Laurence Olivier was the wartime heart-throb and Colin firth set the modern-day standard, but Devoney Looser has uncovered an earlier and long-neglected celluloid Mr Darcy
The wet-shirt version of Pride & Prejudice’s Mr Darcy has become such an influential image that it is difficult to imagine the character BC (before Colin). For Janeites of a certain age, Colin Firth’s 1995 BBC portrayal remains so swoon-worthy that any next-generation daughters and granddaughters who would consider opting for Matthew Macfadyen or Sam Riley as their Darcy-of-choice would seem to need their heads examined.
More than two decades on, we blithely repeat the story that Colin Firth is the Original Hot Darcy, his like never before seen in popular culture. To some degree, the claim is true. No previous actor playing Darcy has enjoyed Firth’s exposure or impact. None has had a four-metre fibreglass replica of his torso displayed in the middle of lakes on two continents. (First displayed in London, the Firth-Darcy statue was later sold to the National Trust of Australia.)
When it comes to charting the history of Darcys, however, we’ve been encouraged to go beyond the foundation of Firth. The importance of Andrew Davies’s reinterpretation of the character, remaking him as a man with noticeable libido, has been long touted. Davies, we’re told, was the first to rewrite Pride & Prejudice from the perspective of a desire-filled Darcy.
Davies’s characterisation has been described as trailblazing, because of Darcy’s newly discernible carnal yearnings.
However, an earlier sexed-up, threedimensional Darcy has a better claim to this honour. The actor’s name was also Colin – Colin Keith-Johnston (1896-1980), the noted English Shakespearean actor who gave what was by all accounts a tour de force performance as a heartthrob Darcy in 1935. He was appearing in a big-budget stage production of Pride & Prejudice that was seen by tens of thousands people and called for Darcy to display passion, to show hidden yearning, and to fold Elizabeth close to him, delivering a final, curtain-closing, heartstopping kiss.
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