I was induced to read Charlotte Bronte's "Jane Eyre," a beloved literary classic, at the relatively early age of eleven - all because I saw this movie. I had stayed-up late on a Saturday night, with my favorite aunt as company, and we watched the 1944 version of Jane Eyre, with Jane Fontaine and Orson Welles, on TV. At the conclusion, I noticed I had cried my way through a box of tissues and had become a fan forever. The next day I visited the library. Although I have seen three or four cinematic interpretations of "Jane Eyre" since that time, Director Robert Stevenson's production, co-written for the screen by Aldous Huxley, John Houseman, and Mr. Stevenson is by far my favorite. The writers and director remained faithful to Miss Bronte's magnificent work and brought this darkly gothic drama to life on the big screen. Filmed in black and white, using noir techniques from the German Expressionist school, (chiaroscuro lighting, surrealistic settings, etc.), the movie's gothic nature is emphasized and a forbidding mood is set early on. I always wondered if Orson Welles had anything to do with the direction. I sense his influence throughout the piece.
The story is set in England's North Country in the mid-nineteenth century. Orphaned as an infant, Jane (Peggy Ann Garner as young Jane), is taken in and cared for by her aunt, the mean spirited Mrs. Reed of Gateshead Hall, (Agnes Moorehead is superb as Mrs Reed). It is clear from the beginning that Mrs. Reed favors her own spoiled children and despises Jane, punishing her harshly for her perceived impudence and "willfulness." After a particularly cruel and unjust episode with her fat, older cousin, John, Aunt Reed locks the ten year-old girl up in the dreaded "red-room," where her uncle died. Jane has a nervous fit as a consequence of being enclosed in a place she so fears. But not even the caring servant, Bessie, (Sara Allgood), consoles her. She tells the child, "And you ought not to think yourself on an equality with the Misses Reed and Master Reed, because Missus kindly allows you to be brought up with them. They will have a great deal of money and you will have none: it is your place to be humble, and try to make yourself agreeable to them."
Mrs. Reed, no longer willing to cope with her niece, sends her away to board at the prison-like Lowood School, where the food is poor and insufficient and the children are treated with inhuman severity." Mr. Brocklehurst, (Henry Daniell), the headmaster, an evangelic hypocrite, deprives his charges of basic necessities, while lining his pockets with charitable donations. There is some goodness, however, even at Lowood. The kindly school superintendent mentors Jane and shows her affection. And Helen Burns, another student at Lowood, becomes her first friend. Jane is captivated by learning. Her intelligence becomes obvious to all, and despite the suffering she experiences at the institution, once her education is complete, she chooses to stay on and teach.
One of the most amazing aspects of the vivid early scenes at Gateshead Hall and Lowood is that childhood, as we now understand it, simply did not exist in the 19th century. Children were seen as miniature adults, easily corrupted and inadequate, in need of stern education, discipline, and occasional corporeal punishment. Jane's strength of character becomes evident in that she is able to thrive in such sorry, often brutal, circumstances.
After gaining some experience as a teacher, Jane (Joan Fontaine), places an advertisement in the local newspaper for a position as governess. She is offered a job at Thornfield Manor, where she is received by kindly housekeeper, Mrs. Fairfax (Edith Barrett). Her young charge, the precocious Adele Varens, (an adorable Margaret O' Brien), is the ward of Thornfield's owner, Edward Rochester, (Orson Welles), a brooding, passionate man with a dark past he cannot escape. He travels frequently, but when he does return and meets Jane, there is an immediate connection between the two, although there remains the great difference in their social class and ages - he is a worldly-wise forty, and she a mere nineteen. At first the prim, unsophisticated governess is intimidated by the tempestuous Rochester. However, under Jane's gentle influence, the tormented man drops some of his forbidding facade and spends more time with the young woman, talking with her, confiding in her - to a point. And of course, there is a terrible secret, which inevitably will cause tremendous suffering. However, Rochester remains silent on the topic of any and all secrets. It is at Thornfield that we meet a wide range of characters who will effect Jane's future happiness. Among these formidable personages are: the bizarre Grace Poole, (Ethel Griffies), a hired woman who does the manor's sewing in a locked attic room. She seemingly drinks quantities of alcohol and, at times, fills one wing of the house with the sound of her terrifying laughter; Blanche Ingram, (Hillary Brooke), a well born, attractive woman, who has her cap set for Mr. Rochester. She and her society mother, show nothing but disdain for Jane; Mason, (John Abbot), has a terribly unfortunate effect on Jane and Rochester, as he is the bearer of tidings which will destroy all their dreams.
This is an extraordinary film - one of my favorites. Unlike her sisters, Charlotte rejected the convention of the beautiful heroine. While writing "Jane Eyre," she told them, "I will show you a heroine as plain and as small as myself." Ms. Fontaine, plays a shy, timid, plain Jane, who suffers silently - but she has an inner strength which will not allow her to turn away from her moral beliefs, no matter the consequences. She portrays bravery by overcoming her fears and doing, what she believes to be right, even though she and those she loves may be hurt by her decisions. Jane's and Edward's real attractiveness lie in their inner selves, and their capacity to love and grow, which makes them both such splendid figures.
"Jane Eyre" has many recurring themes including: relationships between men and women, their roles and limitations in society; relations between social classes; religion and morality; the need to fulfill the desires of loved ones versus the necessity to maintain one's personal integrity; the conflict between reason and passion, and, of course, Jane's deep need to love and be loved. However, primary to the tale is the magnificent, complex character of Jane herself.
Long before the women's suffrage movement, Miss Bronte created, in the character of Jane, an intelligent, independent, strong-willed female, determined to make her place in the world. What the persona of Jane addresses in the book, as well as in the film, is obvious in the following very famous lines: "Women are supposed to be very calm generally: but women feel just as men feel; they need exercise for their faculties, and a field for their efforts as much as their brothers do; they suffer from too rigid a restraint, too absolute a stagnation, precisely as men would suffer; and it is narrow-minded in their more privileged fellow-creatures to say that they ought to confine themselves to making puddings and knitting stockings, to playing on the piano and embroidering bags. It is thoughtless to condemn them, or laugh at them, if they seek to do more or learn more than custom has pronounced necessary for their sex."
I cannot recommend this 1944 version of "Jane Eyre" highly enough and hope it comes out soon in DVD.