This week’s post is about a film version of one of the classic romantic novels, Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice, featuring the central love story between Elizabeth Bennet, a gentleman’s daughter, and Fitzwilliam Darcy, a gentleman of the gentry.
But wait! There’s no librarian in Pride and Prejudice.
If you’ve read the classic novel, or seen one of a handful of more modern adaptations, such as the seminal 1995 miniseries starring Jennifer Ehle as Lizzy and Colin Firth as Darcy or the Oscar-nominated 2005 version with Keira Knightley and Matthew Macfadyen, then you are correct. There is no librarian in Pride and Prejudice.
From the church to the library
However, in the very first film adaptation of any Jane Austen work, the 1940 MGM adaptation of Pride and Prejudice, the vocation of Mr. Collins is changed from clergyman to … you guessed it, a librarian. (Sigh.) Pride and prejudice indeed.
As portrayed by well-known comedic character actor Melville Cooper, all the hallmarks of the bumbling, fussy, socially awkward Mr. Collins are still present. One of the Bennet sisters describes him early on as “a pudding face,” and our first visual introduction is one of him bouncing down the stairs and nearly overturning a vase. Cooper plays Mr. Collins as a perfectly ridiculous man, a fop who bounces on his toes and manages to offend everyone he intends to flatter.
When we first meet Mr. Collins in this 1940 screen adaptation, he rushes to explain his lowly, humble position:
Although I act as her ladyship’s librarian, she has always spoken to me as she would to any other gentleman.
By his own admission, a librarian is not on par with a gentleman; instead, the implication is that a librarian is beneath a gentleman’s (or gentlewoman’s) notice or concern. Forehead, hand, slap, repeat.
Mr. Collins is a clergyman in the book, earning some of Jane Austen’s sharpest wit and scathing commentary. As a clergyman’s daughter herself, it is perhaps surprising how little difference religion makes in Jane Austen’s novels. Pastors and reverends in Austen’s novels are either well-meaning (and a little boring), like Edward Ferrars in Sense and Sensibility and Edmund Bertram in Mansfield Park , or on the other spectrum, they are socially tone-deaf, like Mr. Collins in Pride and Prejudice and Mr. Elton in Emma.
As stated in The Bedside, Bathtub & Armchair Companion to Jane Austen:
[T]here are two types of pastors — those who make things worse and those who, in their own bumbling way, make things better. (35)
So why DID they change Mr. Collins’s profession for the movie?
There are a couple of theories that I have gathered through a little research.
Screwball comedy influence
First, as mentioned in Sue Parill’s work, Jane Austen on Film and Television: A Critical Study of the Adaptations, the feel and pace of the 1940 adaptation is influenced by the screwball comedy genre, which was popular at the time. Events were changed or added to highlight comedic elements, and storylines — such as the Lydia and Wickham elopement — were rushed over.
True to the screwball comedy genre, the minor roles are played for broad humor. Since MGM has a large stable of well-known contract players, these roles were played by actors who were familiar to audiences from other screwball and romantic comedies. (50)
This roster of contract players included Cooper, who had played buffoonish characters in such films as 1934’s The Scarlet Pimpernel and in 1938’s The Adventures of Robin Hood, as a decidedly clownish Sheriff of Nottingham.
As Parill further elaborates:
It uses them [characters] solely for comedy. Mr. Collins (Melville Cooper) has been changed from clergyman to Lady Catherine’s librarian, but he is still the same ingratiating and officious today that he is in the novel. (52)
The Hays Code
Another highly likely theory is that the role was changed to a librarian due to the overly comedic, and disparaging, portrayal of a clergyman. This was during a high point in the Motion Picture Production Code, commonly known as the Hays Code, which demanded censorship and sanitization of so-called “risqué” or “immoral” elements. On the Don’ts list of the Hays Code, “ridicule of the clergy” is ranked as #10!
In her book Jane Austen’s Cults and Cultures, author Claudia L. Johnson counts Mr. Collins’s character change as one of the “ludicrous” changes in the 1940 film:
…a good deal of ludicrousness — antebellum costumes, Mr. Collins’s metamorphosis into a librarian (the Hollywood production forbidding irreverent representations of the clergy)… (p. 88)
It is quite telling that while clergyman were a protected class in early Hollywood, the same could NOT be said for librarians. (Double sigh.)
So the 1940 version of Pride and Prejudice changes the already humorous character of Mr. Collins from a clergyman to a personal librarian. The occupational change seems to serve the absurd and ridiculous qualities of Mr. Collins — we do not pause and wonder at a bumbling librarian, whereas we might be offended at a bumbling clergyman.
It is also interesting to note that we, the audience, never actually get to see the inside of the library that Collins curates for Lady Catherine; his profession is mentioned once at the beginning and never referred to again. And it is quite revealing on retrospect that Mr. Bennet, who has his own personal library which serves as an important personal retreat, does not mention libraries or books at all with Mr. Collins. Mr. Bennet does not take the opportunity of using an apparently mutual love of libraries to bond with his cousin and heir. Curious, no?
In addition to the source novel by Jane Austen — who probably would opt not to take credit for this film adaptation — the film’s writing credits are lengthy: Aldous Huxley (!) and Jane Murfin are credited as co-authors of the screenplay, which also borrowed heavily from Helen Jerome’s 1934 dramatization of the play entitled Pride and Prejudice: A Sentimental Comedy in Three Acts. I haven’t obtained a copy of the play — and only bits of it are available to read for free online — to check if the character of Mr. Collins was turned into a librarian in Jerome’s version. I doubt it, but it would be nice to close that loop.
However, critic Andrew Wright does state that “Mr. Collins, Mrs. Bennett, and Lady Catherine were always played farcically in the Jerome play” (as quoted in Parrill, p. 50). When the play was first performed in New York in 1936, the stage actor Harold Scott (1891-1964) played the role of Mr. Collins.
There are quite a few other major shifts in the 1940 adaptation, including a time period pushed forward to allow for puffy sleeves and ridiculous hoop skirts (again, to heighten broad comedic moments), a total reversal of Lady Catherine’s character at the end of the film, and completely made-up bits shoehorned in, like an archery scene. (Elizabeth Bennet gets to take aim in more ways than one!) The pacing is also different from the book. Lizzy’s refusal of Darcy’s initial marriage proposal comes in the middle of the novel, a stroke of genius on Austen’s part. We then get to witness Lizzy’s change of heart and deepening maturity throughout the book’s second half. However, in the play, as well as in the 1940 film, the proposal comes at the end of the second of three acts. This rapid-paced ending is also indicative of screwball comedies.
The ads for the film also highlighted the screwball elements, with taglines such as:
Five love hungry beauties in search of husbands!!
The Gayest Comedy Hit of the Screen! Five Gorgeous Beauties on a Mad-Cap Manhunt!
When pretty girls t-e-a-s-e-d men into marriage…
How was the film received when it was released in July, 1940? It was a crowd-pleaser and broke attendance records at Radio City Music Hall. The film was a hit with audiences and earned the Oscar for Best Black-and-White Art Direction.
And I have to admit, this film was my own personal introduction to Jane Austen, as well! I have quite fond memories of this film; I loooooooooved watching, and rewatching, this movie as a child. I didn’t read the novel until junior high, when I was shocked (shocked, I tell you!) to learn that Lady Catherine de Burgh did not, in the end, approve of Darcy’s choice to marry Lizzy.
The film also earned mostly positive reviews from critics. For example, Bosley Crowther’s film review in The New York Times praised the film’s “cast of such uniform perfection,” with notable exceptions:
Only Melville Cooper as Mr. Collins and Marsha Hunt as Mary Bennet permit their characterizations to degenerate into burlesque.
Ouch. A reel librarian portrayal that also manages to draw comparison to burlesque? (Triple sigh.)
All in all, odious Mr. Collins’s role as a reel librarian in the 1940 version of Pride and Prejudice does not help the reel librarian’s cause in any way. It’s also notable that this film is not even included in the round-up of librarian films in The Image of Librarians in Cinema, 1917-1999. As a minor character, our Mr. Collins winds up a Class III reel librarian, fulfilling the character role of Comic Relief.
No surprise there, right? 😉
Works Cited (and Consulted):
In addition to the 1940 film itself, I consulted the following works:
Adams, Carol, Douglas Buchanan, and Kelly Gesch. The Bedside, Bathtub & Armchair Companion to Jane Austen. New York: Continuum, 2008. Print.
Crowther, Bosley. “Pride and Prejudice (1940).” The New York Times Review. 9 August 1940. Web. 15 Feb. 2014.
Johnson, Claudia L. Jane Austen’s Cults and Cultures. Chicago: U of Chicago P, 2012. Google Book Search. Web. 15 Feb. 2014.
Parrill, Sue. Jane Austen on Film and Television: A Critical Study of the Adaptations. Jefferson, NC: McFarland & Co., 2002. Print.
Ray, Joan Klingel. Jane Austen For Dummies. Hoboken, NJ: Wiley, 2006. Print.