Part II, cont’d: The Films
Yesterday I watched JE44, with Orson Welles as Edward and Joan Fontaine as Jane. One of the authors of the screenplay is Aldous Huxley, who also wrote the script for P&P40. The other author is John Houseman, better known to some of us as Professor Kingsfield from The Paper Chase (I preferred the TV series to the movie) and Smith Barney commercials (I didn’t record this, so please don’t blame me for the quality).
The disc Netflix sent me is from 2007; it is a digital remastering of the original film. The quality is a vast improvement over the earlier copies I’d seen. There are 2 commentary tracks, and I decided to listen to one of the commentaries (the one featuring Joseph McBride and Margaret O’Brien, who plays Adèle in this film) while watching the film with subtitles. I often do that so that I can get an idea of why the filmmakers made the choices they did. It’s a hobby of mine.
The cast is pretty much all American; as I’ve mentioned before, American actors of that period spoke with British-type accents to begin with, so they don’t sound quite as American as a film now would. Agnes Moorehead plays Mrs. Reed, and she’s just as imperious as any Mrs. Reed I’ve ever seen. Henry Daniell plays Mr. Brockelhurst, and he does a good job at showing us just how evil the character is. Unfortunately, the film doesn’t spend much time on Jane’s childhood; as we are told in the commentary, the filmmakers wanted us to meet Joan Fontaine as quickly as possible, and Jane’s childhood at Gateshead and Lowood is given short shrift as a result. It’s really a shame, because Peggy Ann Garner and the uncredited 11-year-old Elizabeth Taylor do a wonderful job as Jane and Helen, respectively.
Along the way, we meet a character named “Dr. Rivers” (played by John Sutton) who comes to Lowood to treat girls who may be ill. I’m guessing they gave the character that name because St. John Rivers and his sisters do not appear in this adaptation. The entire film is about 97 minutes long, so they really had to cut a lot of the story out. We aren’t told that Helen dies of consumption; she dies because she is sent out into the rain as punishment for having naturally curly hair. Jane is also outside in the rain, but she’s obviously made of stronger stuff than Helen so she doesn’t die.
As was the case in the 1934 version, Mr. Brocklehurst never leaves the school, and he is still there when Jane leaves for Thornfield. In this version, she never actually teaches at Lowood; she’s offered the position, but she turns it down in favor of going out on her own.
The commentary did give me an interesting bit of trivia — Grace Poole in this adaptation is played by the same woman (Ethel Griffies) who played Grace Poole in the 1934 version of story.
I like Joan Fontaine as Jane. She’s too pretty, but she does a good job with the part. The actress who plays Blanche Ingram (Hillary Brooke) was only 1 year older than Orson Welles, but she looks a lot older than that; plus, she’s a blonde. Margaret O’Brien’s Adèle isn’t too annoying — she isn’t around enough to be annoying.
I’ve said before that this is far from being a good adaptation of Jane Eyre. In my mind, far too much of Brontë’s story is missing for that to be the case. Jane is no longer as strong as she is in the book, and she isn’t as independent-minded either. And, speaking of independence, she doesn’t meet up with the Rivers siblings, she doesn’t learn they are her cousins, and she doesn’t inherit the £20,000 that gives her true independence. It works somewhat as a stand-alone movie, but it simply doesn’t work for me as an adaptation of Charlotte Brontë’s novel.