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  By the time production resumed, Cukor had been replaced by Robert Z. Leonard and Norma Shearer had also left the project.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.

Horror on the Lens: The Undying Monster (dir by John Brahm)


For today’s horror on the lens, we have 1942’s The Undying Monster!

It tells the story of the Hammonds, a noble British family who, for centuries, have been haunted by suicide, murder, and rumors of a curse.  When a mysterious creature attack Oliver Hammond, Scotland Yard dispatches a scientist to figure out what’s going on.  Perhaps not surprisingly, the local villagers insist that it’s the curse.  The scientist, however, is convinced that it has to be something else…

Clocking in at 63 minutes and made on an obviously low budget, The Undying Monster is actually pretty good.  Director John Brahm emphasizes shadows and darkness, taking an almost film noir approach to this tale of gothic horror.  The Undying Monster is a hidden gem of 40s horror and here it is!

Enjoy!

Embracing the Melodrama Part II #14: Suspicion (dir by Alfred Hitchcock)


Suspicion_film_poster

First off, a warning.  The following review of the 1941 best picture nominee Suspicion will include spoilers.  So, if you haven’t seen the film and you’re obsessive about avoiding major spoilers, then don’t read the review.  Simple, no?

Two years ago, I was having lunch with some of my fellow administrative assistants.  One of them was talking about how she had watched an “old movie” the previous night.  From listening to the vague details that she offered up, I was able to figure out that she had apparently stumbled across TCM for the first time in her life.  From listening to her talk, I would not be surprised if she was literally describing the first time she had ever actually seen a black-and-white movie.  Needless to say, my first instinct was to correct everything she was saying but I resisted.  (For some reason, at that time, I was feeling self-conscious about being perceived as being a know-it-all.)  But, as she kept talking, I found it harder and harder to keep quiet.  Listening to her talk about old movies was like attending an art history lecture given by someone who had flunked out of a finger painting class.  Finally, when the conversation had moved on to someone who we all knew was sleeping with her much older boss, our self-proclaimed old film expert announced that age didn’t matter.  “I’d go out with Cary Grant,” she said, “and he’s old.”

Before I could stop myself, I added, “He’s also dead.”

Oh my God, the look of shock on her face!  I actually felt really guilty because I could tell that she had apparently taken a lot of happiness from the idea that suave, witty, and handsome Cary Grant was still out there.  And can you blame her?  In a career that spanned three decades and included several classic dramas and comedies, Cary Grant epitomized charm.  Some of his movies may seem dated now but Grant was such a charismatic and natural actor that it’s impossible not to get swept up in his performances.

(Who would be the contemporary Cary Grant?  I’ve heard some people compare George Clooney to Grant.  And it’s true that Clooney has Grant’s charm but, whereas Grant always came across as very natural, you’re always very aware that George Clooney is giving a performance.)

It was Grant’s charm that made him the perfect choice for the male lead in Suspicion but it was that same charm that made the film so controversial.  In Suspicion, Grant plays Johnnie.  Johnnie meets, charms, and — after the proverbial whirlwind courtship — marries Lina (Joan Fontaine), a sheltered heiress.  It’s only after Lina marries Johnnie that she discovers that he’s broke, unemployed, and addicted to gambling.  With everyone from her family to her friends telling her that Johnnie is only interested in her money, Lina starts to worry that Johnnie is plotting to kill her.  Lina starts to view all of Johnnie’s actions with suspicion, wondering if there’s an innocent explanation for his occasionally odd behavior or if it’s all more evidence that he’s planning to kill her.  When he brings her a glass of milk, Lina has to decide whether or not to risk drinking it…

Suspicion was based on a novel in which Johnnie was a murderer and which ended with Lina voluntarily drinking that poisoned milk.  In the film, however, Johnnie is not a murderer.  Apparently, it was felt that Grant was so charming and so likable that audiences would never accept him as a murderer.  Instead, he’s an embezzler and all of his strange behavior is due to him being ashamed of his past and feeling that he’s not worthy of Lina.  Once Lina realizes that Johnnie isn’t trying to kill her, she promises him that she’ll stay with him.

And a lot of people (including director Alfred Hitchcock, who claimed it was forced on him by the film’s producers) have criticized that ending but you know what?

It works.  If I had to choose between Joan Fontaine essentially committing suicide or Joan Fontaine promising to love Cary Grant even if Grant goes to prison, I’m going to go with the second choice.  Ultimately, Suspicion works because you can imagine being swept off your feet by Grant’s character.  But what makes Suspicion enjoyable, to me, is that Johnnie ultimately turns out to be exactly who we were hoping he would be.

Needless to say, Suspicion works as a great double feature with Rebecca.  Watch one after the other and have a great night of menace and romance.

Embracing the Melodrama Part II #6: Berkeley Square (dir by Frank Lloyd)


Berkeley_Square_(1933,_Lobby_Card)For today’s final entry in Embracing the Melodrama Part II, we take a look at the 1933 film, Berkeley Square.

Berkeley Square opens in 1784.  An American named Peter Sandish (Leslie Howard) has come from New York to England.  Stopping off at an inn, he explains that he’s on his way to London.  He has distant relations who live in a mansion located in Berkeley Square and it’s been arranged that Peter is going to marry his cousin, Kate Pettigrew (Valerie Taylor).  As Standish talks, he’s interrupted by another man who excitedly announces that a Frenchman has flown across the English Channel in something called a “balloon.”

“It’s beginning,” Peter says, “A new age of speed and innovation…”

Suddenly, the film jumps forward over a hundred years.  In 1933, Standish’s descendant — also named Peter and also played by Leslie Howard — has inherited the family’s old house at Berkeley Square.  He’s spent several days locked away in the mansion, obsessively reading the first Peter’s diary and refusing to see his fiancée, Marjorie (Betty Lawford).

It turns out that Peter — much like Owen Wilson in Midnight in Paris — is frustrated with the modern world and desperately wants to live in the past.  He believes that if he continues to stay in the house, he will eventually be transported back to 1784.  When a friend points out that, even if time travel was possible, Peter would end up changing the past, Peter explains that he’s memorized the first Peter’s diary and, therefore, he knows everything that he needs to say and do.

And then, one night, Peter suddenly does find himself in 1784.  Having taken his ancestor’s place, he meets the Pettigrews, makes plans to marry Kate, and attempts to adapt to 18th century London society.

Unfortunately, this turns out to be not as easy as he thought.  Despite his best efforts, Peter keeps using 1930s slang and alluding to events that will happen in the future.  At first, he explains away his habit of using modern phrases by saying that he’s using common New York expressions.  However, the increasingly suspicious Kate takes a list of Peter’s phrases to the U.S. Ambassador (who is none other than future President John Adams) and is informed that nobody in New York speaks that way.  As well, Peter’s insistence on regular bathing is viewed as odd by the members of upper class London society.  (“I heard he used three buckets of water,” someone accusingly whispers.)  Soon, Kate is convinced that Peter has been possessed by a demon.

An even bigger problem for Peter is that he’s not in love with Kate.  Instead, he’s fallen in love with Kate’s headstrong younger sister, Helen (Heather Angel).  When Helen discovers that Peter is from the future, Peter is forced to decide whether to continue to stay among the “living ghosts” or whether to return to his own time.

Berkeley Square shows on up on TCM fairly frequently and I absolutely love it.  To a certain extent, of course, this is because I’m a secret history nerd and there’s a part of me that will always wish that I could travel in time and experience the past firsthand.  (That said, after watching Berkeley Square, I don’t think I could handle 18th century hygiene.  Agck!)  But the main reason that I love Berkeley Square is because I love a good romance.  And this is such a romantic film!  Heather Angel and Leslie Howard have a really sweet and likable chemistry and, with his performance here, Howard shows why he would be the perfect choice to play the earnest, well-meaning, and ultimately tragic Ashley Wilkes in Gone With The Wind.

Keep an eye out for Berkeley Square.  You won’t be sorry.