Tuesday, June 7, 2016

Jane Eyre (1943)



Director: Robert Stevenson

It is amazing Charlotte Brontë’s literary classic took this long to make its first appearance as a major motion picture adaption. “Jane Eyre” the 1847 novel is hailed as a revelation in the art of written story, inspiring a number of authors and filmmakers. It had experienced many “versions” of the tale told on screen, but it is here in 1943 we see the first direct telling by a major Hollywood studio, and featured two major talents of their day in the celebrated Joan Fontaine and gifted Orson Welles. However, despite the books length and deep emotional subject matter, this motion picture appears to only skim the surface of the literary work’s depth.

Jane Eyre is a drama about a young lady of troubled orphan upbringing who secures a position working in a mansion and begins to fall in love with her mysterious employer. Unloved as an orphan Jane Eyre (portrayed as a youth by Peggy Ann Garner) experienced hatred from what family she did have, and was educated at a reform school where she experienced great mistreatment. As a young lady Jane (Joan Fontaine) rids herself from this painful life by taking a governess in the gloomy manor of “Thornfield” home of a nearly ever absent master, Edward Rochester (Orson Welles). Edward and Jane’s relationship blooms into a romance, but it revealed that Edward keeps secretly locked away his mentally insane wife who had been the cause of the many mysterious events surrounding the mansion. Troubled Jane leaves Thornfield but finds her unloving family is left in assamed turmoil and she pines to return to Edward. Back at Thornfield she the remnants of a great fire that destroyed the manor, blinded Edward, and killed his insane wife. This allows the two to wed without guilt and concludes with a short epilogue that they one day have a child at which Edward regains his site.

In the respects of this motion picture the story suffers greatly form the internal struggles that are the center of the novel throughout, but is lacking in the manifestation of this adaption. Although touching the complexities and various emotional troubles in Jane’s life, this film feels more like a book report version of what the novel supplies. It impressions leave very little exposition of the titular character and the stunted 97 minute feature is bit rushed for the depth of this story. However if this film was to expanded upon closer to the entirety of the emotions supplied within the source material perhaps the movie would simply drag on to the unbearable length, losing further interest from audiences. Thus Jane Eyre is a difficult film view as either a stand-alone feature for those unfamiliar with the novel and those acquainted with the original work.

Beyond the story itself the quality of the filmmaking can be a bit overly simplified leaving a viewer in wanting of a more prestige-like picture seen in other literary adaptations. British born director Robert Stevenson does little in use of camerawork, usually keeping the image as static as possible, with most movement coming from simple pans and tilts. Frame composition is nothing more than average, which is not to say it is bad, but for such a slow paced and sometimes uneventful picture, leaves the movie feeling that much more lackluster.

Results of the news of Edward's insane wife on what was to be Jane's wedding.
If there is saving grace to the picture it would be Orson Welles. After all it was Orson Welles and his work in radio that made this motion picture possible. You see this film adaption was not directly based on the novel itself, but rather an adaption of a 1938 radio program adaption by Orson Welles’ own Mercury Theatre, the very same that would produce the infamous “War of the Worlds” broadcast that legend states sent many into a severe state of panic. Welles wrote the script of the radio programs which was adapted to the screen. It was with his expertise on the story, its characters, and his experience with actual theater production that aided in many of the positives of this very picture.

The story takes place in England, but production was done entirely on sound stages in Hollywood. Welles’ influence on the production brought in old theater tricks he had utilized on the stage to mask the studio constructed settings by addition of heavy fog and lower lighting, which overall inspired a gothic setting to the production. The studio was so impressed with the amount of impute in the overall production by the talented Welles that they offered to give Welles a producer credit, which he turned down along with writing credit.

Of course the story is driven by the titular character Jane Eyre herself, played by the revered Joan Fontaine. Her performance is meek with a hint of suspicion and anger behind it. At this point in her career she was regularly a fixture as a nominee for Academy Award as Best Actress, of which she would once again be nominated for the year 1943, but not for her role as Jane Eyre, but rather for her work in The Constant Nymph. Her performance here is adequate, but is overshadowed the far more commanding Welles.

Supporting cast members of note include a very young Elizabeth Taylor in the role of Helen, Jane’s young, mistreated friend at the reform school. Henry Daniell, the well travel British character actor appears as the cruel headmaster of the reform school, continuing to play characters you love to hate. Agnes Moorehead who has worked well along Orson Welles in Citizen Kane and The Magnificent Ambersons appears to follow Welles into this picture as she portrays the cruel aunt that mistreats a young Jane.

With the aid of the mass appeal of the source material Jane Eyre would be a profitable picture at the box office. However the film as a whole is rather forgettable, especially when compared to the other, more notable cinematic works of late by both Welles and Fontaine. Director Robert Stevenson’s efforts in this picture would not be significant at all as his name tended not to be attached to films of prestige. Stevenson’s later career found him working in television followed by many bubble-gum live action pictures for the Walt Disney in the 1950s and 1960s. Jane Eyre is an easy picture to pass on unless one is a massive fan of the source material and seeks out a cinematic adaptation with the quality name actors of this era in film.

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