Sep 23, 2020

On Blu-ray: Greer Garson and Laurence Olivier in Pride and Prejudice (1940)

When I recently watched the new Warner Archive Blu-ray of the 1940 adaptation of Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice, it had been many years since I last saw the film. Several minutes into reacquainting myself with it, I realized I had my hands clasped to my chest. I was reminded that it's such a suspenseful film, though you never hear anybody refer to it that way.

Enough time passes between my viewings of this version, that I constantly forget how much of its entertainment value is in the contrast between the fluffy costumes and high-toned manners and the barely concealed daggers and erotic tensions hidden in every word the characters speak. All these posh, wealthy people are either at battle with each other, madly courting, or as is often the case, both.

Austen’s novel about judgment, image, and hidden truths in high society, centering on the five lively daughters of the Bennett family who push against convention as they strive for happy, prosperous marriages has understandably been a popular choice for film adaptations over the years, but I’ve never found a version that captured those contrasts as well as this one. 

Laurence Olivier and Greer Garson are very different performers, but as Darcy and Elizabeth Bennett the stage actor and the MGM star are well-matched because they seem to understand the dueling contradictions of their characters and the world they live in so well.

They are joined by a miraculous cast. The talent is almost too much to process. From the older generation there is Edna May Oliver, Mary Boland, and Edmund Gwenn. The high-energy younger cast includes Maureen O’Sullivan, Ann Rutherford, Heather Angel, Marsha Hunt, and the actress whose wasted career potential I mourn for thanks to HUAC, the butter-voiced Karen Morley. I have special respect for Frieda Inescort as the snobbish, but sharp-witted Miss Bingley, who manages to fling out the wickedest of barbs motionless but for the tiniest movement of her lips.

It’s the busiest, most vibrant tableau of social drama and the romances that either blossom in spite of it all or because the barricades make it more exciting. Lavish MGM production values add to the pleasure. The gowns and hats are in themselves a worthy spectacle. Of course they are not at all period appropriate, but then the plot also draws selectively from the novel. It's Hollywood.

With a cast that size, director Robert Z. Leonard must have felt as much like a traffic cop as a filmmaker, but he pulled all those varied characters together so that it looked effortless. It's a true classic.

Special features on the disc, which have been brought over from other releases of the film, include a trailer for the film, the World War II era short Eyes of the Navy and a the cartoon The Fishing Bear.

Many thanks to Warner Archive for providing a copy of the film for review. To order, visit The Warner Archive Collection.

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