“Pride and Prejudice” 1940 ~ A Screwball Comedy

Pride and Prejudice 1940, a “Screwball” Comedy – Movie Discussion

According to moderntimes.com, the term “screwball comedy” refers to “films where everything was a juxtaposition: educated and uneducated, rich and poor, intelligent and stupid, honest and dishonest, and most of all male and female. When two people fell in love, they did not simply surrender to their feelings, they battled it out. They lied to one another, often assuming indifferent personas toward each other. They often employed hideous tricks on each other, until finally after running out of inventions, fall into each others’ arms. It was fossilized comedy, physical and often painful, but mixed with the highest level of wit and sophistication, depending wholly on elegant and inventive writing.”

The 1940 adaptation of Pride and Prejudice was created in the image of such famous screwball comedies as Mr. Deeds Goes to TownMy Man Godfrey,Bringing Up BabyYou Can’t Take It with You, and It Happened One Night. For the true Janeite, the 1940 film speaks to everything wrong with film adaptations of Austen’s works. It has a systemic problem: four different views of the plot. There’s Austen’s original novel. There’s also Helen Jerome’s 1935 dramatization of Pride and Prejudice, upon which this film was based. Then, there’s the uncommon collaboration between MGM screenwriter Jane Murfin and British novelist Aldous Huxley. It’s no wonder that the audience is given a film that’s 20% Austen and 80% Hollywood.

Laurence Olivier had garnered acclaim in his film roles in both Wuthering Heights and Rebecca. He was a natural choice for Fitzwilliam Darcy. Producers were hesitant to give the role of Elizabeth Bennet to Olivier’s real-life love Vivien Leigh, and so Greer Garson was recruited for the part. Neither gives his/her best performance, but they are both pleasant to look at. Actually, minor characters carry the film. Mary Boland (Mrs. Bennet), Edmund Gwenn (Mr. Bennet), Edna Mae Oliver (Lady Catheine de Bourgh), and Melville Cooper (Mr. Collins) bring life to the film. These characterizations are reminiscent of the Jerome’s farcical play. We all remember Oliver sitting on Kitty’s music box and her enduring the parrot squawking in the background.

Costumer Adrian provided 500 voluminous and anachronistic gowns for the film, and although the opening frame announces, “It happened in OLD ENGLAND,” the film lacks legitimate British aspects. In Jane Austen in Hollywood, Troost and Greenfield say, “Readers of the novel must balk, however, when Darcy calls Elizabeth ‘tolerable,’ and adds, ‘I’m in no humour tonight to give consequence to the middle classes at play.’ Austen is more egregiously misrepresented when Elizabeth speaks of Darcy’s unwillingness to ally himself to ‘a family of such low descent.’ The novel’s Elizabeth, so proud of being ‘a gentleman’s daughter,’ was not quite what Hollywood wanted – any more than an Elizabeth less beautiful than her sister Jane was. Enjoying Greer Garson’s perfect features and glassy composure, the camera persuades us to forget she is a decade or so older than Elizabeth Bennet’s ‘not yet twenty.’ Similarly, we are meant to consider Elizabeth as a daughter of those middle classes that reliably rose up against the aristocracy in Hollywood’s wartime renderings of nineteenth-century novels (cf. Jane Eyre), which portrayed OLD ENGLAND as democratic America’s ancestor. Part of the context that shaped this film was the producers’ aim to get the United States into the war as England’s ally together with the formal constraints of Hollywood comedy, politics was responsible for changing Lady Catherine’s mind about Elizabeth.”

Caroline Bingley wears a black gown to the assembly. This would have been unheard of for a young, unmarried woman of the Regency period. 1939’s Gone with the Wind influenced costumer Adrian’s choices. We find hooped skirts, tight bodices, tight waistlines, high puffy sleeves, and hats, which frame the face. At the garden party, Elizabeth wears a white bouffant dress with a white hat. When Mr. Collins proposes, she has black accents to the gown (bows, zigzags on the sleeve, etc.). The effect is more 1830.

Obviously, the class difference, central to the novel, is greatly reduced in this film version. Darcy’s objection to dancing with Elizabeth at the Meryton assembly rests purely in her being slighted by other men. Olivier’s role is “minor” in this adaptation. His most brilliant performances come in the proposal and the reconciliation scenes. He’s so much better as Heathcliff in Wuthering Heights. Garson is much too old for Elizabeth, and she plays the character as a “modern” woman. The script has her a downright rude at times.

None of the Bennet sisters display consistent manners or decorum. In the film, Jane is openly flirtatious – quite a contrast to the demure creature of Austen’s novel. Kitty and Lydia are shown behaving very badly. Do we not remember the scene on the swings with the officers? Kitty is also quite inebriated at the Netherfield Ball.

The first 16 chapters are reduced to one scene at the Meryton assembly. Darcy finds Elizabeth appalling at the beginning of the assembly. At the assembly’s end, he’s intrigued by her. Wickham dances with both Elizabeth and Lydia during the assembly. Elizabeth refuses Darcy’s request to dance, but then she accepts Wickham (Edward Ashley). Relationships are defined in this one extended scene. The use of the Netherfield garden party also defines personalities. Elizabeth, in a very modern strand, beats Darcy in an archery contest. She later alludes to Darcy having refused an introduction to Wickham. Darcy tells Elizabeth that he would judge each situation individually, and he admonishes her for judging him as anything but a man of honor. They appear to strike up a friendship when Darcy comforts Elizabeth after Caroline Bingley’s (Frieda Inescort) unkindness. However, Mrs. Bennet’s pronouncement regarding Jane’s prospects with Mr. Bingley (Bruce Lester) curtail the relationship.

The time compression is somewhat problematic in the film. Only moments after the audience discovers Lydia has eloped with Wickham, Darcy is on Longbourn’s doorstep to offer his assistance. He confesses Wickham’s attempted seduction of Georgiana. Elizabeth confessing to Jane that she loves Darcy follows. The audience loses the change of heart that Austen’s readers love in the novel.

There are other anachronistic elements. For example, Lady Lucas says of the letting of Netherfield Park is the best news “since the battle of Waterloo.” Of course, Waterloo came two years after the release of Pride and Prejudice. Some of Austen’s most beloved scenes are missing, especially those at Pemberley. We have NO portrait in the gallery, NO praise from Mrs. Reynolds, and NO being discovered at Darcy’s home. Ellen Belton in “Reimagining Jane Austen: The 1940 and 1995 Film Versions of Pride and Prejudice” says, “While the novel concerns itself with the complex psychological processes by which first the hero and then the heroine fall in love with one another, the film visually suggests a mutual attraction that is almost instantaneous. It is obvious from the outset that he is drawn to Elizabeth and makes very little effort to resist succumbing to her charms.”

The film might be summed up when Garson’s character says, “You’re very puzzling, Mr. Darcy. At this moment, it’s difficult to believe that you’re so proud.” To which, Olivier’s Darcy replies, “At this moment, it’s difficult to believe you’re so prejudiced. Shall we not call it quits and start again?” This film garnered both financial and critical success. In fact, when it opened at the Radio City Music Hall, it drew the largest weekly audience during the month of August in the theatre’s history. During its four-week run at RCMH, it grossed $1,849,000.


About Regina Jeffers

Regina Jeffers is the award-winning author of Austenesque, Regency and historical romantic suspense.
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12 Responses to “Pride and Prejudice” 1940 ~ A Screwball Comedy

  1. vesper1931 says:

    I admit I hated this film when I watched it many years ago

    • It does take a bit of getting accustomed to, Vesper. Of course, I saw it years prior and enjoyed it when it was the “only game in town.” LOL!

  2. Gerri Bowen says:

    After I saw most of this film, many years ago, I had to go back and re-read P&P to make sure I hadn’t imagined the story being very different from the 1940’s film. The A&E version is my favorite.

  3. Anji says:

    Although this film has it’s many faults, I cannot fault it for one important factor – it led me to Jane Austen.

    I saw it on TV one Sunday afternoon and the next day, I went to the school library and checked out a copy of the book. I’d have been aged 11 at the time, in the first year of what we Brits call secondary school. Apart from feeling vaguely disappointed that the archery scene was a fabrication of the film, I was spellbound by the book and still am to this day. The other five books followed over the rest of my school years – they only had one copy of each in the library – and my year was never lucky enough to study any of them in English Lit. classes.

    It would be another 14 years after seeing this version before the 1980 TV production with David Rintoul, which was able to do the book a lot more justice and certainly a lot more faithfully. Fifteen more years to Colin Firth and his wet shirt and another ten to Matthew MacFadyen and Keira Knightley. I wonder what the next dramatisation will be like and how long we’ll have to wait for it.

    Still, I shall always have fond memories, viewed through extremely rose-tinted spectacles, of Laurence Olivier and Greer Garson, as they were my first Darcy and Elizabeth.

    • In reality, when I first saw the film, I was not disappointed. I saw it in the late 1950s. I had already read the book, but the movie was not a turn off, any more than Tyrone Power as Robin Hood. I simply loved stories. That being said, one cannot judge this film as an example of Austen’s story. It is a comedy with romantic overtones, a format which served the movie industry well in the 1940s and 1950s.

  4. Suzan says:

    I didn’t like it either. It was probably quite good for the time it was done. I can’t tell one sister from another and they all look like southern belles to me. Lady Catherine also seems to help Darcy and elizabeth if I recall correctly. My husband who can’t stand to watch the other versions with me watched this in the middle of the night. He swears if he had watched this one first he’d like p&p more. I guess he enjoyed it. I think I’ve only watched it one time all the way thru.

    • I like the movie as a prime example of the genre of the age in which it was filmed. I don’t like the MANY liberties the screenwriters took with the original story line. It comes across as comedy, what it was designed to be.

  5. Vee says:

    Haha Regina what a fabulous summary (more depth than the actual film)! As you know I love all things related to Jane Austen and would watch any adaptation of any of Austen’s work, no matter how bad. I may not ever watch it again if it’s too bad however. This 1940 adaptation is what I call my light hearted version, for when I want a laugh and not much substance. I have to agree the part where Elizabeth changes her feelings within a heartbeat about Mr Darcy disappointing. Lady Catherine is totally entertaining and what about the part where she accosts Elizabeth and goes straight out to Darcy and says she right for you!!! I enjoyed your passage and had a good laugh. Thank you 🙂

  6. Sonia says:

    I saw the 1940 version before I read the book and before I saw the other, more recent, versions. I really love it! I have and still do watch it over again as I do the BBC version and the version with Keira Knighly. I love the story!!

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