Tuesday means Forgotten Film day around here, so don't forget to check in at Todd Mason's blog, Sweet Freedom. As genial host of our weekly meme, Todd's blog is a veritable hot bed of links to other Forgotten (or Overlooked) Films(or other audio visual material, i.e. Television) posted by other movie mavens.
Artwork by Fritz Eichenberg.
Technically everyone knows JANE EYRE, the novel, and hardly a couple of years can go by without someone filming another version of Charlotte Bronte's book, so I make no claim that it's a forgotten or overlooked property. So what are you talking about, Yvette? I'm talking about a version I do consider generally forgotten - the 1943 adaptation that had Aldous Huxley and John Houseman as two of its screenwriters. (!)
The film was shot in the gloomiest of black and white (mostly on a sound stage) by George Barnes and directed by a man named Robert Stevenson (no, not Robert Louis Stevenson) and had, far as I'm concerned, a very intriguing all star cast. Not the least of which was the very young beauty, Elizabeth Taylor, in an uncredited role. (Probably the last time that ever happened.)
I suppose some might think Orson Welles an odd choice to play Mr. Rochester, but to my eye, he is perfect. He has just the right hint of dissipation that most of the other Rochesters never really manage. Much as I loved Timothy Dalton's version, he never once looked as if he might have lived a previous life carousing on the Continent, let alone loving and marrying a Creole woman on some sweltering tropical isle overrun with sugar plantations, madness, and wild, abandoned sex. (At least according to Jean Rhys' WIDE SARGASSO SEA.)
But I can believe anything of Orson Welles. He has the look of a possible debaucher.
At any rate, I think he was an excellent choice. He looks good too. This is years before Welles gained all that weight and allowed megalomania to check his brilliance. As the dashing Mr. Rochester he has the swagger of a full blown ego - a spoiled, self-centered boy grown into a reckless man filled with regret who nevertheless, does as he pleases - and filthy rich to boot.
JANE EYRE begins with the unhappy young Jane (played very effectively by Peggy Ann Garner) being shipped off to the grim Lowood School by her imperious, hard-hearted aunt (Agnes Moorhead) who has an unreasonable aversion to the young orphan. The head of the school, Henry Brocklehurst, is played in odious fashion by the one and only sour puss of all sour pusses, Henry Daniell - hiss-s-s-s-s! He personifies everything foul and icky and you immediately know that little Jane is in for a hard time.
Sure enough, at the cheerless Lowood, the plucky Jane is treated like a pariah and cruelly punished for the slightest infraction.
Only one girl has the heart and daring to befriend her, the sweet-natured Helen Burns (Elizabeth Taylor). The two become inseparable until some sort of wasting disease (possibly pneumonia) takes the beautiful Helen away to a better place.
The doctor (John Sutton) who treats Helen does remonstrate with Brocklehurst about the girls' treatment. But truth to tell, there's not much he can do. He does manage to give a grief-stricken Jane a few words of coping advice. Better than nothing, I suppose.
Eventually, Jane (now played by Joan Fontaine) who has stayed on at Lowood to teach, finds an escape. She advertises for a job as governess and before you can say 'mad woman in the attic' Jane arrives at Thornfield Hall, a dignified pile of rocks somewhere unspecified, maybe Northumberland.
The house is an interesting point, since its interior looks so different in each adaptation. In this version, Thornfield's interior looks like a very inhospitable, dark and forbidding old mausoleum. (Shot in black and white with lots of noir shadows and dark corners.)
Jane Eyre brings a needed breath of fresh air to Thornfield in her job as governess to a little French girl (Margaret O'Brien), Rochester's ward. Supposedly the child is the offspring of a French 'dancing girl' and 'who knows who?'. Rochester claims in an offhand way that she is not his, merely a child left orphaned when her mother, a 'French dancing girl' and Rochester's mistress, died. Even Rochester's jaded eyes were opened when he found said dancing girl preferred a preening soldier in a pretty uniform, to him. I mean, really.
Back to the present: a lonely road covered in fog on an evening when Jane is either going for an aimless walk or off to mail a letter - whatever - the ambiance is perfect for a romantic first meeting.
After spending months living at Thornfield with just the company of a child and a chatty housekeeper (And by the way, it's never made clear in the films whether the housekeeper knew about the mad person lodged in the attic. I mean, I'm assuming she knew, but sometimes it's hard to tell.) Jane is unprepared for company. Especially that of a lone rider thundering down a dark road accompanied by a huge dog name Pilot.
The dog is different in every film as well. In this one, it's a Harlequin Great Dane. Just so you know.
After stumbling, Jane rises up out of the fog, confused by the sound of oncoming hoofs. Rochester's horse takes fright and rears up, throwing its rider to the ground.
A better (or more romantic) boy/girl meeting in literature and/or films has never been conceived. Charlotte Bronte may not have had much love in her lonely life, but she sure knew the meaning of romance. She recognized the heart's yearning for romantic drama. (Especially if the male in question is wearing a dashing, multi-cape coat that whips around him as he walks.)
Orson Welles is instantly intrigued by the black clad young woman he mistakes for a sprite in the dark of night. He admires her care and concern, her plucky insistence on helping him back into the saddle. Later, he comes to admire her naturalness (something not usual in women of that era), her refusal to be brow-beat or insulted. She makes him ashamed of his arrogance, I suppose. He is taken aback by the fact that she considers herself his equal - not in society but in humanity.
Again, before you can say, 'mad woman in the attic', Jane and Rochester fall in love. Though Rochester takes some sort of fiendish delight in leading Jane on - making her think he prefers the Honorable Blanche Ingram (Hillary Brooke), an icy beauty who is contemptuous of underlings, most especially, governesses. Rochester invites Blanche, her indulgent mom and assorted other high-toned locals to a house party.
Unfortunately, in the middle of the revels, an unexpected visitor arrives, all the way from Spanish Town, Jamaica.
Joan Fontaine is excellent as the unyielding, un-bending Jane - a woman who, despite her years and inexperience, knows more about life than Rochester supposes. Her natural and very moral superiority is at the heart of her refusal to overlook - all together now: the mad woman in the attic - once she realizes that Rochester is not free to marry her.
She leaves him, heart-broken and bereft, and only returns after a series of improbable events, led to him by a call heard in the wind on the moors. Did I say Bronte understood romance or did I not?
When Jane arrives back at Thornfield, it is a wreck of its former self, as is Rochester.
A classic book given a brooding, romantic film treatment, shot beautifully in black and white. I've stopped just short of calling this version of JANE EYRE, true film noir, though camera-wise, that's exactly the treatment it's been given here.
I especially love the way Orson Welles' eyes are lit to give him an eerie other-worldly intensity. Very effective.
I love the lightning hitting and severing the branch of a tree at the moment of Rochester's marriage proposal. Again, very effective. I also love all the slinky shadows and musical foreboding and the way Orson Welles gives this version of Rochester an aura of coiled tension.
Most especially, I love the ending.
Okay, I admit it, I love this film.
See the trailer here. (This link takes you the IMdB page where the official link resides.)