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Movie Review: “Jane Eyre,” 1943

Movie Review:  “Jane Eyre,” 1943


By Anne Bernays


Ladies and gentlemen, today we’re going to visit a museum. Instead of paintings and sculpture, this museum houses hundreds of movies—all of them from long ago, when your grandparents paid twenty-five cents to watch two movies in one afternoon, before staggering out into the dark. We will focus on “Jane Eyre,” a movie made 80 years ago and staring two of the most celebrated actors of that time: Orson Wells and Joan  Fontaine, bright stars in the celluloid galaxy.

Back then, acting was emphatic, full-throated, “theatrical.” Lighting and camera work were also theatrical, as was the background music which swirled and dipped to mirror the action on the screen. Very little was left to viewers’ imaginations.

Please don’t fall into the trap of thinking that just because something is old it’s boring; it’s about time we got over the idea that everything new is automatically better than anything old.   (The alarm clock with a bell was about as good as it gets; likewise, the hand-operated eggbeater.)

And to underscore the universal appeal of this story, keep in mind that “Jane Eyre,” the novel by Charlotte Bronte, has sold approximately 200 million copies since it was published in 1847. Since then, there have been almost twenty versions of the book in movie form, eight of them before you could hear actors speak on screen. I’ve seen three of the “talkies” and as far as I can tell none matches the 1943 version in emotional impact.

Briefly the story is this: Jane Eyre, an orphan girl (much to do has been made of her last name—Eyre equals Air),  lives with her nasty aunt and her nasty cousin who hates Jane. Soon, Jane is dispatched to a school for orphan girls where she is treated brutally but manages, a few years later, to graduate as an educated, self-possessed young woman.  (No mention of “trauma”—just get on with your life, Jane).

Several short scenes later, Jane is ensconced in a huge gloomy house at the end of nowhere. She’s now governess to Adele, a young girl , the ward of the rich absentee owner, Edward Rochester, reputed to be a difficult man to shave. A few weeks later Mr. R. shows up. He’s aloof, impatient, rude but curious; he asks Jane personal questions that not only embarrass her but make her—despite his abrupt manner—like him. This gent is played by the great actor Orson Wells, who (thankfully) does him straight. “I’m not handsome, am I?” he asks Jane. “No sir,” she says. Need I add that the dialog is economical?

One night there’s a fire in the house during which Jane finds out that a mysterious woman lives on the top floor. Edward’s haughty girlfriend shows up with a retinue of friends to spend what seems like weeks at the Rochester house. Before she leaves she unwittingly annoys Edward, leaving him to concentrate on Jane and he begins to appreciate Jane’s sterling qualities.

Soon Edward and Jane are betrothed. For those few of you who have not read the book or seen one of the many movie versions, I’ll refrain from spoiling the surprises this tale has in store for you. But even those who don’t know what happens next can appreciate the elegance of the plot.

What makes this movie so compelling are the powerful performances of Welles and Fontaine, who manage to elevate this movie from what might have been ho-hum to masterpiece. A few minutes after employer and governess meet, Welles and Fontaine stop being themselves and, by means of inexplicably brilliant role-playing, become Mr. Rochester and Jane. How often does this happen?

I hope, ladies and gentlemen, that you watch this movie as if you were sitting in the dark in Loew’s 86th Street. The year is 1943.  You are mesmerized.