Pride and Prejudice proved that the classic tale can still be adapted, even if Hitler is blowing the living hell out of Europe. What was supposed to be a huge European production moved back to Los Angeles, as London and most of Europe was engaged in warfare. American studio heads decided that they can do better than Jane Austen, so they forced some cultural changes into the story. The result is a well-acted mess of a literary adaptation.
What is it about Hollywood and Jane Austen? There are other sources of romantic comedy. Hell, Shakespeare and whatever the hell Cukor and the others were cooking up worked back then. The 1940 version of Pride and Prejudice made it clear that it wasn’t because America was in love with the costumes. They moved the period to 50 years after the book, so they can bust out more intricate costumes.
Also, if there were clergy in the film criticizing anything, they were turned into school teachers. The Hayes Code made for weird film adaptations. Ultimately, MGM and the Hollywood system wanted to make sure that a story from 1813 wasn’t going to incite the women of 1940 into open gender rebellion. If you think America sucks now, we’ve got the entire 20th century to bust open for you. Let’s not go any further, as the 19th century is still too wild to bust open.
Greer Garson played Elizabeth Bennett and Sir Laurence Olivier was her Darcy. Olivier would peak in 1948 with his massive Hamlet production. But, Greer Garson would spend the next 20 years missing out on wins except for Mrs. Miniver. Garson was an incredible woman who went from a young starlet that was competing with Joan Crawford for roles. Before the end of her career, the GOP was asking her to step away from Hollywood to run against vulnerable Democrats. She declined.
It’s easy in a historical hindsight to see her playing the bold Elizabeth Bennett. Even in an adaptation that Mayer and MGM went out of their way to neuter. Olivier got a pass because he could play in the Hollywood system, but both of Pride and Prejudice’s leads were miles from home wondering if there was going to be anything to which they could return.
What is there to say about the movie? It’s a comedy of manners that was neutered to the point of being tame for the 1940s. But, it’s a comedy with no consequences. The studio and director were making up new plot points and hoping that audiences would follow along. It’s not surprising to learn that the movie fell short at the Box Office.
Warner Archive brings Pride and Prejudice to Blu-ray to celebrate its 1940 iteration. You get the Oscar nominated short film Crime Does Not Pay. That’s not a big deal to a lot of people, but getting it in HD is quite the deep dive and makes me proud of the solid work at Warner Archive. You also get another short film and classic cartoon. Toss on a trailer and this is the best package of the 1970 Pride and Prejudice you’re ever getting.