Friday, September 20, 2019

Jane Eyre (1944) Textbook Gothic Romance

Throughout the 20th and 21st centuries there have been many, many, many versions of Charlotte Bronte's classic novel, Jane Eyre, both on the big and small screens and produced on both sides of the Atlantic.  Arguably the best-known (and in this blogger's opinion the best) is the 1944 installment from 20th Century-Fox, which starred Orson Welles and Joan Fontaine.  One of the first things to note when watching Hollywood's retelling of the beloved book is that while acting out the story, the film also attempts to rewrite it... literally!  "Text" from the book, shown on screen and emphasized with highlights, have nothing in common with the actual words of Bronte's novel.  Still, artistic license abounds in Tinsel Town, as it always has.

The basic premise is, of course, the same in Fox's version as it is in Charlotte's.  Published in 1847, Jane Eyre tells the story of the title character, a ten-year-old orphan in Yorkshire, England, who lives with and is mistreated by her aunt, Mrs. Reed.  To escape the oppression of her relatives home, Jane goes to Lowood Institution, a dark and dank asylum for orphaned girls.  She finds harsh treatment at Lowood and spends a decade there before coming of age and leaving to take a position as governess at Thronfield Hall.  She meets the brooding master of Thornfield, Edward Rochester, and discovers romance, intrigue and heinous mystery within the estate's walls.

Unbeknownst to many who enjoy this film, the initial idea for this version was taken on by none other than David O. Selznick.  The movie impresario who produced Gone with the Wind and Rebecca, set about organizing the production, only to sell the package (along with two other projects, Claudia and The Keys to the Kingdom) to Fox.  Part of the package deal was Selznick contract actress, Joan Fontaine.

Ironically, when discussing the film in her autobiography, No Bed of Roses, Fontaine's focus is on the pomposity and arrogance of her co-star, Orson Welles.  Her entire reminiscence of the picture revolves around Welles and his bad behavior during production.  Wrote the actress:  "Orson Welles was a huge man in 1943.  Everything about him was oversized, including his ego.  Unlike Charles Boyer or Fred Astaire, Orson's concern was entirely for Orson:  Jane Eyre was simply a medium to show off his talents."  That point aside, Welles used the $100,000 he made from the movie to support his other personal film projects, specifically It's All True, a documentary-style film which remains unfinished to this day. (Completed footage from the film, as well as documentary about its production was compiled for a DVD in 2004).

Another interesting bit of potential casting was Selznick's idea to hire Suzanne Farrington, daughter of Vivien Leigh and her first husband, Leigh Holman, as young Jane.  The idea was nixed by Holman, however, who didn't want his daughter to follow in her mother's professional footsteps.  Peggy Ann Garner played the part (with young Elizabeth Taylor taking on the role of her fragile friend, Helen, in an unbilled part).  The picture is filled with other, well-seasoned supporting players, including, Agnes Moorehead as Aunt Reed, Sara Allgood as the kind-hearted Bessie, and Margaret O'Brien as Rochester's precocious ward, Adele (did O'Brien ever play anything but precocious?).

Good movie.

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