Attention, Gen-YouTube. We know you’ve been assigned to catch up on Great Books 101 — and that you’d like to do it without cracking a hardcover. A word of caution, then, for the CliffsNotes cineasts picking up Motion Picture Masterpieces, a new-to-DVD five-disc set. Though production-wise all represent the best of MGM’s magnificent dream factory at work, on the accuracy meter they fall somewhere between an eight-hour BBC miniseries and Demi Moore’s The Scarlet Letter: Hester Hearts Dimmesdale! edition.
Most divergent from the written word is 1940’s notoriously inaccurate, but incredibly entertaining, adaptation of Pride and Prejudice. Dressed in hoopskirts more befitting Southern belles than Regency brides, this Elizabeth Bennet (Greer Garson) and her four unmarried sisters suffer few of the class insults heaped on their literary counterparts; Lady Catherine de Bourgh, as played by the lantern-faced Edna May Oliver, even helps pave the way for Lizzy to marry her aristocrat nephew Mr. Darcy (a delightfully aloof Laurence Olivier, who floated Austen lovers’ boats until a fellow named Firth came along). Only slightly more faithful is 1938’s lush Marie Antoinette, which features a lovely, if 35-year-old, Norma Shearer as the teenage Austrian princess-turned-French queen. She’s one-sidedly depicted as a faultless victim of fate and the true brains behind her dull-eyed lump of a husband, King Louis XVI.
Equally epic but more authentic is the 1935 Dickens double feature of David Copperfield and A Tale of Two Cities. Both hew as closely to the author’s sprawling novels as two-hour dramas can. Sacrificing depth for breadth, Copperfield trots out a colorful, if shallow, parade of the studio’s contract players — plus a hammy W.C. Fields as Micawber — to flesh out 19th-century England. A Tale of Two Cities condenses its Revolutionary-era saga by revealing several plot twists early. It’s a move that sends the always-dignified Ronald Colman — whose drunk/savior Sydney Carton looks nothing like his aristocratic doppelgänger — to that far, far better place far, far more quickly, but robs several scenes of their poignancy.
The most faithful of the lot is also the least memorable. Robert Louis Stevenson’s Treasure Island (1934) reteams The Champ‘s Jackie Cooper and Wallace Beery as boy sailor Jim Hawkins and pirate Long John Silver in a mindless adventure on the high seas. It’s hardly a spoiler that Hawkins and Silver find gold, which is a lot more than extras-seeking viewers will find on this set. Disappointingly, not even the usual-suspect historians are trotted out to comment on these classics, leaving us with only a few vintage shorts and trailers. And plenty more time to spend ditching class and working on your MySpace page.