Jane Eyre may have been written in 1847, but it plays as if it was originally written for the screen. A key Gothic drama, this inspiration for 1001 heavy-breathing women's novels has been adapted into at least twenty screen versions. Fox's 1944 Jane Eyre is still probably the most notable and satisfying adaptation. It's a moody B&W thriller with a good sense of mystery, even if the acting and execution are a bit uneven. The movie has remained alive in film discussions due to the presence of Orson Welles as an actor directed by the efficient and creative Robert Stevenson. And nobody forgets Bernard Herrmann's incomparable soundtrack score, which carries the story of injustice and longing into new regions of emotion.
A satisfying and superior entertainment overall, Jane Eyre has some odd aspects. The opening section with the sensitive child actress Peggy Ann Garner (A Tree Grows in Brooklyn) is almost perfect, condensing the events of the book without detracting from them in any way. Agnes Moorehead's imperious guardian and Henry Daniell's schoolmaster are a terrible pair of tormentors, and young Jane must endure humiliation and injustice. The stylization of these scenes evokes Jane's ordeal with masterful ease, with Jane and her friend Helen (the unbilled Liz Taylor) forced to march in the rain or stand on a stool amid a maze of German-inflected shadows. Perhaps the only sign of haste is in the quick pass-by of Sara Allgood's Bessie, who clearly played a much bigger part in the book. There is also some clever fudging with the "Dr. Rivers" character enacted by John Sutton. Writers John Houseman, Aldous Huxley and Robert Stevenson substituted his character for some relatives Jane encounters late in the tale.
When Jane 'grows up' to become Joan Fontaine, the movie and book begin to diverge. Fontaine is directed to play Jane too much like the ultra-shy and passive Rebecca from Fontaine's earlier career-making Alfred Hitchcock hit. Brontė's Jane is much more forceful and independent. After her stifling childhood the Jane of the book is determined to retain her personal independence, even though she welcomes marriage with Rochester. She is wary of being "bought," while the movie's Jane is all smiles when being fitted for a trousseau. Joan Fontaine's acting is always good, yet her character in this movie suffers from being altogether too similar to her roles in Rebecca and the later Suspicion.
That brings us to Orson Welles, in his first starring role (sort of) directed by someone else. As always, Welles makes a firm impression, but there's something funny about it -- he never lets us forget that, even though A Big Actor is on screen Doing Dramatic Things, that we shouldn't be fooled, it's really him. Welles can be great in character roles where his bombast and eccentric behavior brighten otherwise dull plot corners. In Eyre, the unnecessarily meek Fontaine follows Welles around as if she were walking a big dog that she can't control.
Welles aficionados stress his creative influence over the film. Having Agnes Moorehead and Erskine Sanford in the cast, along with Bernard Herrmann's score certainly provides links to Welles' classic: one music cue comes direct from Citizen Kane). Equally strong is the film's period sensibility, carefully manufactured on interior studio sets, a feeling perhaps influenced by Val Lewton's RKO films. Just the year before, Lewton's I Walked with a Zombie had been immediately recognized as a version of Jane Eyre transposed to the West Indies. Director Stevenson may have been as impressed with Lewton's 'small strokes' approach to period detail as were the British filmmakers Michael Powell and David Lean, who in the next few years would turn out a number of highly accomplished literary and period classics using the diminished resources of tiny English studios. The Mrs. Fairfax character is played by Edith Barrett, Lewton's actor from both Zombie and The Ghost Ship. Henry Daniell wouldn't be associated with Val Lewton for another year, in his The Body Snatcher.
Jane Eyre wraps itself up in a big hurry, which is a good decision. From the unsuccessful wedding forward, the story becomes progressively sketchy, barely touching on Jane's adventures away from Rochester's house. The original book managed to find an unexpected inheritance for Jane -- another Romance Novel "must" -- and a potential husband candidate, albeit a missionary with no romantic appeal. The movie hurries to the memorable moment when a supernatural voice calls to Jane over the moors. Since Orson Welles is one of the best disembodied voices of the 20th century, that moment works beautifully. The high drama of Herrmann's dynamic music does the rest of the heavy lifting.
Fox's Cinema Classics Collection disc of Jane Eyre begins with a disclaimer about imperfect transfer elements, but less-than-optimum visuals are noticeable only once or twice. Whatever the problem was, it doesn't interfere with our appreciation of the show on any level. The disc is loaded with extras. Joseph McBride carries most of one commentary aided by Margaret O'Brien, who plays Rochester's little ballerina of a daughter. O'Brien's most memorable comment is that she got to wear fancy costumes, while Peggy Ann Garner acted in rags. A second commentary combines the observations of Nick Redman, Steven Smith and Julie Kirgo and is a bit livelier.
Bernard Herrmann fans will be interested in the film's isolated "M&E" (music and sound effects) track, which makes this disc a dynamite soundtrack experience as well. The parts I listened to sounded like raw music cues, including audio slates. Jane Eyre is one of Herrmann's most accomplished traditional scores.
A fairly lengthy John Cork featurette, Locked in the Tower, examines the film's contested paternity. It has a problem in that two of the interviewees are relatives of credited director Stevenson, and the discussion is heavily weighted in his favor. Welles is characterized as an insecure prima donna followed by an entourage, supposedly to intimidate others into thinking he was in charge. The docu says that Stevenson was not overpowered by his famous collaborator, a fair enough statement. The interviewees try to equate the cinematic accomplishments of the two directors, which is silly.
One terrific and unexpected extra is Stevenson's WW2 propaganda film Know Your Ally Britain, a hearty morale-booster (narrated by notables like Walter Huston and Orson Welles) that might seem more appropriate to a war-themed feature. A restoration comparison, trailer and galleries of stills and promotion artwork follow.
In the box cover image Joan Fontaine looks as though she can't wait to get away from Orson Welles. A gigantic castle on the package back looks more like Sleeping Beauty's crib than any place where Plain Jane might hang her hat.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
Jane Eyre rates:
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