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Tuesday, June 02, 2015

Jane Eyre (1943)

Orson Welles, though he was always trying to direct films, did act in others' films. His most famous appearance is probably the featured role as Harry Lime in The Third Man. His first stab, and I should think his only, as romantic hero was in the 1943 production of Jane Eyre. It was directed and co-written by Robert Stevenson, but Welles' fingerprints were all over it. He was an uncredited producer, and it was also co-written by John Houseman, Welles' theatrical producer, based on a radio script by the Mercury Theater.

Of course it is based on the novel by Charlotte Bronte, but at only 95 minutes excises much, including the entire subplot dealing with clergyman St. John Rivers. The basic story is still there--Jane, a young orphaned girl raised by a cruel aunt, is sent off to a horrible boarding school, run by a sadistic monster (the great Henry Daniell, who specialized in playing unpleasant men).

She grows up to look like Joan Fontaine and refuses his offer to be a teacher in his hellish school. Instead she takes a job at Thornfield, a manor house in Yorkshire. The owner is the mysterious Mr. Rochester, whom she meets one foggy night when she upsets his horse, causing him to turn an ankle. She teaches and minds his ward, Adele (Margaret O'Brien) and gradually his coldness melts and they fall in love. But--problem!--his wife is locked up in the attic, completely mad. Poor Jane doesn't learn about this until the wedding day.

There have been many films of Jane Eyre. I've only seen two, and this one is no better or worse than the other (a recent one that can be found on this blog, starring Mia Wasikowski). It is far more brooding, given the black and white photography, and Welles, though he doesn't appear until about half the movie is done, dominates. You can sense him enjoying the sound of his own voice, and as I said, he isn't ideal for a Gothic hero.

Still, the film moves briskly, has some excellent dialogue (most courtesy of Ms. Bronte), and for film trivia fans an uncredited appearance by a young Elizabeth Taylor as Helen, Jane's friend at school. Another curiosity is that the third screenwriter is none other than novelist Aldous Huxley, probably selling himself out for cash.

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