Saturday, May 2, 2015

Jane Eyre (20th Century-Fox, 1943)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2015 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

At Charles’ place I ran the movie Jane Eyre, the 1943 version with Joan Fontaine in the title role and Orson Welles as the mysterious Edward Rochester, ostensibly directed by Robert Stevenson but actually largely shaped by Welles. Fontaine, in her autobiography, gives herself credit (along with production designer William Pereira) for resisting Welles’ attempts to take over the direction and allowing Stevenson to regain control of the film — but there are plenty of vertiginous camera angles, depth-of-field compositions, wild and stormy exteriors, extensively Gothic chiaroscuro interiors and point-of-view shots to mark this as a virtual Welles film. In fact, the opening scene — in which Jane’s aunt (played by Agnes Moorehead) gives custody of her over to a sinister stranger (Henry Daniell) — is amazingly reminiscent of that early scene in Citizen Kane, in which Moorehead as Kane’s mother gives custody of him over to a sinister stranger (George Coulouris), down to the shot of Moorehead looking out at her from the window of her house and the low-angle shot of the sinister guardian, a child’s point-of-view shot that makes him loom monstrously overhead. The early scenes — perhaps because Fontaine wasn’t in them (the title character is still a child, and is being played by Peggy Ann Garner — with a haunting, though oddly uncredited, bit part for the young Elizabeth Taylor as a schoolgirl who befriends Jane and dies of tuberculosis) — are the most convincingly Wellesian, full of low angles, high angles, shadows and ceiling shots, though many of the shots at Rochester’s home, Thornfield, are also dark and sinister in Welles’ best manner.

Oddly, Robert Stevenson’s greatest directorial contribution to this film may have been in controlling Welles as actor, since (as Joseph McBride noted in his Welles book), “the material tends to bring out some of the more purely self-indulgent aspects of [Welles’] personality and would have required painstaking refinement and stylization to be a complete success.” As the film stands, Welles’ performance, though powerful, isn’t the piece of baroque, over-the-top overacting Welles probably would have delivered if he’d been formally directing the film; indeed, he seems oddly restrained at times, and his performance is so richly oratorical it would probably have worked as well on radio as it did on film. (Welles had done a radio broadcast of Jane Eyre four years before, and had repeated the role of Rochester twice in broadcasts.) I’d be interested in reading the novel (Charles has, and was amused by the differences — most of them in altering and telescoping what happened between the time Jane leaves Thornfield and the time she returns — as well as the fact that the credits used a “storybook” format, shown on the pages of an open copy of the novel, yet the original novel didn’t have all these names in front — “That’s because Charlotte Brontë could write the novel all by herself,” I pointed out, “while a film takes hundreds of people to make”) and also in seeing the alternate versions — the one Monogram made in 1934 with Virginia Bruce and Colin Clive (Clive wouldn’t have been the dramatic physical presence Welles was, but the movies I have seen him in — Whale’s two Frankenstein films, Karl Freund’s Mad Love, Dorothy Arzner’s Christopher Strong and Frank Borzage’s History Is Made at Night — all indicate a gift for portraying tortured souls that probably would have made him a great Rochester), the BBC-TV version with Timothy Dalton and the new Zeffirelli version with William Hurt as Rochester and Anna Paquin as the young Jane, growing up to be an “Anglo-French actress” (as The New Yorker described her) named Charlotte Gainsbourg. — 4/19/96


As part of this month’s Friday night salute to Orson Welles, last night Turner Classic Movies showed a program of Welles-associated films, including his first two (and best) films as a director, Citizen Kane and The Magnificent Ambersons; the 1943 20th Century-Fox version of Jane Eyre, in which he accepted a job as actor; and the recently rediscovered work print of Welles’ 1938 film Too Much Johnson (more on that later). The 1943 Jane Eyre was originally developed by David O. Selznick as a vehicle for his contract star, Joan Fontaine, who after years of unsuitable roles as an RKO contractee had rocketed to the “A”-list in a production of Daphne du Maurier’s Rebecca, a novel heavily influenced by Jane Eyre — a young, innocent woman marries a troubled man some years her senior, only to be confronted by what’s troubling him — but like a lot of the other projects he had been developing during the four years between Rebecca (1940) and Since You Went Away (1944), he sold the package to 20th Century-Fox. As the story’s male lead, the troubled landowner Edward Rochester, master of Thornfield — the crumbling Gothic estate to which Jane Eyre is summoned to be governess to Rochester’s daughter Adele (Margaret O’Brien) — either Selznick or Fox (it’s not clear which) hired Orson Welles after Selznick’s preferred choices, Ronald Colman, Laurence Olivier and Walter Pidgeon (!), didn’t pan out for one reason or another. Selznick warned Fox that his public-opinion polling on the casting (Selznick was the first producer in history to commission opinion polls to tell him how audiences would want him to cast his films) warned that Welles was less popular than the other actors on the short list and “particularly weak with females.”

But with 20th Century-Fox studio head Darryl F. Zanuck off the lot running the U.S. Signal Corps’ division making government training films for World War II, the man in charge was Selznick’s brother-in-law (they had both married daughters of Louis B. Mayer) Bill Goetz, and Goetz brought in Welles and not only used him as actor but allowed him a voice in the production and direction of the film. Just how much of a voice remains a matter of contention among scholars of Hollywood history; in her autobiography, Joan Fontaine said that Orson Welles was the least responsible co-star she’d ever had (her favorites were Fred Astaire and Charles Boyer, whom she liked because whenever they made suggestions to the producer or director they were ideas that would improve the film overall and not just fatten their own parts) and she boasted that she had re-established the authority of the film’s designated director, Robert Stevenson (a British filmmaker who in the 1930’s had been regarded as Great Britain’s second most important director, after Alfred Hitchcock), by insisting that she would take notes on her own performance only from Stevenson, not Welles. Be that as it may, the 1943 Jane Eyre certainly looks like a Welles film, especially during the scenes of Jane’s childhood (before either Fontaine or Welles, who got top billing even though he doesn’t appear on screen until the film is nearly half over, show up). The opening scene, in which Jane’s creepy relatives send her off with the even creepier Rev. Brocklehurst (Henry Daniell in full Professor Moriarty mode) to attend the horrible Lowood School, where she’s made to stand on a stool while Brocklehurst excoriates her and tells the other students not to befriend her, can’t help but seem reminiscent of the scene in Citizen Kane in which Kane’s mother (played by Agnes Moorehead, who’s also cast as Jane’s aunt, Mrs. Reed, here) sends him off with financier Walter Parks Thatcher — so much so that I couldn’t help but joke, “Where’s her sled called ‘Roseb-’ — oops, wrong movie.”

The whole approach to the story is so Gothic that this time around Charles said it might almost be a remake of Dracula (which, you’ll remember, Welles had adapted and played on radio in a version I find far more creative and moving than any of the films of the story), and after a prologue in which Joan Fontaine’s voice narrates a passage that’s supposed to be the opening of Charlotte Brontë’s source novel (it isn’t, but the social comment it contains — “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 proper place for the poor or the unfortunate” — certainly sounds like the work of the Left-leaning Welles, aside from being an all too accurate description of the U.S. today!) the first image we see is of a lighted candle, the person holding it kept in shadow, moving across the screen. The cinematographer is George Barnes, whose protégé Gregg Toland had shot Citizen Kane, and while one reason he got the job is probably because he had photographed Fontaine in Rebecca and was the first D.P. who figured out how to light her so she didn’t look like she had a flashlight bulb stuck on the end of her nose, he also had no trouble adapting to Welles’ visual style — oblique angles, extreme close-ups, high depth of field, off-kilter framing and wild exteriors in which the sky took up two-thirds of the screen. Jane Eyre as a movie is vivid and fantastic — in both senses of the word — and though it doesn’t quite live up to Thomas Schatz’s billing in his book The Genius of the System as a movie that showcased the power of a romantic myth that had inspired several other templates (not only Rebecca but the other Fontaine-Hitchcock collaboration, Suspicion, and even Val Lewton’s artful “B,” I Walked with a Zombie, in which, stuck with a lurid title insisted on by RKO’s marketing department and forced to come up with a film to go with it, Lewton and his writers decided simply to knock off Jane Eyre) before there was a sound-era adaptation of Jane Eyre itself. (Schatz was wrong; there was a quite good 1934 version from Monogram, of all places, with Virginia Bruce — at least to my mind — out-acting Fontaine in the title role, and Colin Clive an excellent Rochester even if he didn’t have Welles’ fustian, almost superhuman panache and charisma in the part.)

Welles’ fingerprints are all over the movie; though Selznick had hired Aldous Huxley and John Houseman to write the script (Houseman was a former Welles collaborator who had worked with him and Herman J. Mankiewicz on the script of Citizen Kane but subsequently had a falling-out with him) Welles apparently rewrote it, and though Fontaine may have taken her notes only from Robert Stevenson it’s clear that Welles was giving a performance without guidance from any nominal director other than himself. Indeed, he did enough work on the script that 20th Century-Fox offered him a producer credit, which he turned down on the basis that he only wanted producer credit on films he was also directing. During one particularly intense red-filtered scene of Rochester parading around the grounds of Thornfield, either on his feet or on his horse, with black-silhouetted trees against a dark, ominous, cloud-ridden sky I said to Charles, “This movie looks a lot more like the work of the man who did Citizen Kane than the man who did Mary Poppins.” The film’s acting is generally quite good — though one could imagine a feistier reading of Jane Eyre than Fontaine’s (as Katharine Hepburn reportedly gave in her 1937 stage version — with, alas, an inadequate Rochester: Dennis Hoey, the character actor best known as Inspector Lestrade in the Basil Rathbone-Nigel Bruce Sherlock Holmes series) and a more human, less spectral version of Rochester than Welles’ — and especially noteworthy is a performance in the Lowood scenes by the child actress playing Helen, the one girl there who befriends Jane, only to be punished by being forced to walk about in the rain for hours, from which she catches tuberculosis and dies. You’ll recognize her immediately as Elizabeth Taylor, and one could only wish she had been given the role of Rochester’s daughter instead of the ridiculously mannered Margaret O’Brien, who in her first years in Hollywood was put into so many heavy-duty romances and war dramas that Vincente Minnelli recalled that on Meet Me in St. Louis his biggest problem with O’Brien was scraping off the pseudo-Shakespearean affectations she’d acquired and forcing her to act her age! — 5/2/15