Jane Eyre (1944): Starring Orson Welles

“Jane Eyre,” made in 1944, was the fifth Hollywood version of the Bronte classic literary text.  Charlotte Bronte (sister of Emily) gothic romance was adapted to the screen by the noted novelist Aldous Huxley and directed by Robert Stevenson.

Previous versions:

In 1913, Irving Cummings and Ethel Grand

In 1915, Alan Hale and Louise Vale

In 1921, Mabel Ballin and Norman Trevor

In 1934, first talkie version with Virginia Bruce and Colin Clive

In 1944, Joan Fontaine and Orson Welles played the  leads, Jane Eyre and Rochester, and though Welles looks much older than Fontaine (and his real age), the actors are more or less the same age.

Though shot on sound stages of the Fox, this adaptation is atmospheric and ominous, largely due to Barnes’ dark cinematography, which evokes the novel’s grim bleakness—visually it almost qualifies as a period film noir.

The story should be familiar by now: Jane Eyre is an orphan who has been tossed about by fate and circumstances, but with her strong will, she has managed to survive her sordid upbringing and rough background.

In the early scenes, the role of Jane Eyre is played by Peggy Ann Garner (she played the lead in Kazan’s A Tree Grows in Brooklyn”).

In due course, she courageously leaves the residence of Brockelhurst (Henry Daniell)—despite warning that girls of her kind cannot do it on their own.

Jane takes a job as a governess to the ward (Margaret O’Brien) of Yohshireman Edward Rochester (Orson Welles),  the troubled owner, inflicted by brooding manner and vague, enigmatic personality.

They live on the Yorkshire moors in a huge house, Thornfield Hall.  For a while, Jane seems destined to remain a spinster for the rest of her life, though from the start there is attraction growing between her and Rochester.  A wedding is planned but it fails to materialize

The ominous music, by the brilliant Welles associate Bernard Herrmann (“Citizen Kane’), who would become Hitchcock’s most frequent and favorite musician, enriches the tales and links between the various segments.

While Welles gives a strong, stylized, bigger-than-life expressionistic performance, Fontaine, who also narrates the saga, essays a quiet, restrained, more naturalistic mode.

In fact, Welles was such a powerful presence that after his grand entrée, the movie loses its balance.  However, in the original book, Jane was the protagonist and Rochester was more of a supporting, if solid, part.

To accommodate Welles, who was very popular as a director and actor, the role was expanded.  He received top billing, above Fontaine.

In this version, the most touching sequences belong to Peggy Ann Garner. Jane Eyre’s dismal schooling is particularly effective.  Reportedly, audiences were weeping when the strange and beautiful girl, Helen Rose (the young Elizabeth Taylor), dies from gross neglect.

Later versions:

In 1957 it was done for TV with Patrick Macnee and Joan Elan.  In 1971, there was another TV version, with George C. Scott and Susannah York.

In 1996, Zefirrelli made a film of the text, and in 2002, a new version starred Samantha Morton in the lead.

Cast

Edward Rochester (Orson Welles)

Jane Eyre (Joan Fontaine)

Peggy Ann Garner (Jane as a child)

Adele (Margaret O’Brien)

Dr. Rivers (John Sutton)

Bessie (Sara Allgood)

Brockelhurst (Henry Daniell)

Mrs. Reed (Agnes Moorehead0

Helen Burns (Elizabeth Taylor)

Col. Dent (Aubrey Mather)

Credits

Fox

Produced by William Goetz

Directed by Robert Stevenson

Screenplay: Aldous Huxley and Robert Stevenson

Camera (b/w): George Barnes

Editor: Walter Thompson

Music: Bernard Herrmann

Art direction: James basevi, Wiard Ihnen

Costumes: Rene Hubert

F/X: Fred Sersen

Running time: 97 Minutes.

Released February 3, 1944.

DVD: April 24, 2007

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