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  By the time production resumed, Cukor had been replaced by Robert Z. Leonard and Norma Shearer had also left the project.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

Lisa Reviews An Oscar Nominee: The Divorcee (dir by Robert Z. Leonard)

Before I get into reviewing the 1930 best picture nominee, The Divorcee, I want to share something that I recently posted on twitter:

I’m not just sharing this because it’s one of the best things that I’ve ever tweeted.  I’m also sharing it because it’s a beyond perfect description of Jerry (played, in an Oscar-winning performance, by Norma Shearer), the lead character in The Divorcee.  (Whenever you tweet something that is beyond perfect, you’ve earned the right to make sure everyone else knows it.)  The Divorcee came out in 1930 so, needless to say, it’s a bit dated but I totally related to the character of Jerry and that’s perhaps the main reason why I enjoyed this film.

The Divorcee tells the type of story that, today, would probably make for a memorable Lifetime film.  It’s a film that follows four friends over several years.  They are the idle rich, the type who go to parties, dance on tables, and cheerfully ignore the ban on liquor.  Jerry (Norma Shearer) loves Ted (Chester Morris).  Dorothy (Helen Johnson) loves Paul (Conrad Nagel).  However, Paul loves Jerry and when Jerry announces that she and Ted are engaged to be married, Paul doesn’t handle it well.  In fact, Paul gets drunk, Paul drives a car with Dorothy in the passenger’s seat, and eventually Paul crashes the car, leaving Dorothy so disfigured that she spends the rest of the movie wearing a black veil.

The years pass.  In order to make up for horribly disfiguring her, Paul agrees to marry Dorothy.  Jerry marries Ted.  They’re happy until they’re not.  On the day of their third anniversary, Jerry discovers that Ted has been cheating on her.  So, Jerry cheats on Ted.  When Ted gets upset, they file for divorce.

Suddenly, Jerry is …. (dramatic music cue) … THE DIVORCEE!

Ted becomes an alcoholic, the type who makes scenes at parties and destroys ornate wedding cakes.  In the past, I assume Jerry would have been forced to wear a scarlet D and she would have made it work because there’s nothing that Jerry can’t do.  However, since this film takes place in the 1920s, Jerry spends her time flirting and plotting to steal Paul away from Dorothy.

And it would have worked too if not for the fact that Dorothy is a complete and total saint…

Drinking, sex, adultery, disfigurement, and Norma Shearer!?  That’s right, this is a pre-code film!  The Divorcee is actually a pretty typical example of a type of film that was very popular during the 1930s and actually remains rather popular today.  This is a film where rich people do stupid things but look good doing it.  When an audience watches a film like this, they can both look down on the rich and vicariously experience their lifestyle.  No wonder these movies are so popular!

Anyway, I liked The Divorcee.  It’s an incredibly silly little film but it’s hard for me not to enjoy something this melodramatic.  Chester Morris and Conrad Nagel are stuck playing heels and Helen Johnson is a bit to saintly but it doesn’t matter because the film is pretty much designed to be a showcase for Norma Shearer, the most underrated of all of the Golden Age actresses.  (Far too often, Shearer is dismissed as simply being Irving Thalberg’s wife.)  Shearer gives a great performance.  She seems to be having the time of her life and it’s fun to watch.

The Divorcee was nominated for best picture but it lost to a far different picture, All Quiet On The Western Front.


Cleaning Out The DVR #30: The Great Ziegfeld (dir by Robert Z. Leonard)

(For those following at home, Lisa is attempting to clean out her DVR by watching and reviewing 38 films by the end of this Friday.  Will she make it?  Keep following the site to find out!)


Do you know who Florence Ziegfeld was?

Don’t feel bad if you don’t because, until I saw the 1936 film The Great Ziegfeld, I had no idea and history is my number one obsession.  Florence Ziegfeld was a theatrical producer who, in the early days of the 20th Century, produced huge spectacles.  He was a showman who understood the importance of celebrity and gossip.  He produced a show called The Ziegfeld Follies, which was considered quite risqué at the time but which looks remarkably tame today.  Florence Ziegfeld was so famous that he even got his own Oscar-winning biopic.

The Great Ziegfeld features the always smooth William Powell as Ziegfeld.  When we first meet him, he’s promoting a strongman and a belly dancer and nobody takes him seriously.  But through hard work, good luck, and his own instinct for showmanship, he becomes famous and his shows gets bigger and bigger.  The film follows Ziegfeld as he gets married, both times to someone he is grooming to be a star.  His first wife is Anna (Luise Rainer), who loves him but divorces him when it becomes obvious that Ziegfeld’s life will always revolve around his work.  His second wife is Billie Burke and we know that she is Ziegfeld’s true love because she’s played by Myrna Loy.  Whenever you see William Powell and Myrna Loy in the same film, you know that they belong together.

The majority of The Great Ziegfeld is taken up with recreations of Ziegfeld’s stage shows.  In fact, the film almost feels more like a musical variety show than a real biopic.  (Judging from the credits, quite a few of Ziegfeld’s stars played themselves and recreated their acts on the big screen.)  I can understand why this was attractive to audiences in the 1930s.  With no end in sight to The Great Depression and Ziegfeld himself recently deceased, this movie was their only opportunity to see one of his spectacles.  The film made sure that they got their money’s worth.

However, for modern audiences, all of the acts just add to what is already an oppressive running time.  My main impression of The Great Ziegfeld was that it was really, really long.  The movie itself is well-produced and William Powell and Myrna Loy are always fun to watch but the movie just goes on and on.  As well, this biopic is so worshipful of Ziegfeld — the title is meant to be taken literally — that, as a result, he comes across as being one-dimensional.  I did appreciate the film as a historical artifact but otherwise, it didn’t do much for me.

However, it did something for the Academy.  The Great Ziegfeld was named the best picture of 1936!  Luise Rainer won best actress despite only being on-screen for a handful of scenes.  So many people were critical of Rainer’s award that, the very next year, the Academy introduced the award for best supporting actress.

As for why Ziegfeld won that Oscar — well, if you look at its competition and some of the other 1936 films that received nominations, you’re struck by the lack of truly memorable films.  It would appear that, in a weak year, the Academy decided to give the award to the biggest production they could find.

And that was The Great Ziegfeld.

(Incidentally, if Flo Ziegfeld were alive today, he would probably be a reality TV producer.)