Appropriate to its being one of the first and most-popular gothic romances of all time, Charlotte Bronte's "Jane Eyre" has seen no fewer than eighteen screen adaptations, none of them better than this 1944 production with Joan Fontaine and Orson Welles.
Ms. Bronte (1816-1855) was born in Thornton, Yorkshire, and under the care of a widowed father grew up with a brother and two sisters--both of the sisters, Emily ("Wuthering Heights") and Anne ("Agnes Grey"), becoming authors as well. Raised with little companionship beyond her own family and marrying only shortly before her death at a prematurely young age, Charlotte developed a vivid imagination that served her well, writing "Jane Eyre," her most famous novel, in 1847. That the book should continue to enthrall readers over a hundred and fifty years later may seem remarkable, until one realizes how enduring the story and characters are. Human nature never changes through time, and audiences today can still recognize and identify with a good mystery, a sympathetic protagonist, a compelling conflict, and universal themes.
The movie's writers--John Houseman, Aldous Huxley, Henry Koster, and director Robert Stevenson--manage to condense the sprawling novel into a ninety-seven-minute screenplay that hits most of the novel's high points without resorting to much condescension. Unlike the novel, they begin it this way: "My name is Jane Eyre... I was born in 1820, a harsh time of change in England. Money and position seemed all that mattered. Charity was a cold and disagreeable word. Religion too often wore a mask of bigotry and cruelty. There was no proper place for the poor or the unfortunate. I had no father or mother, brother or sister. As a child I lived with my aunt, Mrs. Reed of Gateshead Hall. I do not remember that she ever spoke one kind word to me." This narration strikes a fitting balance in introducing us to the movie's main character, launching the major arguments, and developing a despairing tone.
"Jane Eyre" follows the general pattern set forth by earlier English novels--"Moll Flanders," "Tom Jones," "Joseph Andrews"--yet it forsakes the comedies of manners fostered by her most-immediate female rival, Jane Austen. The Brontes wrote of the darker sides of life, while ever lingering on important social issues. It may not be coincidental that "Jane Eyre" bears resemblance to the later works of her contemporary, Charles Dickens, in showing the plight of the lower classes, in Bronte's case a situation aggravated by Jane's being a woman. In those days, under the conditions described, if a woman were not born wealthy, society expected her to marry well. If she had no such prospects, there was teaching, caring for the underprivileged, entering the poor house, or living on the streets.
In Bronte's story, Jane (Joan Fontaine) is an orphan, spending a part of her youth with an unfeeling aunt, Mrs. Reed (Agnes Moorehead), and then a part of her young adulthood in the Lowood Institution, a charitable school where she is a pupil and where later the head of the school offers her a job as a teacher. However, at the age of eighteen she leaves to become the governess to a child, Adele Varens (Margaret O'Brien), the ward of Edward Rochester (Orson Welles), a proud, tortured, imperious man ("I never was correct nor ever shall be"), who lives in a secluded country estate, Thornfield Manor, the size of a small castle.
Naturally, Jane falls in love with the enigmatic Edward, and, just as naturally, strife ensues as the girl cannot bring herself to admit her feelings for him. It was not, after all, the right or proper thing for a young governess to do or even think about. She had her position to consider; there were strict societal rules to follow. If this premise brings to mind Daphne Du Maurier's "Rebecca" (1938), you must remember that Hitchcock had brought Du Maurier's story to the screen with Ms. Fontaine as star just a few years before this film, and "Rebecca" had won an Oscar for Best Picture. Never mind that Hollywood had already made Ms. Bronte's book into a movie six previous times; a good story was a good story, especially when the same star and a similar plot line and characters were still fresh in the public's minds.
"Are you always drawn to the loveless?" asks Edward. "When it's deserved," replies Jane.
Anyway, not only does Jane find herself in a moral dilemma regarding her love for her employer, she discovers that not everything is as it should be in Mr. Rochester's life. There is that little matter of the dark secret kept locked and hidden away in Thornfield's highest tower. And there's the secretive behavior of the housekeeper. And the odd cackling laugh, pitiable sobs, and outright screams in the night. Bronte knew how to keep an audience's attention, and Hollywood was quick to capitalize on the plot's more obvious grotesqueries, as well as the desolation of its landscape.
Likewise, director Robert Stevenson ("King Solomon's Mines," "Tom Brown's School Days") knew how to capitalize on Bronte's gothic atmosphere, although to be fair, the movie was probably as much Orson Welles's doing as Stevenson's. Welles's hand looms over the production from the opening shots: the dark, gloomy tone; the crisp black-and-white photography, with its penchant for long, wide shots in close spaces; the camera angles that emphatically distort size, small and large; the constant play of silhouette, light, and shadow; the sets; the casting; and the Bernard Herrmann musical score, often reminiscent of his work with Welles on "Citizen Kane," so important in holding things together even when they appear ready to come apart.
Is it any wonder that although Jane is the central character, it is Welles's Edward Rochester who remains foremost in memory? I mean, how could the resolute but essentially helpless little Jane (especially in the hands of a reticent Joan Fontaine) hope to contend with the lofty presence of Orson Welles galloping out of the mists? As a result, the studio offered to credit Welles as the film's co-producer, but he characteristically refused.
Look, too, for excellent performances early on by Henry Daniell as Mr. Brocklehurst, the cruel, cold-hearted chairman of Jane's school, a villain of the highest order ("Punish the body to save her soul"), making Ebenezer Scrooge look like Mahatma Gandhi. And there is the aforementioned Agnes Moorehead as Jane's equally insensitive benefactress; plus Peggy Ann Garner as the young Jane, a more spirited portrayal than Jane's later incarnation under Ms. Fontaine; and an uncredited turn by a very young Elizabeth Taylor as Helen, Jane's ill-fated childhood friend. Nevertheless, when Welles enters the scene, about a third of the way into the story, he pretty much dominates the picture, so it's sometimes hard to notice who else is in it.
This new Fox restoration of "Jane Eyre" closely retains its original 1.37:1 aspect ratio, with the cleaning doing wonders for its clarity and definition. The restored black-and-white transfer displays excellent contrasts and fairly sharp delineation, with virtually no signs of age or deterioration. One notices some small degree of grain, inherent to the film stock, but it serves to give the picture a greater feeling of vitality and life.
Fox engineers have made the English audio available in two configurations, Dolby Digital 2.0 stereo and 1.0 monaural. Just don't expect the two-channel format to sound much like modern stereo. The 2.0 treatment does broaden the sound stage somewhat, but it still feels like mono. There is, though, a smooth, realistic midrange that serves the dialogue and music well, in addition to almost dead-silent backgrounds.
It took quite a while for Fox to get this production of "Jane Eyre" to disc, but now that they have, they've done it up right as one of their "Cinema Classics Collection." It comes with two audio commentaries, the first with Orson Welles biographer Joseph McBride and actress Margaret O'Brien, which combines learned insight with firsthand experience; and the second with film historians Nick Redman, Steven Smith, and Julie Kirgo, which is filled with fascinating background material. After the commentaries are an isolated musical-score track; an excellent, eighteen-minute, behind-the-scenes featurette, "Locked in the Tower: The Men Behind Jane Eyre," with film historians, authors, and relatives of the filmmakers taking part; a forty-two-minute U.S. War Film Department propaganda movie directed by Robert Stevenson, called "Know Your Ally Britain"; a restoration comparison; followed by production, storyboard, and poster galleries.
The extras wrap up with sixteen scene selections and an informational chapter insert; an original theatrical trailer; and English, French, and Spanish spoken languages and English and Spanish subtitles. A richly illustrated cardboard slipcover enfolds the keep case and four postcard screen shots therein.
Those critics over the years who have seen little more in this production of "Jane Eyre" than a conventional romantic potboiler were obviously watching a different movie from the one I grew up with. The "Jane Eyre" I see is a movingly dark, moody, brooding motion picture that appropriately captures the flavor of Charlotte Bronte's classic within a reasonable time frame. Film is a visual medium above all, an image conveying a thousand words, and there is no reason for a three-hour version of the story except to satisfy purists wishing to see every detail on screen, whether or not they are needed. Moreover, that this "Jane Eyre" is more Orson Welles's movie than co-star Joan Fontaine's or director Robert Stevenson's may be a blessing in disguise.