Jane Eyre (Blu-ray Review)9 Dec, 2013 By: Mike Clark
Available at www.ScreenArchives.com
Stars Orson Welles, Joan Fontaine, Peggy Ann Garner, Margaret O’Brien.
Just by itself, Bernard Herrmann’s score goes a long way toward at least suggesting that this fairly renowned Charlotte Bronte adaptation might be an unofficial Orson Welles film from his early 1940s directorial heyday — as opposed to the Robert Stevenson achievement it is. To my mind, Stevenson was never much of a scintillating visual stylist, and until Disney’s new Blu-ray convinces me otherwise, I’ve never even been much of a Mary Poppins fan — though the great biographer/historian Joseph McBride caught my attention on one of this Jane release’s two sterling commentaries that Stanley Kubrick is said to have sampled its spoonfuls of sugar five times.
But more to the direct point, there’s no reason not to go along with Julie Kirgo’s peppy Twilight Time liner notes and the commentaries as well that Stevenson spent a long time with co-writers John Houseman and Aldous Huxley (nothing too shabby there) for a long time before Welles even signed onto a production that finally went into gear while Fox studio chief Darryl Zanuck was off in World War II (having traded in Hollywood polo-playing for a commission). According to McBride, though, Welles served as an unbilled but active producer here, which means he must have been an influence — on top of the fact that Jane cinematographer George Barnes (Oscar for Hitchcock’s Rebecca) had previously worked with Gregg Toland of Citizen Kane (a movie Herrmann scored as well).
By the time of Jane, Welles was already a directorial persona non grata following the tragic miscarriage of justice over The Magnificent Ambersons, but he was still in demand as an actor. In fact, Welles as the tormented Rochester dominates even Joan Fontaine as the tough-luck servant Jane — with the actress somewhat at disadvantage even from the get-go due to Peggy Ann Garner’s vulnerable/tough portrayal of the character as a child in the movie’s extended exposition. This is quite the showcase for what were probably the top child actresses of the era. Garner was a year or so away from her indelible performance in A Tree Grows in Brooklyn and Margaret O’Brien even closer in time to the release of Meet Me in St. Louis. Meanwhile, an incredibly unbilled Elizabeth Taylor gets everything there is to get from a handful of scenes as the doomed Helen Burns at the Lowood Institution, a charity school under the supervision of Henry Daniel’s sadistic Mr. Brocklehurst. You keep wanting Barry Fitzgerald and some of those boozy pugilists from John Ford’s How Green Was Valley to show up at Lowood to give Brocklehurst something of what they give Roddy McDowall’s schoolmaster after he employs the classroom cane (whack!) once too often and is left in something close to, metaphorically at least, a pile of his own brains.
This has to be the closest Welles ever came to cutting a dashing figure on screen, though Kirgo divulges that he was wearing a corset, as he had done in some scenes of Kane (though hopefully not on his real-life wedding night with Rita Hayworth). The makeup artist had to do with Fontaine what was done with her real-life sis Olivia de Havilland in the second half of To Each Her Own and all of The Heiress (both Oscar-winning performances): downplay or all-out rob a beautiful actress of her looks. Their scenes together get a boost from the cinematography and music — though due to the early scenes of Jane as a child, it is a while before Welles makes his grand entrance. Near the end, the script eliminates a lot of material from the book to get them back together, which has the effect of making an intelligent and generally effective adaptation feel rushed, which is something the disc’s bonus materials note.
Both commentaries are more than worth the time: McBride with O’Brien (her contribution is minimal) — though in one bit, she makes it sound as if Welles were directing) — plus Kirgo, Twilight Time maestro Nick Redman and Herrmann biographer Steven C. Smith (this was a major book). Smith fortunately gets to devote substantial time here to his subject, both on a professional and professional level (and this was a personality who was difficult even with his friends). In keen Twilight Time fashion, Herrmann’s Jane score can be enjoyed as an isolated experience on a separate track. And though he did unforgettable work from the very beginning with Kane, this is the movie that probably opened the door for his enduring Hollywood career, which was never quite matched by any other screen composer.