Saturday, March 12, 2011

The Jane Eyre of 1943: Gothic Grandeur, Musical Bombast, and an American Rochester

I think I've seen this film before. Really - I am fairly certain I saw it many, many years ago at some point in my formative years, but I didn't retain any clear recollections of it. When I saw it again last night, though, it felt very familiar, and I don't think it was just because of the story, with which the filmmakers took many liberties.

Visually, the 1943 Jane Eyre is striking, and hence memorable. It makes great symbolic use of light and shade in ways that I think can only happen in the black and white medium. Whether it is the sunlight that illuminates the gardens at Thornfield while Jane walks with Rochester, or the dark recesses of the house itself, from which people emerge seamlessly and without warning, the play of light and dark both sets mood and serves as a foreshadowing device, along with the sometimes-intrusive musical score. Rochester's face is often partially concealed in shadows, while Jane's rarely is. She is clearly a figure of salvation for Rochester in this film. The photography, too, tells stories, filming rooms so that they feel claustrophobic, with shadows resembling prison bars lining the floors. An incredibly effective scene is the point at which lightning strikes the chestnut tree in two, as Rochester and Jane defiantly declare their love and kiss in the thunder storm.Thornfield itself is only filmed in close ups, so that we never get expansive shots of the house from the outside, but rather intimate details of its Gothic features, so that it resembles a fortress more than a stately home. Of course, Thonrfield is a crumbling fortress shrouded in mist, and it will collapse in a blaze, but once this is accomplished, wide open spaces are left, letting in light and sky, and the final shot of the film is a long view of Rochester and Jane walking arm and arm in the distance, looking out at the wide open prospect before them. One could say a lot about how light and shadow relate to Rochester and Jane's personalities, and the darkness of the house to Rochester's spiritual blindness, which of course becomes physical blindness for a time.

Walking amidst all of this striking scenery are Joan Fontaine as Jane, and Orson Wells as Rochester. Fontaine was a much bigger star than Wells at the time of filming, but David O. Selznick (of Gone with the Wind fame) initially was heavily involved with the production of Jane Eyre before abandoning it because of its similarities to another recent project of his, Rebecca. Selznick insisted on casting Wells in the role of Rochester, and pushed for his casting even after Selznick himself was no longer involved with the film. Wells had gained instant fame with the radio broadcast of The War of the Worlds in 1938, and critical acclaim for Citizen Kane in 1941, but his films had all lately been financial failures. He was currently unemployable as a director, and had decided to focus on acting. And his acting really isn't bad in Jane Eyre. While I have read complaints that he overacts, I don't think his acting style is terribly different from many other actors in the period. His accent feels a little out of place at first, but I got used to it. At least he didn't try to do a Yorkshire accent (not that I wouldn't want one, but I think it would have jarred in an old Hollywood film, especially coming from an American actor). I found his performance engrossing, and more interesting than Fontaine's. It's not that I don't appreciate subtle acting - I do - but I found Fontaine fairly one-note, as I have in other films as well. She wasn't bad, though. She is a very beautiful woman, but did a lovely job of convincing the audience that she considered herself plain. I didn't always find her love for Rochester believable, but that is at least partly the fault of the script.

Ah, the script. I fully expect adaptations from this era of film making to take liberties with the their source material. I saw Wuthering Heights (the one with Laurence Olivier as Heathcliff) as a kid, and when I got older and read the book, was shocked to find that there was a whole second generation, and Heathcliff wasn't at all the sort of man I'd like for a boyfriend, and in fact was rather horrible to everyone around him. But I digress (I'll do that from time to time). I must say at some points I felt a little sad about some of the exclusions, though. Some of the cuts were certainly for the sake of brevity, but some simply showed a sadly limited understanding of one of the most beautiful parts of the novel, the female friendships and mentor/student relationships. The film spends a painfully short time on Jane's life at Lowood School, and I really felt the absences of Miss Temple, and the shortened role of Helen Burns. Helen is played luminously by a young Elizabeth Taylor in an uncredited role, and her time is short but effective. Miss Temple, however, was completely absent. In the novel, she is Jane's mentor and a mother-figure that Jane had lacked up until that point in her life. She was instrumental in Jane's intellectual and social development. Instead of Miss Temple, Jane receives spiritual guidance from a doctor named Dr. Rivers. He clearly fills in for the later absence of the character of St John Rivers, Jane's spiritually rigid cousin. Dr. Rivers is kind, especially compared to the tyrannical Brocklehurst, but he consistently reminds Jane of her duty, at the expense of following her passions. He is St John slightly mellowed and placed as a doctor at a girl's boarding school. Furthermore, Brocklehurst is never ousted as he is in the novel, and Jane's decision to leave Lowood at eighteen comes from a desire to escape Brocklehurst and all he stands for rather than to embrace her independence as in the novel. These decisions are not terribly shocking, given the gender politics of the period, and the male-dominated film studios, but they are revealing, and a little bit disappointing.

One other major cut is Jane's experience in the Red Room. At the beginning of the film, Jane appears to be locked in a closet for fighting with her cousin John Reed (Eliza and Georgiana don't exist). This is another major formative experience that seems to be lacking, but the idea that Jane has had a cruel childhood is still present, with her nasty Aunt Reed (played wonderfully by Agnes Moorehead), and bratty cousin.

I've spent a lot of time on things that weren't in the film, and haven't covered nearly all of the cuts. There was a lot there, though, and what was there mostly worked. Blanche Ingram was delightfully snooty, and looked a bit like a Hollywood starlet, with fat sausage curls, platinum blonde hair, and painted on eyebrows.

Bertha Rochester we only glimpse once, but her appearance is affective. She emerges from the shadows quickly, almost supernaturally. Some later films have humanized Bertha's plight more, and that's as it should be. Her portrayal here fits in well with the general brooding, haunted atmosphere of this version of Thornfield.

All in all, this adaptation is definitely worth seeing, if only to see a 1940s take on Jane Eyre. The visuals alone are captivating, but the story is different enough to other Jane Eyre adaptations that it shouldn't feel repetitive.

If you decide to get the DVD, be sure to watch some of the extras, including the original theatrical trailer, and a featurette about Wells and Robert Stevenson, the director (who went on to make a lot of money for Disney, directing Mary Poppins and many other Disney films). One of my favorite extras didn't have to do with Jane Eyre at all, but was instead a forty-five minute film put out but the U.S. War Department, and called Know Your Ally: Britain (included in its entirety below). Stevenson directed it, having joined the army after completing work on Jane Eyre. While this little documentary is informative and serious at times, the beginning is absolutely hilarious and a must-see.

       Clip from Jane Eyre:

Know Your Ally: Britain

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