Sunday 7 October 2007

Pride and Prejudice (1940) Robert Z Leonard

When your basing your film on a novel by Jane Austen and you have Aldous Huxley to write the screenplay, you shouldn't be surprised at success. Add to that a cast that includes such names as Laurence Olivier, Edna May Oliver and Maureen O'Sullivan and you can hardly fail. The only initial catch is the cast is so huge that it's hard to keep track of them for a while, especially as they all seem to have the same thoughts on their mind. Into the town come a couple of young gentleman to let Netherfield Park, and they immediately and unwittingly become the targets of every mother looking for husbands for their eligible young daughters. £5,000 a year and unmarried means that they're subject to every machination in the book, apparently.

The two young men are Charles Bingley, played by Bruce Lester, and the arrogant Mr Darcy, played by Laurence Olivier. Of the young women there's seemingly no end of them. The Bennets have five of them for a start, played by lead actress Greer Garson, Maureen O'Sullivan, Ann Rutherford, Heather Angel and Marsha Hunt. O'Sullivan is Jane Bennet and she quickly hits it off with Mr Bingley. Garson is her sister Elizabeth, who seems fated to end up with Mr Darcy from the moment she overhears him talk down his nose about her and then refuse his offer to dance. He's the pride and she's the prejudice of the title.

This is very much what would be called nowadays a women's picture, or from another perspective a chick flick. While there is plenty of clever dialogue and powerful acting, much of the story is a complete mystery to me, given that I'm neither chick nor woman. I remember well my mother's uncanny ability to know exactly what everyone in church was wearing, week in and week out, but I could never find a will to even remember who was there.

She would have no problem here working out which young lady is who and which young man they were interested in and which young lady each young man was interested in, but I had to work to keep up. She'd also have known that the costumes completely fail to reflect the time in which the story is set. I have to rely on IMDb to point out that we're in the Regency but populated by American Civil War costumes, reused from the previous year's Gone with the Wind and chosen by costume designer Adrian because they were so much more flamboyant, regardless of what era they represent.

Given my almost complete ignorance of the evolution of costume, I can see the historical inaccuracy but easily look past it without throwing my hands up in horror. I'll reserve that for the frequent misuse of technology in Hollywood. What I could see and enjoy was the interplay between Olivier and Garson and the battle of wits and veiled insults between Garson and Frieda Inescort as Mr Bingley's snob of a sister, while I waited for the inevitable joy of seeing Edna May Oliver take over entirely and dominate effortlessly over all the flutterings of various mothers, cousins and anyone else who happens to be unfortunate enough to find themselves in her vicinity.

This is a decent film, even from a viewer of the male sex, but it's far from perfect. From what I read, the definitive version may be the BBC mini series, which adheres far more closely to the source novel, while Greer Garson and especially Laurence Olivier remain favourites of many Jane Austen fans regardless.

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