saw Pride and Prejudice. Stop. Swell show. Stop. Would be wonderful for Norma. Stop." Norma was Thalberg's wife, actress Norma Shearer, who had just been nominated for an Academy Award for her portrayal of Elizabeth Barrett Browning in Sidney Franklin's The Barretts of Wimpole Street (1934) and saw in Pride and Prejudice a chance to repeat her success. In January 1936, Thalberg purchased the rights to Jerome's play and assigned Clark Gable to appear opposite Shearer as Mr. Darcy. However, Thalberg died before filming could begin and the project was subsequently shelved.

In mid-1939, after Laurence Olivier became "a hot screen property" courtesy of an Oscar-nominated performance in Wuthering Heights (1939), there was a renewed interest in Pride and Prejudice. MGM signed Olivier as Mr. Darcy and then hired Aldous Huxley, the famed British novelist then living in Los Angeles, to collaborate on the screenplay with Jane Murfin, a veteran screenwriter who was known for having introduced the first film dog, Stoneheart, to eager audiences in the 1920s. Having recently begun a torrid affair with Vivien Leigh, Olivier wanted MGM to cast her as Elizabeth Bennett. The studio, however, had other ideas. MGM chief Louis B. Mayer, convinced by his son-in-law, independent producer David O. Selznick, that putting Olivier and Leigh in the same film was chancy commercially because it risked a moral backlash if their affair became public, assigned the actress to Mervyn LeRoy's Waterloo Bridge (1940) instead. Her replacement, recently arrived from England, was Greer Garson.

Greer Garson as Elizabeth Bennett
Educated at King's College London, Garson had intended to become a teacher, but instead accepted a job at an advertising agency in London. One of her co-workers was future actor George Sanders, whose credits include Rebecca (1940), The Ghost and Mrs. Muir (1947) and All About Eve (1950). Through the head of the market research department, Garson found her way into the theatre, making her acting debut on stage in early 1932. She appeared on television during its earliest years, most notably playing the lead roles of twins Viola and Sebastian in a 30-minute production of William Shakespeare's Twelfth Night, transmitted by the BBC in May 1937 as part of the popular Play Parade series. While in London looking for new talent, Mayer discovered Garson and signed her to a contract with MGM in late 1937. Her screen debut was made opposite Robert Donat in Sam Wood's Goodbye, Mr. Chips (1939), produced for the British division of MGM at Denham Studios. Garson received her first Academy Award nomination for that role, but ironically lost to Leigh for her performance in Gone with the Wind (1939).

Garson and Olivier first met each other in 1935, when he cast her in his West End production of Sylvia Thompson's The Golden Arrow. Olivier was a man who both intrigued and inspired Garson, whom she admired and immediately felt at ease with as a director. She was impressed with his experimental acting methods and the two developed a swift rapport while working on the play. They met frequently after hours, at a popular theatre restaurant near Covent Garden. Garson was eager to share Olivier's belief that the theatre was "the ultimate expression of an actor's art." She also learned to mistrust Hollywood and motion pictures when he related his own unfortunate experience. Summoned to America in 1931 by MGM to star opposite Greta Garbo in Queen Christina (1933), he was fired when the Swedish actress chose John Gilbert for the part. Attempting a career at RKO, he made only three pictures in two years. After that discussion, Garson thought of Hollywood as "Babylon-on-the-Pacific, a citadel of make-believe and meretricious values." She would later said that "having Larry as a friend was the luckiest thing that ever happened to me."

Laurence Olivier and Greer Garson
To direct Pride and Prejudice, MGM initially hired George Cukor, but scheduling conflitcs with Susan and God (1940) forced his departure from the project. The studio then turned to Robert Z. Leonard, nicknamed "Pop," who was one of the most reliable of Metro's contract directors as well as the most senior, having started his career in the film industry in 1907 by getting paid $7.50 for riding a horse on a steep hill, in a short produced by Selig Polyscope. A director for 25 years, Leonard was renowned on the lot as a man who could manage big-budgeted productions efficiently.

While Garson was thrilled to be a part of Pride and Prejudice, set in her favorite historical period, 19th-century England, Olivier was not as enthusiastic as his former protegée. He was still upset at not being able to work with Leigh and was constantly distracted by plans for a stage production of Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet that would pair the two of them. It delighted him that he and Leigh would be acting together again since Fire Over England (1937), after their efforts to work together in Hollywood and been repeatedly thwarted (besides Pride and Prejudice, the couple had also hoped to co-star in Wuthering Heights, Rebecca and Waterloo Bridge). Reportedly, Olivier was also bothered by the fact that Garson was the star of the production and that it was her name that preceded his own in the film credits and publicity releases.

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 be all wrong as Elizabeth... [playing her] as the most silly and affected of the Bennett sisters.
(Laurence Olivier) 

Garson and Olivier having their afternoon tea
Pride and Prejudice began production in January 1940 on the MGM studio lot. Despite the concerning news regarding the escalating war in Europe, filming proceeded smoothly throughout. Garson continued her tea ritual with the largely British cast at four o'clock sharp every day. "All the women were wearing gorgeous hoop skirts," she explained, "Larry Olivier and all the men were dressed to the nines in frock coats. Tea seemed the natural thing to do I suppose it was part of living in Jane Austen's world all day." Olivier was naturally a frequent tea partner. "We had not met, except briefly, since 'Golden Arrow,'" Garson told MGM publicists, "so that a vast amount of reminiscing and catching up went on between scenes and over our afternoon tea, to be sure. He amused himself and flattered me by telling everyone he was very proud of our early association and always added gravely, 'In fact, I invented Greer.'"

In spite of the good atmosphere on the set of Pride and Prejudice, Olivier was still a reluctant player, complaining that "the best points in the book were missed, although no one else [noticed]." In fact, key characters from Austen's novel underwent changes during  production, sometimes beyond recognition, and important storylines were shortened or eliminated altogether in favor of a more glamourized and "Hollywoodized" version. For instance, Lady Catherine de Bourgh, Mr. Darcy's haughty and forbidding aunt, was portrayed by Edna May Oliver as a comic figure, either to provide a more upbeat tone to the ending or to accommodate the sort of character most often associated with the actress. In addition, the last scene in the film shows all the Bennett girls on the verge of marriage, but neither Kitty nor Mary have suitors at the end of the novel.

The Bennett family
Although Austen's novel was set in Regency England (1811-1820), MGM decided to moved the time period of the story to the Victorian Era, which began in the late 1830s. Reportedly, it was costume designer Adrian who made the decision to advance the wardrobe fashions a few decades into the "voluminous, anachronistic, ship-in-full-sail dresses with five-foot wingspans" era, claiming that the "'wet-nightgown' empire look" of Austen's day was too plain for public taste. However, other sources affirm that because MGM was not willing to put a large budget behind a risky production like Pride and Prejudice, costumes left over from Gone with the Wind were altered slightly and placed on background players to save money. New gowns in the same lavish style were then designed for the female stars.

Pride and Prejudice premiered at the Radio City Music Hall in New York on July 26, 1940 to great critical acclaim. Bosley Crowther of The New York Times described it as "the most deliciously pert comedy of old manners, the most crisp and crackling satire in costume that we in this corner can remember ever having seen on the screen." Crowther also praised casting decisions, especially especially the two protagonists: "Greer Garson is Elizabeth [...] stepped right out of the book, or rather out of one's fondest imagination: poised, graceful, self-contained, witty, spasmodically stubborn and as lovely as a woman can be. Laurence Olivier is Darcy, that's all there is to it the arrogant, sardonic Darcy whose pride went before a most felicitous fall." In contrast, Variety lamented that Elizabeth was "trimmedtrimmed to fit into a yarn about a family, rather than about an unusual and courageous girl. In consequence, the film is something less than satisfactory entertainment, despite lavish settings, costumes, and an acting ensemble of unique talent." At the 13th Academy Awards, Cedric Gibbons and Paul Groesse received the Oscar for Best Art Director, Black and White.

Greer Garson and Laurence and Olivier as Elizabeth and Darcy

Although I am not excessively fond of the fact that MGM essentially turned Pride and Prejudice into a romantic comedy, I still think that this is a very good adaptation of Jane Austen's novel. To me there is only one Mr. Fitzwilliam Darcy, and that is the most wonderful Matthew Macfadyen, but I have to admit that Larry made an excellent Darcy, if a bit too flamboyant. My only problem with this film is Greer Garson. Do not get me wrong, she is a lovely lady, terribly talented, and she is a good Elizabeth, but I could not overlook the fact that she is way too old for the part. While Larry is perfectly at an age with Darcy, who is supposed to be about 30 (Larry was 33), Greer was 36 at the time, when Elizabeth is supposed to 20. Regardless of whatever issues I have with this picture, I still think it is a definite must-watch. If not for anything else, at least to see Laurence Olivier in his glorious, flamboyant self.

A Rose for Mrs. Miniver: The Life of Greer Garson by Michael Troyan (2005) | Jane Austen in Hollywood, Second Edition edited by Linda Troost and Sayre Greenfield (2001) | Not to be Missed: Fifty-Four Favorites from a Lifetime of Film by Kenneth Turan (2014) | TCMDb (Articles) | TCMDb (Notes) | The New York Times review | Variety review


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