Jane Eyre (1943): The Smoldering Orson Welles

Having recently watched (and reviewed) the 2011 movie Jane Eyre, I wanted to compare its somewhat slapdash treatment of the story to previous film versions. Where better to start than with the classic 1943 rendition, starring major actors Orson Welles and Joan Fontaine?

 

It is, of course, a bit of a period piece. Films in those days typically contained a high level of drama, in many ways: dramatic contrasts in lighting, dramatic swells of music at key moments, and highly dramatic delivery of dialogue, in which each character replied immediately and powerfully to what another had just said. Jane Eyre is no exception to any of those trends.

 

 

One trend it didn't follow was Hollywood's growing use of color. Coming four years after the garishly hued The Wizard of Oz, this film was made in black and white, probably to conform to both the era in which it took place and the stark, austere environments (physical and emotional) that it featured. Since many of us assume that "old" movies are in black and white, it's important to realize that it was a conscious choice for this film.

 

Clocking in at just an hour and 37 minutes, this atmospheric depiction couldn't possibly hold nearly all of Charlotte Bronte's story lines and character developments. However, given the restricted time, the producers made many shrewd decisions about what had to be included and what could be reduced or overlooked. (Interesting note: one of the three screenwriters was famed author Aldous Huxley, best known for his book Brave New World.)

 

The first major "skip" was young Jane's time being raised (and ill-treated) at Gateshead Hall. The film opens with a voice reading lines that appear onscreen as if they are drawn directly from the book, which they are not. We immediately find the Reverend Brocklehurst talking with Jane about attending his Lowood School, as Mrs. Reed looks on approvingly while cuddling her bloated and cowardly son John. Jane (portrayed by Peggy Ann Garner, a later role player in countless TV series) has the right mixture of feistiness and vulnerability. Brocklehurst delivers most of his lines with a delicious malevolence. While Mrs. Reed has little screen time, her portrayer, Agnes Moorehead, would go on to great fame as the witch Endora on TV's "Bewitched."

 

Early parts of Jane's Lowood ordeal are bypassed; almost as soon as she arrives, Brocklehurst is instructing her schoolmates to shun her company, for she is ... a liar! Gratifyingly, many of his lines are drawn almost verbatim from the book, as is much later dialogue.

 

In light of her recent passing, it is especially poignant to see a very young (and achingly beautiful) Elizabeth Taylor playing Helen Burns, the angelic but doomed student who takes Jane under her wing.

 

One small sour note comes in an invented scene when Jane has matured. Brocklehurst tries to bully her into becoming a teacher at Lowood, an "honor" she declines. In the book, she did teach there for two years before heading out into the world.

 

Next thing we know, she has accepted the governess position at Thornfield Hall, caused a passing rider to fall from his horse, and discovered that he is Mr. Rochester, the Hall's master. Orson Welles plays Rochester to the hilt, spewing lines of deep-voiced arrogance and glowering at all and sundry, before gradually coming to realize that the new governess is unfazed by his bluster. His performance is a bit over the top, yet still remarkable for its intensity. (At times, Welles's speech quality suddenly alters, suggesting dubbing; a note at the start of the DVD said this film had been reconstructed as well as possible from old prints, so age may have contributed to the inconsistency.)

 

Joan Fontaine, the prominent actress who plays Jane, does a mostly admirable job. There is a vague air of glamour about her appearance; one gets the feeling the makeup artists had to work to make her appear plain. However, she is believably passionate, chastened, firm, desperate, and loving, as called for in each scene. It's still not fully clear (due to the shortened story) why Jane falls so heavily for Rochester ... but neither is it a complete mystery, as his finer aspects occasionally shine forth from beneath his dark veneer.

 

Enough time is spent on the fine society people, and on Blanche Ingram in particular, that we can see why Jane sinks into jealousy and despair. However, another unnecessarily added scene shows Welles ridiculing and disdaining Blanche to her face; in the book, Rochester merely alluded to planting the idea that he was less wealthy, which made Blanche lose interest in him.

 

Bertha, Rochester's attic-imprisoned mad wife, makes a couple of appearances: once watching out a window, later trying to throttle Rochester when he brings people to "meet" her after his wedding to Jane is prevented. We also hear sound effects of her presence — hysterical laughter, bloodcurdling screams — earlier in the film, building tension nicely. While she is not shown tearing Jane's wedding veil, Bertha's presence is substantial, though we never see a front view of her.

 

The largest script changes come near the end, as if the screenwriters or producers are trying to wrap the story up quickly. When Jane leaves Thornfield (after learning of Bertha), she does not encounter cruel villagers or the sympathetic Rivers family; instead, she flies to the dying Mrs. Reed's bedside (which happened earlier in the book). There, she hears Rochester's voice on the wind calling her name. Returning to Thornfield, she finds Mrs. Fairfax still attending to the blind Rochester in the Hall's ruins (rather than his being helped only by a pair of servants in a small house). He recognizes her voice and touch; they kiss fervently; violins shrill with joy.

 

Fortunately, Jane has a concluding voice-over, in which she mentions Rochester regaining his eyesight and their son's birth (though not their marriage, which can be inferred). After the story had led viewers along strangely altered plotlines, at least they are brought to a realistic conclusion.

 

Despite its plot changes and highly dramatic tendencies, I enjoyed this version of Jane Eyre. Fine (if sometimes overdone) acting and frequent fidelity to Bronte's language are its strong points. Current audiences should ignore its archaic touches and spend 97 minutes with this powerful black-and-white achievement.

 

 

Summary

 

STRENGTHS

  • Welles radiates star quality, even if his acting borders on overplaying 
  • Stark use of black-and-white imagery adds power 
  • Inclusion of most of the vital plot elements, despite the short run time 
  • Frequent use of Bronte's original dialogue 
  • Unseen elements build tension nicely 

WEAKNESSES

  • Movie inevitably appears old-fashioned / dated 
  • Images of a "book" being read as a voice-over mislead the viewer 
  • Some invented scenes alter the story arc 
  • Premature ending, with major plot developments left unrealized