Film Review: Pride and Prejudice (dir by Robert Z. Leonard)


On this date, in 1813, Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice was first published.  The book was published Thomas Egerton, who bought the rights for £110.  Apparently, Austen didn’t expect the book to become the success that it did.  As a result, she ultimately only made  £140 off of the book.  (Egerton made considerably more.)  When the book was originally published, Austen’s name was nowhere to be found on the manuscript.  Instead, it was credited to “the author of Sense and Sensibility.”

(When Sense and Sensibility was originally released, it was simply credited to “A Lady.”)

The rest, of course, is history.  205 years after it was first published, Pride and Prejudice remains one of the most popular and influential novels ever written.  Every year, new readers discover and fall in love with the story of outspoken Elizabeth Bennet, the proud Mr. Darcy, the pompous Mr. Collins, and the rather sleazy George Wickham.  There have been countless film and television adaptations.  My personal favorite is Joe Wright’s 2005 version, with Keira Knightley as Elizabeth.  My least favorite would have to be Pride and Prejudice and Zombies.

The very first film adaptation of Pride and Prejudice was released in 1940.  Originally, the movie was envisioned as being a George Cukor film that would star Norma Shearer and Clark Gable.  However, the film’s production was put on hold after the death of Shearer’s husband, the legendary Irving Thalberg.  When the film finally resumed pre-production in 1939, Gable was now busy with Gone With The Wind.  Cast in his place was Robert Donat (who, interestingly enough, would have played Rhett Butler if Gable had refused the role).  With the film originally meant to be filmed in Europe, the outbreak of World War II led to yet another delay.  By the time production resumed, Cukor had been replaced by Robert Z. Leonard and Norma Shearer had also left the project.  With Gone With The Wind breaking box office records, MGM came up with the idea of once again casting Vivien Leigh opposite of Clark Gable.  However, Gable eventually left the film and Laurence Olivier, looking for a chance to act opposite Leigh, agreed to play Darcy.  However, the studio worried that casting Olivier and Leigh opposite each other would lead to negative stories about the two of them having an affair despite both being married to other people.  So, Leigh was removed from the project and Greer Garson was cast.  Olivier was so annoyed with the decision that, after Pride and Prejudice, it would be eleven years before he would work with another American studio.

Despite all of the drama behind-the-scenes, MGM’s version of Pride and Prejudice is a thoroughly delightful film, one full of charming performances and witty lines.  Though she was 36 when she made Pride and Prejudice, Garson is still the perfect Elizabeth, giving a lively and intelligent performance that stands in stark contrast to the somewhat staid films that she was making at the same time with Walter Pidgeon.  As for Olivier, from the first minute he appears, he simply is Darcy.  That said, my favorite performance in the film was Edmund Gwenn’s.  Cast as Mr. Bennet,  Gwenn brought the same warmth and gentle humor to the role that he would later bring to Kris Kringle in Miracle on 34th Street.  I also liked the performances of Maureen O’Sullivan as Jane and Edward Ashley as disreputable Mr. Wickham.

Pride and Prejudice is not an exact adaptation.  For one thing, the movie takes place in the early Victoria era, supposedly because MGM wanted to cut costs by reusing some of the same costumes that were previously used in Gone With The Wind.  As well, Lady Catherine (Edna May Oliver) is no longer as evil as she was in the novel.  Finally, because the production code forbid ridicule of religion, the theological career of Mr. Collins (Melville Cooper) was considerably downplayed.  Not even Jane Austen (or, more specifically, the film’s screenwriter, Aldous Huxley) could defy the Code.

Seventy-eight years after it was first released, the 1940 version of Pride and Prejudice holds up surprisingly well.  It’s an enjoyable film and one that, despite a few plot changes, remains true to the spirit of Austen.

Cleaning Out The DVR #14: The Letter (dir by William Wyler)


The_Letter_poster

After watching Break-Up Nightmare, I watched one more film that was sitting on my DVR.  That film was 1940’s The Letter.  I had recorded it off of TCM and, up until last night, I had never seen it before.  I’m happy to say that I’ve seen it now because it’s a great movie, featuring a fascinating mystery, feverish atmosphere, excellent supporting performances, and a ferociously brilliant performance from the great Bette Davis.

Filmed in a dream-like noir style by William Wyler, The Letter opens on a rubber plantation in Malaysia.  It’s night and the camera pans over the native workers all trying to sleep through the hot night.  Eventually, the camera reaches the big house, where the plantation’s wealthy and, of course, white manager lives.  (The contrast between the wealthy Europeans interlopers and the natives who work for them is a reoccurring theme throughout The Letter.)  A gunshot rings out.  A man stumbles out of the house.  Following after him is Leslie Crosbie (Bette Davis).  She is carrying a gun and, as we watch, she shoots the man a few more times.  She shoots him until she’s sure that he’s dead.

Leslie is the wife of Robert Crosbie (Herbert Marshall, who also played Davis’s husband in The Little Foxes) and the man that she just killed is Geoff Hammond, a respected member of Malaysia’s European community.  When the police arrive, Leslie explains that Hammond “tried to make love to me” and that she was forced to kill him in self-defense.  Leslie is arrested for the crime and will have to face trial but everyone knows that she will be acquitted.  After all, Leslie and her husband are members are well-connected members of the upper, European class.

However, Leslie’s lawyer, Herbert Joyce (James Stephenson), has doubts about Leslie’s story.  He points out that she sounds just a little too rehearsed.  His suspicions are confirmed when his clerk, Ong Chi Seng (Sen Yung), tells him about the existence of a letter that Leslie wrote on the day that Hammond was killed.  In the letter, Leslie orders Hammond to come see her and threatens to reveal the details of their relationship if he doesn’t.  Ong explains that he only has a copy of the letter.  The original is in the hands of Hammond’s widow (Gale Sondergaard) and she’s willing to sell the letter for a substantial price.

Not surprisingly The Letter is dominated by Bette Davis but, for me, the most memorable character is the outwardly obsequies but inwardly calculating Ong Chi Seng.  Sen Yung plays him with such a polite manner and a gentle voice that it’s actually incredibly shocking when he reveals his true nature.  And yet, even after he’s been exposed as a potential blackmailer, his manner never changes.  Meanwhile, Gale Sondergaard only appears in a handful of scenes but she steals every one of them with her steely glare.

In order to get the letter away from Ong and Mrs. Hammond, Leslie and Joyce have to convince Robert to give them the money without allowing him to learn the letter’s content.  But, what neither one of them realizes, is that Mrs. Hammond has plans that go beyond mere blackmail.

The Letter is an atmospheric melodrama that plays out almost like a fever dream and it also features one of Davis’s best performances.  It was nominated for best picture but it lost to another atmospheric melodrama, Alfred Hitchcock’s Rebecca.