This post is part of the CMBA’s Fabulous Films of the 1940s Blogathon, running from February 17th through February 22nd, 2013. Enjoy!Newly formed MGM in the 1920s fostered and nurtured the careers Norma Shearer, Joan Crawford and Greta Garbo. Each of whom became the three queens of MGM in the 1930’s. With both Garbo and Shearer’s retirement and Crawford’s departure in 1941-1942, the 1940’s at MGM could be called “the Greer Garson decade.”
Paired most often with the sturdy as a rock Walter Pidgeon, Garson bloomed as only she could in several Oscar nominated films. In fact, she was nominated as Best Actress from 1939 to 1945, only missing a nomination for 1940. Her nominations were: 1939 for Goodbye, Mr. Chips, 1941 for Blossoms in the Dust, 1942 for Mrs. Miniver (which she won), 1943 for Madame Curie, 1944 for Mrs. Parkington, and 1945 for The Valley of Decision. That’s a fairly impressive list. She was later nominated for her work in Sunrise at Campobello.
One of my favorite films featuring Greer Garson, and one for which she was not nominated is 1940’s Pride and Prejudice. It has elements of comedy as well as drama. As we know, comedy is never (or rarely) a winner at the Oscars.
The 1940 film adaptation of Jane Austen's novel Pride and Prejudice was directed by veteran Robert Z. Leonard. Leonard was a journeyman who began directing in the silent era, notably for the big productions for his then spouse, silent siren Mae Murray. As an aside, Leonard’s second wife was Gertrude Olmstead, also a silent film star who is mostly forgotten today, except by Valentino fans. She costarred with Valentino in the 1925 film Cobra. The film has a very light touch and moves along at a quick pace.
The 1940 Pride and Prejudice was not a literal book to screen adaptation, but an adaptation based on a stage play which was, of course, derived from the novel. Austenphiles, doubtless, are peeved at the liberties or “Hollywood” treatment given the much beloved novel. The period is changed, most likely to allow Gilbert Adrian more liberties with the frilly gowns than the more staid Regency style of a decade prior. There are cuts to sequences and other things added to move the plot forward. I’m a fan of the book, but the changes to the plot and added sequence (the delicious archery sequence) has never, ever affected my enjoyment of this film. I still count this as among my favorites among Austen adapted films.
The film is cast with plenty of MGM regulars from their stable of wonderful character actors and actresses. Greer Garson is much older than the novel’s Eliza Bennet, but I find I do not care. To overuse the word delightful, she is! She is all warmth and gentle humor. How could Darcy not fall in love with her? Mrs. Bennet is played in the wonderfully over the top manner by Mary Boland. When wasn’t she absolutely wonderful? Think of her as the Countess de Lave come to Longbourn! Jane is portrayed sweetly by Maureen O'Sullivan (who after this considerably slowed her career to raise her brood of children with director/husband John Farrow). Ann Rutherford finally gets out of Carvel to dig her teeth into a meatier part as the silly Lydia. The Bennet brood is rounded out by the indulgent and sly Edmund Gwynn as Mr. Bennet, Heather Angel as the mad about the military Kitty and Marsha Hunt as the intellectual and not quite musically gifted, Mary (this is quite my favorite portrayal of Mary). The amiable Mr. Bingley is played by Bruce Lester. Mr. Fitzwilliam Darcy is grandly portrayed by Laurence Olivier with arrogance and some scowls he had left over from Rebecca. But, such a romantic Darcy he is, too. Miss Bingley is played with a note perfect nastiness by Frieda Inescourt. To my mind, she was not matched until the turn by Anna Chancellor in the BBC adaptation decades later. The Bennets' cousin, Mr. Collins is ditherlingly played by Melville Cooper, a walk in the park for him. Charlotte Lucas is played by Karen Morley, a thankless part in which she is made to be so dowdy. How can one not love the Lady Catherine de Bourgh of Edna May Oliver (in her second to last film role before her untimely passing at 59 in 1942)? Lastly, Edward Ashley Cooper is ingratiating as the baddie George Wickham.
It’s almost sacrilegious of me to secretly wish that MGM had filmed this in Technicolor. Especially since it is gloriously lensed by master cinematographer Karl Freund. Garson and Olivier never looked better, she positively glows. The pair were friends and their rapport is quite evident as they trade barbs throughout the film. Though Olivier might have preferred his beloved Vivien Leigh as Eliza, I thank MGM’s stars that Garson was cast. Her Eliza is smart, poised, warm and (when warranted) exceedingly funny. That is one quality that I absolutely adore about Garson that appears to be utterly genuine, on film and in real life, her warmth and personal charm. I’m sure she was every inch a diva, but she was never nasty about it. Check these pair of youtube clips for evidence of that: Part 1 and Part 2.
The film was critically well received and nominated for, and won, a single Academy Award for set design. It’s still a popular film and one viewing makes many a convert to the films considerable charms. Pride and Prejudice is available on DVD and I keep hoping for a blu-ray restoration because of the artistry of Karl Freund in which Greer Garson and Laurence Olivier never looking more beautiful. Call me a heretic, but, as much as I love the Fitzwilliam Darcy of Colin Firth (and I do), my first love as Darcy was Olivier and in this he is perfect.