Persuasions #11, 1989 Page 140-143
and Prejudice: An
Informal History of the Garson-Olivier Motion Picture
That Pride and
Prejudice, the 1940 Hollywood movie, is not Pride and Prejudice,
Jane Austen novel, is another one of those truths that must be
acknowledged. Yet the film clearly
has considerable charms of its own, as well as a rather curious and in
unexpected history, all of which I discovered by dint of wading through
MGM’s and the Motion Picture Academy’s files on the subject, as well as
personal scrapbook of the film’s director, Robert Z. Leonard.
The most unexpected
thing I discovered, a rather startling bit of information, was that
of all people, was instrumental in getting this film off the ground. On October 28, 1935, he attended a
Philadelphia preview of a
Broadway-bound dramatization of Pride and Prejudice written by
Australian named Helen Jerome and subtitled, “a sentimental comedy in
The very next day, Harpo sent the following telegram to Irving Thalberg in Hollywood: “Just saw Pride and Prejudice. Stop. Swell show. Stop. Would be wonderful for Norma. Stop.”
Now Irving Thalberg, the model for sensitive mogul Monroe Shahr in Scott Fitzgerald’s The Last Tycoon, was at the time head of production for MGM and Louis B. Mayer’s right-hand man. Norma was his wife, actress Norma Shearer, who had just been nominated for an Oscar for her portrayal of Elizabeth Barrett Browning in The Barretts of Wimpole Street, and who in fact did see in Pride and Prejudice a chance to repeat that success.
So, in January of 1936, MGM dutifully
rights to the play for $50,000.
buy the rights to the theatrical version of a novel that was long in
domain? Thalberg reasoned that the
publicity generated both by the play and by the sale would help sell
obscure property to the American moviegoing public.
Confident as only
the wife of a studio production chief can be, Norma Shearer did not
leap at once
into the role of Elizabeth Bennet; she took off for six months in
and left the hard work of the project to those perennial drudges of
the screenwriters. Thalberg
assigned a husband and wife team of Victor Heerman and Sarah Y. Mason,
previously won an Oscar for their collaboration on Little Women,
to the Pride
and Prejudice script. And, on
September 2 of 1939, with Shearer safely back from Europe, MGM
announced that Pride and Prejudice would be filmed with her
it or not, Clark Gable as the snobbish Mr. Darcy.
Production was to
begin around the end of October, but just two weeks after that
Irving Thalberg took ill and suddenly died.
His death took Pride and Prejudice off the front burner,
perhaps saved the world from having to hear Mr. Darcy say. “Frankly,
Elizabeth, I don’t give a damn,” but
the project itself never entirely expired.
Actors ranging from Melvyn Douglas to Robert Donat and Robert
considered for the Darcy role, and nine other writers, including Zoe
had written the screenplay for Camille, tried their hands at
This logjam was
broken after Laurence Olivier became a hot
screen property courtesy of his performances in Wuthering Heights
MGM liked the idea of putting him in Pride and Prejudice
having recently begun a torrid affair with Vivien Leigh, liked the idea
having her star opposite him as Elizabeth.
The director both Olivier and Leigh favoured was the very able
Cukor, best known for directing many of the best Spencer
The studio, however,
had other ideas. Louis B. Mayer,
convinced by his son-in-law David O. Selznick that putting Olivier and
the same movie was chancy commercially because it risked a moral
their affair became public, put Leigh in Waterloo Bridge
Her replacement, newly arrived from England,. was Greer Garson,
hardly a stranger to Olivier. As
producer/director of a 1935 London play called Goldon Arrow, he
Garson’s mentor, giving her one of her first breaks and in fact
a curtain speech that she would become a star.
For a director, MGM
now turned to Robert Z. Leonard, nicknamed “Pop,” who was one of the
reliable of the studio’s contract directors and, in point of service,
senior, having begun in the movie business in 1907 by getting paid
riding a horse up a steep hill. A
director for 25 years, Leonard had directed Garbo and Gable in Susan
Her Fall and Rise; Gable and Crawford in Dancing Lady, and
one of the blockbusters of the 1930s, the 1936 Oscar-winning The
A very capable craftsman, Leonard could be counted on to get the
Meanwhile, work on
the script continued. MGM turned
first to Jane Murfin, a veteran screenwriter who’d written Alice
and was also known for having introduced the first movie dog, Strongheart, to
eager audiences in the 1920s. Always
happy to bring a little quality to their projects, the studio
Huxley, the famed novelist, who was then living in Los Angeles and
$1,500 a week to collaborate with Murfin on the Pride and Prejudice
Huxley signed his contract on August 30, 1939. Within a few days World War II had broken out, which made Huxley reluctant to go on. He phoned his best Hollywood buddy, writer Anita Loos, and according to her reminiscence, the following exchange took place:
“ ‘I simply
cannot accept all that money to work in a studio while my family and
starving and being bombed in England,’ Huxley said.
I asked, ‘Why can’t you accept that fifteen hundred and send the larger
of it to England.’
“ ‘There was a
long silence at the other end of the line, and then Maria, Huxley’s
“ ‘Anita,’ she
said, ‘what would we ever do without you.’ ”
manfully at the script, but never seemed to be delighted with the task.
In a letter to a friend he called it “an odd, crossword puzzle
One tries to do one’s best for Jane Austen, but actually the
of transforming the book into a picture must necessarily alter its
in a profound way.”
started, on February 1, 1940, it was Olivier’s turn to be less than
enthralled. Still miffed at not
being able to work with Vivien Leigh, he apparently spent all his time
shots planning a stage production of Romeo and Juliet starring
the two of
them which he was to direct. He did
not see fit to mention the film in his autobiography, though he did
deal with it
in a book called On Acting, in which he said he thought "the
points in the book were missed, although apparently no one else did.
I’m still signing autographs over Darcy’s large left lapel.
MGM always got its costumes right.”
Actually, as I’m
sure this audience doesn’t need to be told, Olivier was wrong about the
costumes. In its infinite wisdom the
studio felt that the actual
fashions of the early nineteenth century, what one writer who knows
such things than I do called “the more restrained, classical lines of
Directoire and Empire styles,” were not very much fun.
So Adrian, the legendary MGM costume director, gave everyone the
swaggering clothes of three or four decades later.
Olivier was also
wrong about how successful the film would be.
Though there were some carpers, like the Los Angeles Herald
which called it “decorous, bloodless entertainment which will find an
appreciative audience among women,” almost all the reviews were
Bosley Crowther, the influential New York Times
it “deliciously pert, the most crisp and crackling satire in costume
corner can remember ever having seen on the screen,”
The New Yorker noted that “Jane Austen, in her
day, was as brittle as Huxley, Noel Coward and a whole package of
together.” And the critic for the
Los Angeles Herald had kind words for each of our guests tonight.
Ann Rutherford was “a vivacious and alluring Lydia,” Marsha
“the surprise of the group, her character is a gem,”
and as for Karen Morley as Charlotte Lucas, “it makes us wonder
don’t see her in more pictures.”
And, even more
important in Hollywood circles, box office receipts were strong as well.
Helped, presumably, by an ad campaign that announced “Bachelors
Five Gorgeous Beauties are on a Madcap Manhunt,” the film drew the
weekly August audience in Radio City Music Hall’s history and inspired Variety
to note that its success in Cleveland “overcame all local prejudices
the movie, did other good works as well. For
one thing, it caused MGM to launch its greatest book promotion in
years, with no
less than five popular-priced editions of the book getting into print
result of the film, including three from Grosset & Dunlap and an
25-cent paperback from Pocket books. By
1948, a mere eight years later, that edition alone had
gone through twenty-one printings.
did the kind of good deeds that film doesn’t seem to do any more.
While looking through director Robert Z. Leonard’s scrapbooks in
Motion Picture Academy library, I noticed a tiny envelope tucked
last page and the back cover. It
was addressed to Robert Z. Leonard, Director of Films, Hollywood,
U.S.A. Dated February 10, 1941, it
came from one Betty Howard, who wrote the following from Southampton,
husband is a
Naval Officer and a few days ago he had one of his rare afternoons in
port and a
chance to visit the cinema. We went
to see your film made from the book we know and love so well and to our
were carried away for two whole hours of perfect enjoyment.
Only once was I reminded of our war – when in a candle-lit room
was an uncurtained window and my husband whispered humorously,
‘Look – they’re not blacked out.’
know that this city has suffered badly from air raids but we still have
cinemas left, and to see a packed audience enjoying Pride and
so much was most heartening.
very much as well as all the actors and actresses for your share in
given so much pleasure to us.”
agree that any film that can elicit that kind of response is well worth
again and again, and I hope you all enjoy it again tonight.