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Early Olivier

April 5, 2011

by John Farr

Chances are you’re familiar with these two Laurence Olivier classics, but if you haven’t seen them, or just haven’t in a while, go back and revisit a pair of 1940 pictures that put Olivier (star of this week’s Reel 13 Classic The Entertainer) on the movie map.

Rebecca (1940)



After meeting on the Riviera, a demure young woman (Joan Fontaine) marries a wealthy widower, Maxim de Winter (Laurence Olivier), and returns to his sprawling English manor at Manderley. But Maxim’s battalion of servants instantly regard her with undisguised hostility, referring reverentially to the deceased Rebecca De Winter, whose death is veiled in secrecy. Bit by bit, she uncovers the truth about Rebecca’s demise…


Produced by the great David O. Selznick, Hitchcock’s multiple Oscar-nominated domestic mystery, sort of a cross between Jane Austen and Daphne du Maurier (who penned the novel it’s based on), was Hitch’s maiden outing in Hollywood. And he couldn’t have asked for a better cast: Fontaine is exquisite as the innocent new bride who narrates the film, and super thesp Olivier is masterful as ever playing the urbane tycoon with a secret. But Judith Anderson has the choicest turn as a sadistic housemaid, Mrs. Danvers, who has it in for the timid Fontaine. To top it all off, George Barnes’s expressive black-and-white camerawork marries beautifully with Hitchcock’s inimitable atmosphere of psychological menace.

Pride and Prejudice (1940)


IIn 1835 England, wealthy, class-conscious couple Mr. and Mrs. Bennett (Edmund Gwenn and Mary Boland) have five daughters who are of marriageable age, and they have decided to match them with appropriate suitors. Of all the eligible men in their social circle, the arrogant, dashing Mr. Darcy (Laurence Olivier)-despite his haughty airs–is the real catch, and independent-minded Elizabeth (Greer Garson) might be the only daughter worthy of his attention.


Penned by Aldous Huxley, this splendid adaptation of Jane Austen’s satirical novel seamlessly translates her barbed criticisms of upper-class mores to the big screen. Under MGM journeyman Leonard’s guiding hand, Olivier and Garson are a joy to watch as romantic interests whose strained rapport matures from mutual disdain to honest affection. Karl Freund’s magnificent cinematography captures all the period details-like a lawn-party archery lesson-beautifully, while Aldous Huxley’s witty dialogue preserves the spirited flavor of Austen’s text. And I do mean to “Prejudice” you: Avoid the botched 2005 version! .

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  • Ellen

    I’m not nearly as familiar with “The Entertainer” as I am with “Rebecca” and “Pride and Prejudice”. Nevertheless, although I’ve seen the latter two films many times, I will always watch them again – and again! I will give “The Entertainer” another chance.

  • Diana

    These two films are some of the best I have seen. Laurence Olivier’s skills are quite evident and proves that he is more than just a good-looking man. Although both of these movies are centered on the female leads, one cannot help but watch him in every scene in which he lends his insurpassable talent and elegance.
    The movie that really launched him to stardom, at least in America, was “Wuthering Heights”(1939). I HIGHLY recommend this film to anyone who loves good, quality, clasic film – certainly to any fan of Laurence Olivier. He plays the brooding, passionate Heathcliff to perfection. It is a very powerful performance, yet subtle and quiet at the same time.

  • rayban

    I love John’s choices – you can never go wrong with “Rebecca” and “Pride and Prejudice”.

  • Helen Spingola

    Wuthering Heights – one of Olivier’s best!!!

  • Jack

    Both excellent picks, although Rebecca does not hold up as much as Pride and Prejudice. Fontaine is too vanilla while Garson never fails to amuse. Speaking of young Olivier, I recall being very entertained by The Divorce of Lady X when he is with Merle Oberon.