Hollywood and television have used Jane Austen's 1813 novel of romance and manners, "Pride and Prejudice," as the basis for any number of productions over the years, some of them quite close to the original source material and some of them going further afield into outright farce and even a hybrid Bollywood musical. But MGM's lavish 1940 film version was one of the first to hit the big screen, and it remains one of the best.
Austen, whom literary critics often credit for developing the modern novel, meant her story as a mild satire on class struggles and gender bias at a time when the people of Europe took matters of class divisions and male superiority for granted. It was really quite a daring move on the author's part, especially as she was herself a female engaged in a predominantly male-dominated profession (she published her novels anonymously). The book was also a take on misleading first impressions and, in fact, Austen initially titled it "First Impressions." All of these elements come together in a fine screen adaptation by Aldous Huxley, Jane Murfin, and Helen Jerome that condenses the essential characters and actions of the book into a tidy two-hour film.
If I have personally any hesitation about this account of Austen's novel, it is that MGM seems to have wanted another "Little Women" hit on their hands and under the guidance of director Robert Z. Leonard ("The Great Ziegfeld," "Broadway Serenade," "In the Good Old Summertime") turned the story into a more frothy, lighthearted comedy than Austen intended. Nevertheless, that is not entirely bad. This production of "Pride and Prejudice" is a delightful motion picture on its own, even if it isn't exactly Jane Austen.
The story concerns the Bennet family, living in rural England near the village of Meryton at the beginning of the nineteenth century. The Bennets consist of a mother (Mary Boland), a father (Edmund Gwenn), and five marriageable daughters--Elizabeth (Greer Garson), Lydia (Ann Rutherford), Jane (Maureen O'Sullivan), Kitty (Heather Angel), and Mary (Marsha Hunt)--who live at Longbourn, a country estate. The parents are anxious for their daughters to marry into money and position because by a quirk of fate, should the father die, the estate and all his possessions would bypass the women of the family and go directly to a male cousin, Mr. Collins (Melville Cooper). The daughters and wife would be left penniless.
As it happens, a pair of very rich and very eligible young bachelors have just moved into Netherfield Park, a neighboring estate: Charles Bingley (Bruce Lester), his sister Caroline Bingley (Frieda Inescort), and their friend Mr. Darcy (Laurence Olivier).
To make our cast of characters almost complete, also living nearby, at Rosings, are the aristocratic and snobbish Lady Catherine de Bourgh (Edna May Oliver), her daughter, and the aforementioned Mr. Collins, employed as the de Bourgh's librarian.
It is at the Assembly Ball at the beginning of the picture that most of these characters get acquainted with one another, and it's here we meet the final character of importance, a dashing young soldier, George Wickham (Edward Ashley). Now, let me point out the setup in the event you missed the novel and all the movies of it. Elizabeth, the main character, a spunky, self-determined young lady, meets Mr. Darcy, but they get off on the wrong foot. A miscommunication leads Elizabeth to think that Darcy is arrogant and proud and Darcy to think that Elizabeth is provincial and prejudiced. These two principal characters continue their give-and-take misinterpretations of one another for most of the story.
To make matters more complicated, Mr. Bingley becomes attached to one of the sisters; Mr. Collins, a prissy oaf, decides to marry another of the Bennet daughters; and Mr. Wickham proves himself a complete cad with yet a different member of the Bennet family. Meanwhile, Elizabeth and Mr. Darcy engage in further misunderstandings, which build and unfold until everything is resolved in the end.
MGM spared no expense on the production: sets, scenery, costumes, the entire village of Meryton are exquisitely detailed, and the black-and-white photography gives everything depth and dimension. However, while Olivier was never more handsome or courtly as Mr. Darcy, he also seems a bit stiff in the role, as though he didn't quite care for it. Yet, in any case, it is Greer Garson's picture all the way, and she is completely charming: spirited, assured, charismatic, commanding in every scene.
If the themes of gender manipulation, misjudgment, and class struggles within class struggles tend to get somewhat lost amid the romance and the smiles, the film's carefree attitude tends to carry the day. It's hard, for instance, not to find Melville Cooper's Mr. Collins anything but amusing or Edmund Gwenn's father anything but sensible. As he says to his wife at the close of the picture, "Well, perhaps it's lucky we didn't drown any of them at birth, my dear."
WB's usual habit with transferring these older movies to disc appears to be to find the best print available and then give it a light touching up. In this case, it is not a complete frame-by-frame restoration but some obvious cleaning. The 1.33:1 standard-screen presentation looks quite good, the black-and-white contrasts showing up strongly and the definition reasonably sharp. There is practically no grain to speak of, and one sees only a small number of minor age flecks and lines when looking for them, hardly noticeable.
The Warners audio engineers have remastered the sound in Dolby Digital 2.0 surround stereo, although I'd have to say that the term "surround stereo" in this case is a misnomer. There is virtually no surround and very little front-channel stereo spread. This is, of course, assuming you turn off the center channel and listen only in two channels. If you use Dolby Pro Logic, almost all of the left and right-channel information will be fed into the center speaker, and you definitely will have mostly monaural. Anyway, be that as it may, the sound is pretty good for its age. There is not much information in the frequency extremes, and the dynamic range is somewhat limited, but there is an excellent midrange response, smooth and natural, and a dead-quiet background.
As with most of the old classic films that Warner Bros. has put on disc, this one is accompanied by several brief features from the era. First, there is the short subject, "Eyes of the Navy," a twenty-minute propaganda documentary from 1940 showing how the U.S. military was preparing for world war. Next is the 1940 MGM Technicolor cartoon "The Fishing Bear," seven minutes with Barney Bear. And then there is a theatrical trailer for "Pride and Prejudice." The extras conclude with twenty-eight scene selections; English as the only spoken language; and English, French, Spanish, and Portuguese subtitles.
I admit to having slight preferences for the 2005 film version of "Pride & Prejudice" with Keira Knightley and Matthew Macfadyen and for the 1995 BBC "Pride and Prejudice" miniseries with Jennifer Ehle and Colin Firth. But this classic 1940 rendering comes up a close third in a crowded field. It may not be entirely what Jane Austen intended, but it's close enough and remains a pleasure.
Prospective buyers of "Pride and Prejudice" may purchase the movie on its own or in the Warner Bros. box set "Motion Picture Masterpieces," which also includes "David Copperfield," "Marie Antoinette," "Treasure Island," and "A Tale of Two Cities."