Tuesday, May 5, 2015

Jane Eyre (Monogram, 1934)

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

The film was the 1934 Jane Eyre, produced by Ben Verschleiser at Monogram Pictures and a movie Charles and I had remembered as surprisingly good the last time we saw it. Wanting to see it again with the memory of the far more famous film of Charlotte Brontë’s novel from 1943 fresh in our minds, I downloaded it from archive.org and burned a DVD. My memories had been that the Jane Eyre in this version, Virginia Bruce, was considerably better than Joan Fontaine, who had played her in 1943 — Fontaine had pretty much moped through the role as a put-upon victim while Bruce played her as considerably feistier and more independent — but I’d been disappointed in her Rochester, Colin Clive. Maybe it’s because Clive is best known for his two relentlessly enervated performances as Henry Frankenstein, creator of the Monster, in the two Frankenstein movies directed by James Whale (Frankenstein, 1931; and the awesome masterpiece The Bride of Frankenstein, 1935) that I had expected him to have some of the same force-of-nature quality Orson Welles brought to Rochester in the 1943 version, but under director Christy Cabanne (the fourth and least illustrious of the former D. W. Griffith assistants who became directors themselves — the others were Erich von Stroheim, Tod Browning and Raoul Walsh!) Clive plays Rochester as an ordinary and quite befuddled British gentleman who just happens to have a crazy wife locked up in his attic (or a back room, or wherever). Probably because, even though it was based on a literary classic and was therefore a “prestige” production by Monogram standards, studio head Trem Carr still insisted on keeping it within six or seven reels (for a running time of 63 minutes), screenwriter Adele Commandini (though her name is spelled with only one “m” here), who two years later became famous for writing the first Deanna Durbin vehicle, Three Smart Girls, had to telescope the novel relentlessly. The moving scenes of Jane’s experiences at Lowood School are gone completely — in one jump-cut Jane ages from the child newly brought to Lowood to Jane as a teacher giving a geography lesson and getting herself fired for objecting to the discipline Mr. Brocklehurst (David Torrence, who like Clive gives a considerably more matter-of-fact and less force-of-nature performance than his counterpart in the 1943 film, Henry Daniell) wants to mete out against a pupil who instead of attending to Jane’s lecture drew a caricature of him, and Jane quickly ages from Edith Fellowes (who plays her as a child considerably less sentimentally than Peggy Ann Garner did in 1943) to Virginia Bruce.

I still really like Virginia Bruce’s performance; she was one of those ill-used talents who pretty much fell through the Hollywood cracks — had this film been made at a major studio instead of Monogram this probably would have been her star-making performance — and her Jane Eyre comes closer to the descriptions of Katharine Hepburn in the short-lived 1937 stage production (which was supposed to play on Broadway but closed out of town, largely because of the inadequacy of her Rochester, Dennis Hoey, best known as Inspector Lestrade in the Basil Rathbone-Nigel Bruce Sherlock Holmes movies) as grabbing the role forcefully and bringing Jane’s independent spirit to life in ways Fontaine (who played Jane too much the way she’d played the weaker and mousier heroine of Rebecca, a story Daphne du Maurier had obviously created with Jane Eyre as an inspiration). Though a Jane Eyre film with the young Hepburn remains one of the most tantalizing of cinematic might-have-beens (along with a Falstaff with W. C. Fields and a Great Gatsby with Cary Grant), Virginia Bruce (who would play a Katharine Hepburn role again in 1940, when she appeared as Jo March in a film of Little Men, Louisa May Alcott’s sequel to Little Women) is excellent in the role and one could readily wish she’d been able to play it in the 1943 version with a major-studio infrastructure and cast. That said, one thing I still like about the 1934 Jane Eyre is its matter-of-fact understatement; lacking all the fustian Gothic effects Robert Stevenson and Orson Welles brought to the 1943 film, the story seems more realistic, more like something we could imagine actually taking place and less like a fantastic dream (or nightmare). Not only is the 1934 Jane Eyre relatively plainly photographed (though Cabanne and cinematographer Robert Planck get some interesting overhead angles in some scenes and even do a couple of crane shots, an unusual effect for a Monogram movie given how much it cost to rent camera cranes) but it has virtually no music — a far cry from the wall-to-wall score Bernard Herrmann supplied for the 1943 film (and Herrmann must have been attracted to the world of the Brontës because he also wrote an opera based on Emily Brontë’s Wuthering Heights) — and even the crazy wife, when she appears, is played by actress Claire Du Brey as a normal-seeming person who just appears a bit goop-eyed in her one on-screen appearance (though her off-screen screams are properly terrifying).

One oddity is that, though the 1934 Jane Eyre is a product of the so-called “pre-Code” era (it was released August 15, 1934, just as the pressure from the Catholic Legion of Decency was getting Hollywood to enforce the Production Code seriously) it’s considerably more decorous than the 1943 version: when Brocklehurst asks the young Jane where bad people go when they die, the word “hell” does not appear on the soundtrack (though it may have been drowned out by an added sound effect after the Legion launched its campaign against the studios), and in this version Jane finds out that Rochester is already married and therefore can’t marry her when the first wife simply turns up in a scene in which Rochester and Jane are planning their wedding and meeting with the minister. Commandini dodged the marvelous scene in the book, done come scritto in the 1943 film, in which Rochester and Jane are literally standing at the altar when Rochester’s brother-in-law confronts them and stops the wedding with the news that Rochester’s wife is still living and, because she’s mad, he can’t divorce her. Also, the 1934 Jane Eyre does suffer from the cheapness of Monogram’s production; the exterior of Thornfield Hall is only a model, and when it burns at the end (a plot device repeated in James Whale’s film The Old Dark House — though in that one it’s the patriarch’s crazy brother, not his wife, who breaks out of the room where he’s being held captive and sets the place on fire — and in Rebecca) Monogram’s effects people simply set fire to their model. It’s interesting that both the 1934 and 1943 Jane Eyres have ties to the great horror-film icons, the 1934 to Frankenstein via Clive’s presence (albeit bringing a much more understated acting style to this role than he did in his greatest films: the two Whale Frankensteins, Dorothy Arzner’s Christopher Strong and Frank Borzage’s History Is Made at Night) and the 1943 to Dracula via Welles (who had played Count Dracula on radio in 1938 in a version far more imaginatively adapted than any of the Dracula movies — and with a finer actress as Mina Harker, Agnes Moorehead, than has ever played her on screen) and, as Charles argued, the entire 1943 Jane Eyre can be read with Rochester as a lead vampire who’s already enslaved his crazy wife and their daughter (for some reason Adele Commandini in the 1934 version turned the girl from Rochester’s daughter to his niece!) and wants to bring Jane into his vampire harem.