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
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
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
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
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
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.
Welles radiates star quality, even if his
acting borders on overplaying
Stark use of black-and-white imagery adds
Inclusion of most of the vital plot
elements, despite the short run time
Frequent use of Bronte's original
Unseen elements build tension
Movie inevitably appears old-fashioned /
Images of a "book" being read as a
voice-over mislead the viewer
Some invented scenes alter the story
- Premature ending, with major plot developments