There have been many cinematic adaptations of Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre, but none quite so enduring or as memorable as director Robert Stevenson’s 1943 Gothic masterpiece costarring Joan Fontaine and Orson Welles. Aldous Huxley’s superb screenplay (with an assist by Stevenson and John Houseman) rings ominously true to Brontë’s own social critique of the cruelties inflicted in childhood that stagger the heart throughout a lifetime. At intervals, Jane Eyre – the novel – is moody, haunted, terrific and shocking – qualities discounted among the popular critics of Brontë’s era. So too was Brontë’s depiction of the wicked religiosity at Lowood Institution and foreboding melancholia of Thornfield’s Byronic romantic figure, Mr. Rochester – the bizarre mental disease of his wife locked in the tower of a gloomy manor, initially shunned by Brontë’s harshest detractors.
Such vial contradictions to their outwardly pleasant decorum and propriety of polite English society did not occur; or, if so, were not addressed directly in a public fashion. Brontë, however, had endured such viciousness in her own youth. Indeed, parallels between the author’s life and that ‘fictionalized’ account luridly exorcised between the 400 pages of her novel are readily present for any historian to digest and critique. Hence, Jane Eyre is as much a tale of self-reflection as it remains an undisputed highlight of 17th century literature, told in the first person under the authoress’ non de plume - nee alter ego; a very clever mask indeed.
Originally, producer David O. Selznick had planned to make Jane Eyre himself; acquiring the novel as yet another showcase for Joan Fontaine. Selznick eventually wooed Orson Welles into his fold, before selling the property in its entirety to 2oth Century-Fox. Selznick’s reasoning, in retrospect, is sound. Fontaine had played a contemporized Jane Eyre-esque heroine for Selznick in Hitchcock’s Rebecca (1940); the film that catapulted Fontaine’s reputation as a leading lady into the stratosphere of stardom. Fox assigned Robert Stevenson to direct. But the courtly, polished British intellectual, with a kindly heart unencumbered by ego, found enough of the latter for ten men in his co-star, Orson Welles. When Jane Eyre had its premiere, Welles’ rather flamboyant performance as Edward Rochester, was heavily criticized. Welles could often be counted upon to be a tyrannical presence. He had, after all, directed, written and starred in what many consider the greatest motion picture ever made – Citizen Kane (1941). And yet, on Jane Eyre, Welles fell almost willingly into line with Stevenson’s vision for the movie; respecting his director and perhaps mindful of the fact his own stature as the cinema’s enfant terrible had been greatly diminished after being ousted from RKO – the studio that had virtually handed over creative control to him only a scant two years earlier.
Welles also seems to have been the most congenial towards costars, Joan Fontaine and eleven year old Margaret O’Brien; the latter sharing fond recollections of her experience making the film. Welles does not appear in Jane Eyre for a solid half hour – Stevenson and his screenwriters fast-tracking through the novel’s lengthy first act – the painful childhood of the young girl played with a few choice scenes expertly excised and linked together by actual passages taken from Brontë’s book. These are narrated by Fontaine, but played out by some of Fox’s most competent dramatic supporting cast, including Henry Daniell (as the maniacal Rev. Henry Brocklehurst), Sarah Algood (the empathetic housemaid, Bessie), Peggy Ann Garner (a miraculous and sadly underrated child star, utterly superb as the young Jane), Elizabeth Taylor (almost as good – at age 11 – as the ill-fated best friend, Helen Burns) and Agnes Moorehead (as Jane’s wicked and wealthy aunt, Mrs. Reed). It is one of Hollywood’s small ironies that Moorehead, a most kind-hearted and philanthropic actress whose charitable work and support of young talent remains legendary, was forever typecast in the movies as variations of the caustic, bedeviled and extremely spiteful harridan. In Jane Eyre all of the aforementioned actors are exquisite, creating indelible portraits that linger in memory, despite only being on the screen for a scant few moments.
Yet, in viewing Jane Eyre today one is struck by how much the picture belongs to Orson Welles; not so much for Welles’ ‘ham-acting’ (so ridiculed in several prominent reviews back in 1943); but rather, by how complimentary his gregarious articulations - as written - and moodily apocalyptic stares are to Fontaine’s splendidly understated turn as the put upon and bedraggled English lass who endures the most arduous circumstances with quiet resolve and an even more willful self-determination. Despite her dowdy appearance, dressed mostly in dark grays and blacks, with Quaker-like bob and a seemingly complete lack of makeup and jewelry, Fontaine manages to exude a sad-eyed, but glacial beauty. She is, by far, the most handsome embodiment of Brontë’s enduring heroine.
But Welles’ Rochester is a potent reminder that the darkness plaguing a man’s soul is not always readily apparent at a glance. The movie plays magnificently off these two polar opposites; Fontaine’s mousy and diminutive governess, by all accounts an unfortunate dependent upon the charity of strangers, pitted against Welles’ seemingly towering pillar of doomed English aristocracy. Jane Eyre therefore succeeds because of this stark contrast; the inner struggles so described with great detail by Brontë herein delineated in visual terms by this discrepancy in physicality in its two stars.
Jane Eyre begins with Fontaine’s narration cribbed directly from page one of Brontë’s novel. We regress in flashback to a moment from childhood memory; young Jane (Peggy Ann Garner) being removed from the closet she’s been locked in to face her manipulative Aunt Reed (Agnes Moorehead) and stern proprietor of Lowood Institution, Rev. Henry Brocklehurst (Henry Daniell). Mrs. Reed has decided that Jane should be sent away to school; a punishment at first unseen by Jane, who desires nothing better than to escape the wicked oppressions and constant scrutiny of her aunt.
Happily agreeing to attend Lowood, Jane’s hopes for a joyous and scholarly retreat are dashed when Brocklehurst makes a potent example of her before a gathering of the school’s educators and pupils; commanding them all to ostracize Jane for her wicked intensions. Jane is deprived of food, but more importantly, love and kindness. No one seems to care for her, except fellow student, Helen Burns (Elizabeth Taylor) who manages to sneak in a morsel after the others have gone away. Shortly thereafter, Jane and Helen become the very best of friends, doing their chores together. While folding clothes in the courtyard, the two girls are approached by the kindly Dr. Rivers (John Sutton). Jane dreams of running away down the road she imagines will lead her to exotic locales. But Dr. Rivers encourages her to pursue her education instead.
While on his routine examination Dr. Rivers discovers Helen’s cough has worsened. He orders Mr. Brocklehurst to keep the school’s window’s shut during the frigid and very damp fall weather. But Brocklehurst defies Rivers’ request moments after his departure. He further makes an example of both Helen and Jane; first, by lopping off Helen’s handsome black ringlets into a brutalized mane, then by forcing Helen and Jane to parade about the schoolyard in the pouring rain, carrying heavy weights in their hands and wearing placards about their necks; ‘vane’ for Helen and ‘rebellious’ for Jane. Dr. Rivers witnesses this cruel spectacle and orders Brocklehurst to put Helen to bed; regrettably too late to save her life. She dies of pneumonia with a distraught Jane lying quietly next to her.
Years pass; Stevenson and his art director James Basevi employing a few brief excerpts from a ledger kept on Jane’s progress at Lowood to cleverly expedite the narrative timeline. When next we meet Jane (now played by Joan Fontaine) she is a mature graduate of the institution whom Brocklehurst hopes to manipulate into remaining at Lowood as one of its teachers. But Jane has secretly written for a position as a governess instead. Much to Brocklehurst’s chagrin, Jane leaves Lowood, traveling many miles to the George’s Inn where she is met by a cabbie who takes her the rest of the way to Thornfield Hall, the gloomily numinous manor house belonging to Edward Rochester (Orson Welles). The master is away. But Jane is shown to her quarters by the kindly housekeeper, Mrs. Fairfax (Edith Barrett) and later meets Adele Varens (Margaret O’Brien); the young French ward placed in her care. Adele is a precocious child, bubbling with optimism and excitement. She and Jane get on famously almost immediately.
Sometime later, while walking along the fog-laden craggy heath, Jane upsets a galloping horse. Its imperious rider is thrown, rising like a great specter from the marshy mist to admonish Jane for her stupidity. It is only after Jane returns to Thornfield that she realizes the man who was so cruel to her is none other than the master of the manor. Mr. Rochester goads his young governess to play the piano for him, silencing her a moment later with callous criticisms about her artistry. He demands to know Jane’s first impression and opinion of him. Instead, Jane cleverly replies to his inquiries with restrained frankness; her honestly and politeness in stark contrast to Edward’s arrogance and sense of worldly entitlement.
Several days and nights pass. Then, one evening Jane hears a blood-curdling laugh in the hall, discovering a fallen candlestick at her door threatening to set fire. Rushing to Mr. Rochester’s room, Jane discovers his four-poster canopy bed ablaze and narrowly rescues the sleeping master from being burned alive. After extinguishing the flames in a panic Edward orders Jane back to her room, the sound of angry footsteps and a few wild cackles heard before silence once more engulfs Thornfield’s cavernous halls. The next day Mr. Rochester rides away from Thornfield, only to return a short while later with a fashionable entourage that includes the haughty Lady Ingraham (Barbara Everest) and her regale daughter, Blanche (Hilary Brooke) whom it has practically been decided Edward shall marry.
Jane is heart sore; having fallen in love with Mr. Rochester herself. Her sadness is further compounded when Blanche and Lady Ingraham treat her abominably amidst the glittery assemblage of their friends. Edward is not obtuse to these insults, however, and later returns the favor on Jane’s behalf by accusing Blanche of being a penniless social climber who has hitched her star – though hardly her affections – to land a rich husband. The insult stings and Blanche and her family soon depart with bitterness from Thornfield. In the meantime, Edward is confronted by a mysterious figure, Mason (John Abbott) who wishes to conduct some ‘business’ with him. Edward reverts to his former cruel self; Mason discovered a short while later with a terrible wound inflicted on his person. Jane is ordered by Edward to stand guard while the doctor is fetched; another servant, Grace Poole (Ethel Griffies) keeping a very watchful eye on her.
Not long after, Jane requests a letter of reference from Mr. Rochester to secure another position as a governess elsewhere. Instead, Edward confides in her that he has sent Blanche away and intends to marry her instead. Overjoyed, the couple shares a brief respite from the gloom of Thornfield; escaping to London’s more fashionable couturiers and shops and making their happy wedding plans for spring. Unhappy circumstance that Mason arrives at the chapel on Jane and Edward’s day of marriage, accusing the master of Thornfield of being already in possession of a wife who is living and locked in the tower of Edward’s manor. In response, Edward takes Jane, Mason and the minister, Mr. Wood (Ivan F. Simpson) back to Thornfield, ordering Grace Poole to unlock the barred door leading to the attic to reveal a stark-raving mad woman inside. Edward explains that he was married very young in old Spanish town to a girl whom he later learned was already succumbing to a dark plague upon her mind. Unable to cure her of this mental disease he found no alternative but to imprison her in his home after she became dangerously violent. Edward begs for Jane’s understanding. She grants it, but leaves Thornfield in great despair.
Without money or a suitable position to sustain her, Jane begrudgingly returns to her Aunt Reed. She is welcomed by Bessie with open arms before learning that her aunt has since suffered a terrible stroke after the death of her son. Jane finds the woman she once despised much altered by her present condition, though still harboring a tinge of resentment toward her. Nevertheless, Jane agrees to remain and care for Mrs. Reed who dies a short while later, her grand estate and all of the things in it later sold at auction. Amidst all the turmoil, Dr. Rivers returns with a letter from Thornfield. Jane is reluctant to accept it and Dr. Rivers elects to burn the correspondence in a stove without either of them ever learning its contents.
Still, Jane is compelled to return to Thornfield; a short while later discovering Mr. Rochester blinded in a terrible fire that destroyed much of the west wing of his grand manor house. Mrs. Fairfax explains how Edward’s mad wife, having escaped her dungeon, torched Thornfield with the intent to destroy all who resided within, only to perish in the flames herself despite Mr. Rochester’s valiant attempt to save her life. Realizing the goodness in Edward, Jane confronts him. He is cold and admonishing at first, believing Jane has returned out of pity rather than love. She convinces him otherwise and in the final moments we see the pair walking together along the moors, Jane’s narration explaining that eventually Edward’s sight returned; he and Jane married and she bore him a son – henceforth, the curse of Thornfield forever lifted from both their lives.
Jane Eyre is, as famed writer/theologian/dramatist, G. K. Chesterton once astutely pointed out “the story of the dangerous life of a good person.” The influence of the novel cannot be understated; perennially resurrected in literature and the movies. Indeed, whether knowingly or not, Charlotte Brontë’s novel has become the template for the Gothic romance. The film is a repository for top-flight artisans working both in front of and behind the camera to create a cinematic exemplar of this famed masterwork.
Jane Eyre succeeds as a movie only partly because it is imbued with that fearless, unified and impeccable craftsmanship inherent in all studio-bound productions from Hollywood’s golden age. Even the minutest detail is given exceptional attention; the minor roles as rivetingly fleshed out as the principles. Again, part of the allure is that we know virtually all of the supporting cast from their repeated appearances elsewhere in the cinema firmament; the likes of a Sara Allgood or Hillary Brooke coming with their own built-in level of audience expectation. In Hollywood’s golden age, this vast assortment of skilled ‘second string’ players were known simply as ‘stock’ – readily called upon to enliven and ensure a level of familiarity and comfort. But the degree of support each actor offers in Jane Eyre – and elsewhere, for that matter – cannot be overstated. These people were truly an extraordinary part of that vanquished empire we now quaintly refer to as ‘the studio system’.
In some ways, Jane Eye – the movie – strangely seems much more Orson Welles’ picture than it is Joan Fontaine’s; part of the reason being that its evocative look (lensed in deep focus with an obvious nod to German Expressionism and noir-styled chiaroscuro lighting by master cinematographer, George Barnes) has the uncanny mimic of Gregg Toland’s superb efforts on Welles’ own Citizen Kane and The Magnificent Ambersons. Furthermore, a minor brouhaha was to occur not long after Selznick sold the rights to William Goetz at Fox; insisting that Welles not receive producer credit despite the fact that the star had also contributed a great deal of thoughts and ideas in the shaping of the production. Even though Welles does not appear in the movie until its middle act, his presence is felt throughout; Bernard Herrmann’s magnificent underscore faultlessly capturing the unquenchable loneliness of two damaged souls travelling along a parallel timeline until at last these intersect to stir, and then heal, each in unexpected ways.
If only Twilight Time’s Blu-ray could ‘heal’ some of the ravages time has inflicted upon this classic movie. It is important to note that Jane Eyre is very near one of the lost masterpieces from the 1940s; its original camera negative destroyed long ago and all viable work prints made appallingly bad by some shoddy transference to acetate during the early 1970s without much care being paid. The surviving elements are therefore hardly a good starting point for any restoration. And Fox did, in fact, do a considerable ‘clean up’ back in 2000 for the DVD release. However, since 2000 there have been considerable advances in computer software designed to clean up and stabilize film-based images for the digital age. It doesn’t look as though any of these tools have been applied to Jane Eyre for this Blu-ray release; not even basic frame by frame ‘cloning’ of affected areas to rid the image of nicks, chips and minor scratches. Nor has any attempt been made to further stabilize the inherent built-in flicker that perpetually plagues most of this 1080p transfer.
It is both problematic and frustrating how Fox could so completely continue to disregard Jane Eyre for the full-blown meticulous frame-by-frame treatment it so obviously deserves, particularly since in this last year the studio has committed itself passionately to the release of so many of its illustrious catalogue titles in hi-def. That said, what we have on this Twilight Time limited edition Blu-ray is roughly the same as what we saw in 2000 on DVD, albeit, with Blu-ray’s higher bit rate marginally improving the tightness and clarity of the overall image and also eradicating the digital artifacts that plagued the natural transference of its film grain. Grain does look much more natural on the Blu-ray; although just a tad too thick for my liking and wholly uncharacteristic of the way the movie must have looked in 1943. The audio is DTS mono and exceptionally strong. Welles voice booms with a commanding presence and Bernard Herrmann’s score dominates throughout with only a hint of hiss and pop detected during more quiescent moments.
Extras are all direct imports from Fox’s DVD release and include two exceptionally fine audio commentaries; the first by biographer Joseph McBride and Margaret O’Brien, the second from noted historians Nick Redman, Julie Kirgo and Steven C. Smith. Kirgo also provides astute observations in her liner notes (always a joy to read). We get a short featurette ‘Locked in the Tower: The Men Behind Jane Eyre’, plus a short subject ‘Know Your Ally: Britain’, and the movie’s original theatrical trailer. Bottom line: Jane Eyre is a masterpiece. It deserves to be seen. It also deserves a more meticulous restoration than this. Recommended for content only.
FILM RATING (out of 5 – 5 being the best)