1940 Pride and Prejudice: A “Screwball Comedy”

According to moderntimes.com, the term “screwball comedy” refers to “films where everything was a juxtaposition: educated and uneducated, rich and poor, intelligent and stupid, honest and dishonest, and most of all male and female. When two people fell in love, they did not simply surrender to their feelings, they battled it out. They lied to one another, often assuming indifferent personas toward each other. They often employed hideous tricks on each other, until finally after running out of inventions, fall into each others’ arms. It was fossilized comedy, physical and often painful, but mixed with the highest level of wit and sophistication, depending wholly on elegant and inventive writing.”

The 1940 adaptation of Pride and Prejudice was created in the image of such famous screwball comedies as Mr. Deeds Goes to Town, My Man Godfrey, Bringing Up Baby, You Can’t Take It with You, and It Happened One Night. For the true Janeite, the 1940 film speaks to everything wrong with film adaptations of Austen’s works. It has a systemic problem: four different views of the plot. There’s Austen’s original novel. There’s also Helen Jerome’s 1935 dramatization of Pride and Prejudice, upon which this film was based. Then, there’s the uncommon collaboration between MGM screenwriter Jane Murfin and British novelist Aldous Huxley. It’s no wonder that the audience is given a film that’s 20% Austen and 80% Hollywood.

Laurence Olivier had garnered acclaim in his film roles in both Wuthering Heights and Rebecca. He was a natural choice for Fitzwilliam Darcy. Producers were hesitant to give the role of Elizabeth Bennet to Olivier’s real-life love Vivien Leigh, and so Greer Garson was recruited for the part. Neither gives his/her best performance, but they are both pleasant to look at. Actually, minor characters carry the film. Mary Boland (Mrs. Bennet), Edmund Gwenn (Mr. Bennet), Edna Mae Oliver (Lady Catheine de Bourgh), and Melville Cooper (Mr. Collins) bring life to the film. These characterizations are reminiscent of the Jerome’s farcical play. We all remember Oliver sitting on Kitty’s music box and her enduring the parrot squawking in the background.

Costumer Adrian provided 500 voluminous and anachronistic gowns for the film, and although the opening frame announces, “It happened in OLD ENGLAND,” the film lacks legitimate British aspects. In Jane Austen in Hollywood, Troost and Greenfield say, “Readers of the novel must balk, however, when Darcy calls Elizabeth ‘tolerable,’ and adds, ‘I’m in no humour tonight to give consequence to the middle classes at play.’ Austen is more egregiously misrepresented when Elizabeth speaks of Darcy’s unwillingness to ally himself to ‘a family of such low descent.’ The novel’s Elizabeth, so proud of being ‘a gentleman’s daughter,’ was not quite what Hollywood wanted – any more than an Elizabeth less beautiful than her sister Jane was. Enjoying Greer Garson’s perfect features and glassy composure, the camera persuades us to forget she is a decade or so older than Elizabeth Bennet’s ‘not yet twenty.’ Similarly, we are meant to consider Elizabeth as a daughter of those middle classes that reliably rose up against the aristocracy in Hollywood’s wartime renderings of nineteenth-century novels (cf. Jane Eyre), which portrayed OLD ENGLAND as democratic America’s ancestor. Part of the context that shaped this film was the producers’ aim to get the United States into the war as England’s ally together with the formal constraints of Hollywood comedy, politics was responsible for changing Lady Catherine’s mind about Elizabeth.”

Caroline Bingley wears a black gown to the assembly. This would have been unheard of for a young, unmarried woman of the Regency period. 1939’s Gone with the Wind influenced costumer Adrian’s choices. We find hooped skirts, tight bodices, tight waistlines, high puffy sleeves, and hats, which frame the face. At the garden party, Elizabeth wears a white bouffant dress with a white hat. When Mr. Collins proposes, she has black accents to the gown (bows, zigzags on the sleeve, etc.). The effect is more 1830.

Obviously, the class difference, central to the novel, is greatly reduced in this film version. Darcy’s objection to dancing with Elizabeth at the Meryton assembly rests purely in her being slighted by other men. Olivier’s role is “minor” in this adaptation. His most brilliant performances come in the proposal and the reconciliation scenes. He’s so much better as Heathcliff in Wuthering Heights. Garson is much too old for Elizabeth, and she plays the character as a “modern” woman. The script has her a downright rude at times.

None of the Bennet sisters display consistent manners or decorum. In the film, Jane is openly flirtatious – quite a contrast to the demure creature of Austen’s novel. Kitty and Lydia are shown behaving very badly. Do we not remember the scene on the swings with the officers? Kitty is also quite inebriated at the Netherfield Ball.

The first 16 chapters are reduced to one scene at the Meryton assembly. Darcy finds Elizabeth appalling at the beginning of the assembly. At the assembly’s end, he’s intrigued by her. Wickham dances with both Elizabeth and Lydia during the assembly. Elizabeth refuses Darcy’s request to dance, but then she accepts Wickham (Edward Ashley). Relationships are defined in this one extended scene. The use of the Netherfield garden party also defines personalities. Elizabeth, in a very modern strand, beats Darcy in an archery contest. She later alludes to Darcy having refused an introduction to Wickham. Darcy tells Elizabeth that he would judge each situation individually, and he admonishes her for judging him as anything but a man of honor. They appear to strike up a friendship when Darcy comforts Elizabeth after Caroline Bingley’s (Frieda Inescort) unkindness. However, Mrs. Bennet’s pronouncement regarding Jane’s prospects with Mr. Bingley (Bruce Lester) curtail the relationship.

The time compression is somewhat problematic in the film. Only moments after the audience discovers Lydia has eloped with Wickham, Darcy is on Longbourn’s doorstep to offer his assistance. He confesses Wickham’s attempted seduction of Georgiana. Elizabeth confessing to Jane that she loves Darcy follows. The audience loses the change of heart that Austen’s readers love in the novel.

There are other anachronistic elements. For example, Lady Lucas says of the letting of Netherfield Park is the best news “since the battle of Waterloo.” Of course, Waterloo came two years after the release of Pride and Prejudice. Some of Austen’s most beloved scenes are missing, especially those at Pemberley. We have NO portrait in the gallery, NO praise from Mrs. Reynolds, and NO being discovered at Darcy’s home. Ellen Belton in “Reimagining Jane Austen: The 1940 and 1995 Film Versions of Pride and Prejudice” says, “While the novel concerns itself with the complex psychological processes by which first the hero and then the heroine fall in love with one another, the film visually suggests a mutual attraction that is almost instantaneous. It is obvious from the outset that he is drawn to Elizabeth and makes very little effort to resist succumbing to her charms.”

The film might be summed up when Garson’s character says, “You’re very puzzling, Mr. Darcy. At this moment, it’s difficult to believe that you’re so proud.” To which, Olivier’s Darcy replies, “At this moment, it’s difficult to believe you’re so prejudiced. Shall we not call it quits and start again?” This film garnered both financial and critical success. In fact, when it opened at the Radio City Music Hall, it drew the largest weekly audience during the month of August in the theatre’s history. During its four-week run at RCMH, it grossed $1,849,000.

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2 Responses to 1940 Pride and Prejudice: A “Screwball Comedy”

  1. I really don’t understand why you labeled the 1940 version of “PRIDE AND PREJUDICE” as a screwball comedy. One could easily say the same about the 1980, 1995, 2004 and 2005 versions.

    • The screwball comedy is a genre of comedy which is unconventional, goes in different directions, and behaves in unexpected ways.[1]

      The screwball comedy features a kind of female character rarely seen in the history of the Western theater; while the main male roles found in Western comedies are four, their most common main female comic roles are only two: the beautiful Columbina and the ugly old hag. The third role of an autonomous woman who can ‘hold her own,’ is an exception in Western theatre, found in Aristophanes’ Women in Parliament.

      It has proven to be one of the most popular and enduring film genres. It first gained prominence in 1934 with It Happened One Night, and, although many film scholars would agree that its classic period ended sometime in the early 1940s, elements of the genre have persisted, or have been paid homage, in contemporary film.

      The screwball comedy has close links with the theatrical genre of farce, and some comic plays are also described as screwball comedies. Many elements of the screwball genre can be traced back to such stage plays as Shakespeare’s Much Ado About Nothing, As You Like It and A Midsummer Night’s Dream and Oscar Wilde’s The Importance of Being Earnest. Other genres with which screwball comedy is associated include slapstick, situation comedy, and romantic comedy.

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