Movie Review - Pride and Prejudice (1940)

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Robert Z. Leonard
Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer (MGM)

I have to confess: I’m far from being a purist when it comes to Jane Austen movies. I’m guilty of watching films like Pride and Prejudice, among others, without very much concern about how close they were to the book, or even whether they did very well at communicating the mood and message the author originally intended. Depending on how much you like Jane Austen, you’re either thinking that I’ve committed an unpardonable sin, or that I really haven’t done anything all that bad. In the first case, you wouldn’t enjoy this version of the movie anyway, and I’m going to go ahead and let you know that up front so you don’t have to be offended by my irreverent opinions any more than you have to. In the second case, whether you like the movie or not depends on what kind of movies you like ordinarily, and, to make things fair, I’ll go ahead and let you know up front that I, with my own particular taste in film, found the 1940 Pride and Prejudice—inaccuracies and all—quite enjoyable.

I think one of the things I liked best about it was that it was a light sort of a movie. I like serious films quite well, but every once in a while, one just wants something a little more charming than, say, thrilling. Making all the characters a bit pleasanter helped it in that direction; exaggerating their peculiarities to varying degrees gave it more comedy than drama; and doing away with a few of Austen’s unfortunate character associations satisfied me on the greater part of the worldview.


It’s not entirely free from language worth letting people know about, but the script for this adaptation doesn’t swear by anything more offensive (or, conversely, more worthy) than the heavens, or by the characters’ own goodness, or by their word (in descending order of frequency). Lizzie, in a state of vexation, does get as far as “by all the…” but then we’re simply left to wonder what those next words would have been. Later, her mother, in her own state of vexation, calls her girl a “stupid child,” and just a little while after that cries, “Lord bless my soul!” over her delight in another daughter. One thing that might be of some slight concern is the tendency some of her smiling, hypocritical insults might have to make the audience smile, too; which, of course, isn’t right any more than it is for us to smile at the gossip or the mockery in the movie.

Cultural Stumbling-Blocks:
I think they also want us to laugh just a little at the drunkenness, which somehow seems a greater matter of concern because fallen into by young girls, in this instance. Wine and punch are served to other characters, too, but their indulgence is more worthy of the name of “temperance.”

Sexual Content:
One of the complaints against Robert Leonard’s Pride and Prejudice that might be made by girls more sensitive to these things, is that the costumes are all wrong. They’re very definitely from the 1830’s, which means that they don’t have the high waist or short sleeves of the 1800’s, and they do have the completely off-the-shoulder neckline that came into popularity a few decades later; not a very fair trade, I know. As a matter of fact, the droop of those necklines would have been enough to make one blush at the thought of the gentlemen in the audience being exposed to such immodesty, if the less vibrant medium of black-and-white film hadn’t removed the flesh tone from the flesh. The main character does seem to like the idea of her garments being “daring” and “very worldly”.

Of course the dancing has also been updated for the 1830’s. Polkas and waltzes were coming into almost universal acceptance by then, and while they may still be widely accepted now, I can’t help feeling that if unmarried couples had embraced each other like that without the music to sanction the intimacy, the practice might have been viewed a little differently—though not, maybe, by Mrs. Bennet, who has great hopes that a walk in “delightfully secluded shrubberies” will benefit her daughter’s relationship with her beau.

It’s a fact that gentlemen used to kiss ladies’ hands in the early eighteen hundreds, as they do in the movie, and it’s also a fact that, at the end of this movie, one particular gentleman kisses a particular lady—not on the hand.

The most sexual part of the movie involves one young girl actually running away with an officer (and, given her flirtation with officers in general, we aren’t exactly shocked). Nothing explicit is said, beyond, “Lizzie, they’re not married,” and we don’t see anything more of the couple until they are married. Really, I think it was handled with such delicacy (barring the very fact of its presence in the story), that a young child would be able to go through the movie without understanding what was going on in that particular section—and individual families must be the best judge whether that is for better or worse.

Anyone who has read my essay on the subject knows what I think about the standard Jane Austen bill of fare, with all those little worldview elements that tend to make young women feel superior to their families, or give them a wrong working definition of “love”, or a corrupt view of society in general, and I certainly don’t intend to call something bad in one piece of writing and then ignore it in another. Honestly, though, I think the alterations that were made in this particular film version very nearly do away with most of those problems. Lizzie may one of the cleverest people in her family, but her superiority isn’t showcased as much. Her father even comes across as a sensible man, who (unlike the more faithful versions) neither despises his wife nor abandons his daughters to their every caprice. Her mother is still silly and scheming, but her indecorum has been toned down quite a bit, and her brains seem to be muffled, rather than missing in action. The most ridiculous character in the story has been transformed from a pastor to a librarian, which satisfies me on that head, and his wife’s “In marriage, happiness is just a matter of chance,” is actually shown to result in unhappiness.

There’s still perhaps a slight glorification of silliness and ignorance by the words being casually applied to “most girls,” including the main character; and perhaps a slight jab at middle-age motherhood by describing it as a case in which, generally, “a woman hasn’t much beauty left to think of.” An adult daughter gets away with disobeying an unreasonable mother, and, conversely, her sister is said to have “never done anything wrong.” There’s a point in the movie when honesty is said to be “a greatly overrated virtue,” and mild revenge is shown to be clever on several occasions—every occasion, in fact, except when somebody else takes it on the protagonist. There’s a bit about a virtuous girl’s daydreams about her lost beau, and a bit about a fellow needing “a woman who will stand up to” him.

I have to confess my complete ignorance of the content of “Burke’s essay On the Sublime and Beautiful” (it being rather long to research thoroughly for the sake of just one remark), but I have researched “Utopia” a bit, and suggest that, because of its original use as a name for Thomas More’s communist ideal, it’s not a word to be used lightly—not quite as lightly, or as favorably, as Mr. Bennet uses it, perhaps. A small crowd of people laughs at the domestic violence of Punch and Judy.


I’ve already told you that I liked the movie, and having just told you what I found wrong with it, there’s nothing left but for the reader to determine whether Pride and Prejudice, as told by MGM* in the early forties, is a movie well suited to their particular taste. I’ll leave you with these things in its favor: it’s old-fashioned enough to have all the credits at the beginning; its acting is amusing without being overdone; and it’s one of the very few Jane Austen movies that has any chance at appealing to the gentlemen in the family.

Because of numerous “smaller” things, like the drunkenness, gossip and disrespect, I suggest that Pride and Prejudice be reserved for an audience old enough to know the difference between what is funny, and what should be funny. Eight and up is my suggestion, and parents should be able to judge from the body of the review whether their older children are old enough to recognize the other defects (subtle as they sometimes are) without guidance.

* It is interesting to note that one of the scriptwriters was Aldous Huxley, the humanist philosopher, grandson of the famous Thomas Henry Huxley, the first self-described “agnostic”, who was known as “Darwin’s Bulldog” for his advocacy of Darwin’s theory of evolution.

Note: The trailer features some of the dresses mentioned above, and a rather passionate kiss toward the beginning.

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