Wednesday, October 3, 2007

Jane Eyre (1944)

I have literally hundreds of DVDs and videos in my collection, but the one title women friends of mine would ask to borrow was the 1944 film version of “Jane Eyre” starring Joan Fontaine and Orson Welles. I don’t know if they read the book when they were younger, or they saw it on TV and wanted to see again, but whatever the reason, when they would peruse my list and see I had it, they asked to borrow it. I must have loaned it out six or seven times, which doesn’t seem like a lot, but compared to the other movies on my list, it’s probably my most popular title.

I didn’t even have a pre-recorded version, but one I taped off Cinemax. It shared the tape with another classic black and white film “The Ghost and Mrs. Muir” (1947), so my friends got a double dose of classic Twentieth Century Fox dramas with that rich and creamy black and white cinematography and those classic Bernard Herrmann scores. It was my fondest wish that these women became Herrmann fanatics, but alas, it was not to be. But they watched – and loved - both movies, which pleased me greatly.

Anyone who says black and white photography is boring should take a look at “Jane Eyre.” Deep blacks and shaded grays offset by much flickering candlelight frame the famous Gothic melodrama of an orphan cruelly treated in her youth who grows up to become a governess at an estate on the English moors. She falls in love with Edward Rochester, the master of the estate, and they plan to marry, but the house holds a terrible secret that affects their lives together.

I’ve never read the famous book by Charlotte Bronte, but I would like to after seeing this adaptation. Joan Fontaine here echoes her portrayal in “Rebecca” (1940) as a decent young woman who comes to a large estate only to be engulfed in melodrama as the past rears its ugly head. She fully inhabits the role and is marvelous in it.

No one ever stormed across the moors with his cape billowing behind him quite like Orson Welles does as Rochester. It’s a marvelous, larger than life performance and he inhabits the character well, not surprising since he had previously essayed the role several times in radio adaptations.

Like so many great movies of Hollywood’s Golden Age, the film is chock full of marvelous character actors, including Agnes Moorehead, Sara Allgood, Aubrey Mather and Edith Barrett. Special mention must be drawn to Henry Daniell, as the chilling, icy orphanage headmaster Brocklehurst. He scared me when I saw this movie as a kid and he’s every bit as unsettling today. A very young Elizabeth Taylor shows up as Jane’s only friend in the orphanage.

The film was directed by Robert Stevenson, who later went on to become a prolific director at the Walt Disney Studios, including “Mary Poppins” (1964) and “Old Yeller” (1957). Many scholars believe Welles was a co-director of sorts, and many of the scenes do have a Wellesian touch to them. However, a documentary on Stevenson on the DVD relates that he reined in Welles early on in the filming, but looking at the film it’s likely that Stevenson used some of Welles’ suggestions.

Poverty Row studio Monogram Pictures made a version in 1934 with Colin Clive and Virginia Bruce, and its not bad (for Monogram that is). I’ve never seen the 1970 version with George C. Scott and Susannah York, though I love the John Williams score. The 1996 version directed by Franco Zeffirelli isn’t bad, but I didn’t like the actress playing Jane (Charlotte Gainsbourg). I remember her body language and posture more than the character herself. William Hurt made a good Rochester, if memory serves.

But all in all, the 1944 version is hard to beat, the one where acting, writing, directing, cinematography, set decoration and music all come together as a seamless whole. It’s a marvelous film.

Rating for “Jane Eyre”: Three and a half stars.

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