Jane Eyre (1934): An Oddball Take on the Tale

Watching Jane Eyre films is like eating potato chips: once you start, it's hard to stop. So I've been plundering Netflix's stock of these films. Seeing the 1934 version described as the first talking (i.e., non-silent) movie of Jane Eyre, I was curious enough to give it a whirl.

 

My review could be summed up in three words: "What a hoot!" But please permit me to elaborate.

 

 

 

Given the era, naturally the film is in black and white. Sadly, the print used for this DVD was not in great shape — there are many dark and light specks flashing through the picture, and a faint crackly buzz makes the actors' lines sometimes unintelligible. Also, if the opening credits are any indication, the top and bottom of the frame have been clipped.

 

The first curiosity I noticed is that the film runs for all of one hour and two minutes. This brevity necessitates some shortcuts, just as in those stage pieces where the cast runs through the entire stock of Shakespeare plays in 37 minutes or whatever.

 

Actually, the shortcuts (though they are many) aren't the film's most jarring quality. The countless changes to the plot and characters mean that this movie bears only a mild resemblance to the Jane Eyre story.

 

One gets a clue in that direction when the first scene shows an image of the first page of the book — with, unsurprisingly, a very inaccurate rendition of the actual opening paragraph. Soon we are seeing John Reed bounce some object off the head of young Jane, who flies at him in a rage. When Mrs. Reed enters and scolds her for calling John a liar, she retorts "He is! He is! He is ...." — and then faints. That's our first clear indication of how this script plays fast and loose with the "facts".

 

Less than five minutes in, Jane has been bundled off to the Lowood Orphanage for Girls. She meets Mr. Brocklehurst, who has harsh words for her. In the very next scene — omitting any of her Lowood student experiences — the grown-up Jane is a teacher, who disagrees with Brocklehurst's methods of discipline. He fires her; she lambastes him in a speech ending with the distinctly un-Bronte-ish imprecation, "You ought to be tarred and feathered, you ugly old crocodile!" And then she departs, assuring a colleague that she will subsist for a time on the inheritance she's received from her uncle(!).

 

Anyone familiar with Bronte's depiction of Jane as a small, plain young woman will be amused to see her portrayed by Virginia Bruce (an oft-used actress of that time), a strapping and glamorous blonde vixen. It is no shock that a gentleman could be beguiled by Jane, who is later described by no less a biased figure than Blanche Ingram as "the beautiful governess".

 

Just after her firing, we seen Jane heading to Thornfield Hall, driven by coachman Sam Poole — Grace's husband, don't you know! — an invented character who pops up several times in this brief tale. After abandoning his chaise due to his bad driving (DUI), Jane encounters a large dog followed by a gentleman who falls from his horse. The viewer is stunned to see a scene that actually resembles its description in the book.

 

The likeness ends quickly, though. Jane meets Mr. Rochester, who comes across as oddly soft-spoken and well-mannered. He asks her to sing a song for him. Her warbling occupies at least a couple of the film's scant 62 minutes —a sign of music's popularity in movies of that era (sort of like when a madcap Marx Brothers movie pauses for a semi-serious recital by Harpo and/or Chico).

 

The rest of the film continues in a similar vein, only vaguely following Bronte's storyline. Jane's pupil Adele is alternately charming and exasperating; she makes it clear to all that she wants her "Uncle Edward" to marry Jane. Rochester eventually does ask her, she assents, and a minister comes to the Hall. That is when we finally meet the source of the screams and weird laughs Jane has heard. Bertha wanders in, appearing ordinary but somewhat befogged, and says, "Edward, my husband!" Spying the clergyman, she asks, "Oh, we're going to be married again?" Soon she spacily shuffles back off.

 

This unnerves Jane enough that she flees the Hall. As Rochester searches for her on horseback, he turns around and sees Thornfield in flames. He returns to the Hall, enabling Jane to escape to the Christ Mission of Lancaster, headed by one John Rivers.

 

Rather than give more details, I'll just tell you that Jane is about to marry Rivers when she hears of the Thornfield disaster and rushes back to Rochester's side. He disdains her affection; she insists; he relents; and Adele rushes in from the next room, crying "Uncle Edward, you've asked Jane!" The end.

 

This 1934 version isn't worth watching as a faithful retelling of Jane Eyre; nor is it an especially entertaining film on its own merits. Its chief attraction is as a source of amusement to Jane Eyre aficionados who will get many chuckles from the unexpected and unwieldy twists and turns in this brief vintage rendition.

 

 

Summary

 

STRENGTHS

  • Has historical value as the first talking movie of Jane Eyre 
  • Frequently amusing (inadvertently)  

WEAKNESSES

  • Little fidelity to the book 
  • Suboptimal quality of the print