Tuesday, July 26, 2011

Jane Eyre 1944 Review

I could never neglect to remember my weekly Jane Eyre post, but this week I was almost tempted to skip it. For a moment I felt as if there was nothing left to say on the subject of Jane Eyre after writing my rankings of the adaptions, comparisons of characters, etc. But luckily, I found an error in my judgment. I'm afraid to admit that when I ranked all my favorite adaptions of the novel as well as the actors that played the characters, there was a slight glitch. 

Before I rank or review anything related to a Jane Eyre adaption, I make a point to watch all of them in a close time frame so that I might compare them better. The problem with my last few rankings was this; I had not watched the 1944 version with the rest of them. The 1944 used to be on Youtube, but due to the common copyright problem it was taken off again. After searching through my most trusted "free movie download" sites and not finding it on any of them, I gave up looking for a while and thus ranked the 1944 from my memory of it. That's not the most accurate way to go about things because I hadn't actually watched the 1944 version since last year. I remember that I liked it, but I didn't remember why or how and couldn't remember the details that I found positives and negatives in. 

By some strange turn of luck or blessing of fate, I embarked on the journey of searching for the movie once more. This time the search results worked in my favor, and last night I watch the Joan Fontaine/Orson Welles version in its entirety. 

If anything, I completely underrated this film in all my previous blog rankings. Watching this movie for the second time, I loved it twice as much. I know that this version has a faithful following, and I completely understand why some people would call this their definitive. When watching such an early black and white adaption of a novel, one has to approach it with a certain amount of skepticism. That time period is not necessarily known for producing adaptions that are particularly true to the source material (Ex: Wuthering Heights 1939 which cut out half the novel, Pride and Prejudice 1940, and Anna Karenina 1934 and 1948). Somehow this Jane Eyre adaptation sets itself apart from the usual overly romanticized and diluted black and white adaptions. 

Jane Eyre 1944 stars (as mentioned before) two highly praised and historically significant actors, Joan Fontaine as Jane and Orson Welles as Rochester. We also get the pleasure of seeing a young Elizabeth Taylor as Helen. The movie goes through all the appropriate parts of the novel, shining a rather good light on Jane's time at Lowood and especially drawing attention to the harsh and stingy Mr. Brocklehurst. The little girl that plays young Jane hits the nail straight on the head, exuding a passionate and rather hot-tempered little Jane that matches what I imagined in the novel. I enjoyed seeing the connection between her and Joan. Sometimes in Jane Eyre adaptions the child playing the young Jane and the actress playing the grown one don't translate well together and we forget the fact that they are actually the same person. 

As great as it was watching the Lowood scenes and marveling at the skills of a young Lizzy Taylor, the adaption really begins to shine when Orson Welles comes galloping through the mist. Welles makes a suitably intimidating, dark, and world-weary Rochester that almost perfectly compliments Joan Fontaine's conflicted Jane.

 Fontaine's obvious fault is that she was much too beautiful and glamorous (and old) for the role, but despite that I really liked what she did with the character. In a previous post I remember saying that she played the "damsel in distress" too much, but after seeing the film again I can firmly withdraw that statement. Her Jane is a naturally passionate woman gilded by a timid and unsophisticated exterior. At first, I assumed she was too soft. But after seeing her mutiny against Rochester and say "I am perhaps bewildered sir, but not afraid", it was hard not to acknowledge the spunk that she imbued in the proper places. 

Orson Welles was a great Rochester. I can't imagine anyone who physically fit the role more than he did. His dark eyes, ebony locks, and tall stature were all augmented by the black and white cinematography, making him appear to be the perfect man to play the gloomy and intimidating master of Thornfield. Not only that but Welles is convincingly unhandsome. Add a resonant and naturally forceful voice to that mix, and you get the physical essence of Rochester. If any thing, the worst thing you can say about Welles is that his performance easily overpowered Fontaine’s. Before watching the movie, I was fully confident in Welle’s ability to play the brooding and commanding Rochester, but seriously doubted that he would be able to come across as a tender lover. Surprisingly enough, he awed me in some of the gentlest scenes such as after the fire, Jane’s leave of absence, and especially the “leaving scene.”

 The leads played well off of each other. You can feel the barbed words in their conversation and see the subliminal kinetic attraction between the two characters. Of course, in a black and white film you’re bound to have a few moments of “cheesy remedial acting” and a few of those moments came, but they also passed very briefly. The only things that I can say were truly bad was “would it be wicked to love me?” and the horrid graphics and over-intensity around “Say, ‘Edward I will marry you.’”

The movie was heartwarming. The director (of course) took the liberty of rearranging and copy/pasting a lot of the elements of the plot, but the movie didn’t suffer too much because of it. Is it the truest to the novel? Of course not. Are these the best performances? Joan’s is most definitely not, but Orson Welles could easily be thrown into the discussion.
I wondered why I enjoyed this version so much, and then it dawned on me that there are a lot of similarities between this and the 2011. Cary Fukunaga (the director of the 2011) admitted he was eager to direct the movie because he had always been a fan of the ’44. You can see the influence that this adaption had on the ‘11. The gothic lighting of Cary Fukunaga’s version is easily reminiscent of the dark cinematography of the 1944. Some of the scenes are even arranged the same way.

Definitely worth a watch, especially if you have a taste for classic film. I couldn’t help but think that the performances, cinematography, and script created a film whose believability and intensity was actually fairly well ahead of its time. It ought to have gotten more attention and is entitled to a larger following than it has.



  1. Very good review, Bonnie!
    I'm a great fan of 1944. Welles was terrific as Rochester, although he did ham it up a bit! Fontaine was good, although there is something a little bit irritating about her performance that I can't quite put my finger on. I agree she was too old at 26, but Welles was TOO young at 28! (Although he looked older.)
    The film cetainly socked you between the eyes with it's gothic-"ness"! Perhaps too much. I think these things can be overdone.
    But my biggest criticism of '44 is the complete omission of St John Rivers and his sisters. I know that the film is only one and a half hours long, but this exclusion is a mistake. And Jane runs away to Gateshead, of all places!
    Still enjoyable, though.

  2. Thank you very much. I didn't understand the omission of St. John either. It seems like there was some time wasted in which they could have included him. I conjecture that those who call this their "definitive" place a lot of weight on the romance between Jane and Rochester. In all other aspects, the movie doesn't deliver.