Sunday, September 19, 2010

Sunday Viewing: Jane Eyre, 1944

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 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.

Charlotte Bronte’s 1847 novel Jane Eyre chronicled the life of a young, abused orphan girl as she managed to escape the clutches of her overbearing aunt only to wind up in the cold, cruel world of a British orphanage. Her only true friend during her childhood died, and, so, she must tamp down her inquisitive spirit in order to survive. As an adult, she shows herself a fine teacher and takes the position of governess at Thornfield, the sprawling country estate of a mysterious man—Mr. Rochester. Little did Jane know that the angry gentleman she startled in the mist was to be her master. And little did Mr. Rochester know that Jane’s presence would change his lfie forever. Thornfield was haunted. Not by a ghost per se, but haunted by a presence nonetheless—a presence which clouded every step that Rochester took. Would Jane expose the secrets of the Hall as she grew reluctantly closer to her master? In true Gothic fashion, the answer, of course, was “yes.”

Several film adaptations of Jane Eyre have been produced. In my opinion, none are finer than the 1944 version starring Orson Welles as Mr. Rochester, the fascinating Joan Fontaine (sister and rival of Olivia de Havilland) as Jane, Margaret O’Brien (the great weeper) as Mr. Rochester’s ward, and featuring an uncredited early film appearance by a young Elizabeth Taylor as Jane’s ill-fated orphan friend. Of particular note is the performance of Agnes Moorehead (good ol’ Endora) as Jane’s wicked, yet strangely pathetic, aunt.

The script of the film was based on an adaptation written by Welles himself for his radio program, “Mercury Theater on the Air.” Welles—undoubtedly one of the most clever film directors of his day—was having some difficulty finding work as a director due to some of the issues surrounding a little film he directed called Citizen Kane. While Welles did not direct this picture (it was credited as being directed by Robert Stevenson), his hand is all over it. He is responsible for the impressive mists and the realistic recreation of the moors that are almost unrecognizable as a Hollywood soundstage. Stevenson recognized Welles’ contributions and offered him a producer credit which Welles declined, stating, “a person who is not considered the director, should not be credited as ‘just’ a producer.”

This film is exciting and beautiful. Even if you know the original novel line-by-line, you’ll find yourself swept up in the picture’s numerous suspenseful twists and turns. With a haunting score by Bernard Hermann, the film is at once tender and mysterious. Welles plays Rochester with great sympathy, and no one could have done a better job with Jane than Joan Fontaine who played a similar role in Hitchcock’s stunning Rebecca. You’re sure to be on the edge of your seat. Just watch out for “Grace Poole.”

(Pardon the captioning in this clip. For some reason, I couldn't find another one that wasn't dubbed into French or Spanish).


Traxy said...

Ahh, so THAT'S why those two radio adaptations starring Orson Welles are so similar to the movie! Makes perfect sense now. Thanks for clearing that one up. :) JE'44 is not my favourite adaptation, but gosh, Orson Welles does a really good Rochester!

Anonymous said...

love jane eyre. love wuthering heights more