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Turning back to the 20th Century Fox vault, Twilight Time has tapped a real gem of a classic adaptation. Although Jane Eyre made its debut as a novel in 1847, it plays as if it were originally written for the screen. The 1944 film is still probably the most notable and satisfying adaptation of this key Gothic drama, a moody thriller with a good sense of mystery. It 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 injects emotional depth into Charlotte Brontë's story of injustice and longing.
The all-time classic novel provided the inspiration for an entire genre of women's novels. Cruelly treated by her guardian, Mrs. Reed (Agnes Moorehead), the orphan Jane Eyre (Peggy Ann Garner) is sent to the oppressive Lowood School to be further abused by the near-maniacal Henry Brocklehurst (Henry Daniell), whose pious punishments hurry the death of Jane's beloved best friend Helen Burns (Elizabeth Taylor). Refusing a teaching position when she comes of age, Jane (Joan Fontaine) instead takes a job as a governess for Edward Rochester (Orson Welles), a man brooding over dark secrets. Jane tutors Rochester's little girl (Margaret O'Brien) and brings new happiness to the house. Odd happenings culminate in Jane saving Rochester from a mysterious fire set in his room. They grow to like each other's company, and Jane suffers when Rochester openly woos Blanche Ingram (Hillary Brooke), a beautiful but unpleasant neighbor. Rochester eventually declares his love for Jane and they plan to marry. All goes well until Mr. Mason (John Abbott) interrupts the ceremony, stating that he has reasons why Edward Rochester cannot marry -- anybody.
Jane Eyre is a satisfying and superior entertainment that in 1944 surely took people's minds away from the war. The opening section with the sensitive child actress Peggy Ann Garner (A Tree Grows in Brooklyn) is an almost perfect condensation of the events of the book. Agnes Moorehead's imperious guardian and Henry Daniell's tyrannical schoolmaster inflict terrible humiliations and injustice on young Jane. The stylization of these scenes evokes the ordeal of Jane and her friend Helen (the unbilled Liz Taylor) forced to march in the rain or stand on a stool amid a maze of expressionistic shadows. Perhaps the only sign of haste is in the quick pass-by of Sara Allgood's Bessie, who 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 substitute his character for some relatives Jane encounters late in the tale.
The movie and book begin to diverge when Jane 'grows up' to become Joan Fontaine. The actress is directed to play Jane too much like the ultra-shy and passive Rebecca from her earlier career-making Alfred Hitchcock hit. Brontë's original Jane is much more forceful and determined to retain her personal independence. Although Jane welcomes marriage with Rochester, she is wary of being "bought." The movie's Jane is all smiles when being fitted for a trousseau. 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 what may be his first starring role directed by someone else. As always, Welles makes a firm impression, but there's something funny going on -- he never lets us forget that, even though A Big Actor is on screen Doing Dramatic Things, we shouldn't be fooled, it's really him. He seems aware of the camera at all times. Welles can be great in character roles where his impish humor 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. Fans of the actor can ponder his qualities as a leading man -- in 1944 Welles was still reasonably thin. He worked hard to create the perfect fake nose to replace the "baby" nose that made him so self-conscious. Welles' acting career is a parade of noses, and this one is surely among his best.
Welles aficionados stress his creative influence over the making of the film. The presence of Agnes Moorehead and Erskine Sanford in the cast, along with the work of composer Bernard Herrmann certainly provides links to Welles' classic 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 a 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. According to Michael Powell, so were British filmmakers like 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, until his career highlight The Body Snatcher.
Jane Eyre wraps itself up in a big hurry, which is a good decision. From the unsuccessful wedding onward 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 an alternate husband candidate, albeit a missionary with no romantic appeal. The movie skips all of this to hurry to the memorable moment when a supernatural voice calls to Jane over the moors. Since Orson Welles has 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.
The Twilight Time Blu-ray of Jane Eyre is a good HD encoding of this carefully stylized show. George Barnes' cinematography was enhanced with many clever special effects, combining mattes and brooding skies with bits of action filmed on sound stages. The entire film does appear to be a mastered from dupe materials; the original negative was probably lost to over-printing. Yet Fox has brought the quality up to a high standard.
The presentation might be properly labeled a proto-Twilight Time production, as some of the company's creative folk participated in an earlier Fox DVD release from 2007. Besides TT's signature Isolated Score Track, a battery of good extras have been retained from the earlier release. Joseph McBride carries most of one commentary aided by Margaret O'Brien. 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 sound like raw music cues, including audio slates. One of the composer's most accomplished traditional scores, Jane Eyre suggests a flood of churning, galloping emotions hidden below the surface of the characters.
The fairly lengthy featurette Locked in the Tower examines the film's contested paternity. 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 always followed by an entourage, supposedly to intimidate others into thinking him to be in charge. The docu interviewees imply that Stevenson did not assert full control at all times, a fair enough statement. The interviewees try to equate the cinematic accomplishments of the two directors, which is silly. Stevenson had a long and busy career.
An interesting example of Stevenson's talent is provided with the 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. Rather long, it is packed with pro-Brit propaganda, especially whenever the subject of colonial empire comes up. A restoration comparison, trailer and galleries of stills and promotion artwork follow.
A new item is Julie Kirgo's insert essay, which goes straight to the heart of the appeal of Brontës novel and its many cinematic offspring. Kirgo certainly gets into the right groove: "But although Jane appears frail, she has a spirit as tempestuous as the moor wind she glories in." Now how does one read sentences like that without thinking of Bernard Herrmann's 'tempestous' film score?
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
Jane Eyre Blu-ray rates:
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