One of the most romantic English language novels is this moody Victorian Gothic about a mousy governess who falls for her employer, the mysterious Mr. Rochester. An innocent raised by bitter relatives and tortured in a brutal boarding school, Jane is innocent of society’s fripperies, which makes her irresistible to a man sated by them. Joan Fontaine specialized in wimpy heroines (her sister, Olivia de Havilland, played the plucky ones) and Welles, in the doghouse after the vexing box office of Citizen Kane and The Magnificent Ambersons, dominates the screen with his mellifluous voice and movie star magnetism.
Jane Eyre is one of the most enduring 19th century novels, and among the most read, and filmed, romances of all time. First published in 1847, there are few older literary works that continue to be enjoyed as much as Charlotte Brontë’s, or as she styled herself, Currer Bell’s, tempestuous saga. Her younger sister, Emily, penned Wuthering Heights, and sister Anne, and brother Bramwell were also writers. Their literary caldron was quite unlikely.
Charlotte was born in 1816, in Yorkshire. Her mother dead, she lived with two older and two younger sisters, and one brother in Haworth, her father’s parsonage. The weather was cold and bleak, the house was cramped, and overlooked a graveyard. During their early lives, the siblings encountered very few people. Our lives are so crammed, it’s hard to imagine a situation in which for many years, the Bronte siblings might only encounter 30 or 40 individuals. The sisters went to a cruelly forbidding school, the model of Lowood from Jane Eyre’s childhood; where Charlotte’s two older sisters contracted fatal illnesses. The four remaining siblings withdrew into their writings about two imaginary kingdoms. Charlotte and Bramwell’s fantasies concerned Angria, and Emily and Anne wrote about Gondal; these countries became the focus of their unfettered imaginations, inspiring stories, poems and drawings. When older, the girls worked in various teaching and governess positions, never very pleasant; Anne wrote of her chilling governess career in a shockingly depressing novel, Agnes Grey. Bramwell, too, worked as a tutor, but left his position after a sexual scandal.
By 1846, the three sisters were writing poetry under the pseudonyms Currer, Ellis and Acton Bell. Charlotte was the first to publish Jane Eyre, although Emily wrote Wuthering Heights simultaneously, and the two sisters undoubtedly discussed their work. Jane Eyre was an instant, runaway success, and suddenly Charlotte was thrust into the limelight she was ill prepared for. She was incredibly socially awkward, antagonizing even her literary idol, William Thackeray, whom she had longed to meet. She did befriend the novelist Elizabeth Gaskell, who was to write an admiring posthumous biography of her. Bramwell, addicted to alcohol and opium, died in 1848, shortly followed by the fatal illness of Emily; Anne then died in 1849. Charlotte eventually did marry, at the age of 38, but her happiness was brief, she died, pregnant, of typhoid fever in 1855.
Charlotte based Jane Eyre on a story that had happened near where she was teaching school. A governess had married her gentleman employer, and had a child, only to discover he was already married. His justification for his bigamy was that his first wife was mad. A visit to a friend produced a tale of another insane wife, confined to a padded room, who died in a fire. Coupled with her own employment experiences, and influenced by the gothic novels of Anne Radcliffe, Jane Eyre was born. Charlotte wanted a passionate tale told with brutal honesty, her heroine would not be a delicate beauty swooning with emotion, but a plain, no nonsense heroine unswayed by romantic folderol. “The standard heroes and heroines of novels are personages…whom I could never...believe to be natural, or wish to imitate” (Gordon 148). Jane was a feminist before her time, who believed she had a right to be independent, to have her own feelings, and her own happiness, all radical notions for a woman of the Victorian era. That is why it is filmed over and over…like Pride and Prejudice, a story so satisfying, and characters so compelling that the viewer/reader never wearies of it.
Having said that, as one picks and chooses among the many filmed versions of Jane Eyre, this one can’t be beat. The moody photography, careful reproduction of the 19th century and above all, Welles’ dashing Mr. Rochester makes this version uniquely compelling.
Orson Welles’ reputation as a “boy wonder” was being revised in 1941, but he was still a big star, and David O. Selznick, whose recent triumphs included Gone With the Wind and bringing Alfred Hitchcock to Hollywood to direct Rebecca, wanted Welles to play Mr. Rochester in Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre. Welles had done so on the Mercury Theater of the Air, calling the novel, “an old war horse of ours” (Bogdanovich 175).
The film was the dream of director Robert Stevenson. He was a member of the Brontë Society, and had spent years preparing to make Jane Eyre into a film. There had already been four earlier versions in English, in 1913, 1915, 1921 and 1934, the latter starring Dr. Frankenstein, Colin Clive, as Mr. Rochester. Stevenson was assigned a team of scenario writers including novelist Aldous Huxley. In spite of war time material restrictions, every effort was made to have it look like the 19th century. Selznick (who was not the credited producer) was an admirer of Welles, and he may have hoped that some of Welles’ brio would rub off on the assigned director. He did know that after Kane he could certainly sell Welles as a romantic lead in a major Hollywood picture.
Welles was worried that a straight acting job would sully his reputation as a producer/director/writer and last and least, actor. But financial pressure, including alimony, income tax and personal extravagance won out, and he accepted the $100,000 salary, even though he considered taking this job a considerable loss in stature. He liked to create the impression that he was influencing the production from behind the camera, even if he was only acting. One of the ironies of his career was that, while some questioned his authorship of his masterpiece, Citizen Kane, others insisted he was the real auteur of all the films he appeared in only as an actor.
But, the main reason for taking the job was to finance the completion of It’s All True his South American anthology film. The $100,000 salary was equivalent to what he had been paid to write, direct and produce, as well as star in Citizen Kane. “Part of my deal, says Orson, was that I was to be given a Moviola and allowed to work on my South American picture. And I did—during lunch periods and all that, with whatever material I’d been able to get, trying to show people a part of it to persuade them that it was worth finishing” (Leaming 257). But, Welles never really had a clear idea about the structure of the film, and had never seen much of the footage, shot under difficult conditions with unfamiliar crew members. RKO thought it wasted film and wasted money, and would soon adapt the slogan, “Showmanship, instead of genius.” His Jane Eyre salary would pay for the processing of one of the sequences, but when he saw it, he must have realized how hopeless it was. RKO eventually stored 37 boxes of film, later dispersed both to the bottom of the ocean—really!—and into the UCLA archive. Later, this archive footage appeared in a documentary about this project, which more than anything appears to validate RKO’s lack of confidence in it. Welles’ always dreamed of finishing this film, a Sisyphean task that would forever taint his career.
Fan magazines were particularly interested in Welles when he was married to Rita Hayworth (1943-47). Here he is with their daughter, Rebecca, in the January 1946 Motion Picture.
The public could willingly believe Welles was co-director of Jane Eyre, since a number of Welles’ collaborators were involved in the production, including Agnes Moorehead from Citizen Kane and the Mercury Theater, and composer Bernard Herrmann, who recycled some of his score for the radio version of Rebecca for the film of Jane Eyre. The shadowy, deep focus photography evoked Citizen Kane (James Agee called it Welles’ “black chenille and rhinestones manner” whatever that means 77). Hollywood mocked Welles, yet they feverishly admired and imitated him.
Joan Fontaine wrote uncharitably in her autobiography, No Bed of Roses, “Orson Welles was a huge man in 1943. Everything about him was oversize, including his ego. Orson’s concern was entirely for Orson. Jane Eyre was simply a medium to show off his talents.”(Callow 165). Welles was consulted on script and casting, and did not accept direction easily. He felt that everyone should appreciate his contributions, and when faced opposition, tended to sulk. He was having an affair with singer Lena Horne at the time, and enjoyed upsetting his prim co-star with tales of his evening activities. The cast and crew observed that Welles was enjoying his embraces with her a bit more than necessary, perhaps to torment her husband at the time, Brian Aherne, whom Welles continued to resent for having replaced him in Katharine Cornell’s Romeo and Juliet as Mercutio. Eventually, even Fontaine warmed to him, although she observed that director Stevenson had his hands full directing both Welles and the film.
Although Fontaine’s greatest roles were as the mousy “I” in Hitchcock’s Rebecca, Cary Grant’s tormented wife in Suspicion (her Oscar winning role) and modest Jane Eyre, I’m forced to reevaluate her acting ability after reading her snippy and narcissistic autobiography. She hasn’t much nice to say about anyone, professionally or personally, least of all her sister, Olivia de Havilland. She shockingly discards both her biological daughter and her adopted one with casual cruelty. So, playing a nice person on screen appears to validate her acting ability.
There were few photos of Miss Fontaine in my collection of movie star scrapbooks, even though many of them date from the years she was most popular.
There were three excellent child actors in the film. Welles was appalled by the adorable Margaret O’Brien, who arrived on set in a frilly white gown she was to wear as Rochester’s ward. The crew was delighted by her pleasure in her costume, but Welles grumbled that she was “a little scene stealer” (Leaming 259). Peggy Ann Garner, who we have just seen in A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, is most effective as the child Jane Eyre, and 10 year old Elizabeth Taylor appears (unbilled) as well. “Remind me to be around when she grows up” wisecracked Welles (Brady 360).
Fan magazines love to speculate on the future of child stars. This photo of 14 year old Peggy Ann Garner is from the May, 1946 Modern Screen, and in another photo shows her on a date at Ciro's, a popular nightspot, on a (no doubt studio sponsored) date, where they make a point of saying her cocktail is tomato juice.
The film was meant to be a sort of book club, beginning and ending with a bound copy of the novel on screen, and the urging, “buy yours in the theater" where it was available with the popcorn. "The cinema as a route to literature, not an art form in its own right. If Welles stood against anything as a movie maker, that was it” (Callow 166).
Welles chose to give a flamboyantly theatrical performance, not much appreciated by contemporary critics. Even a biographer as sensitive as David Thomson rejects him in this role. James Agee chided him for “road operatic sculpturings of body, cloak and diction, his eyes glinting in the Rembrandt gloom, at every chance, like side orders of jelly. It is possible to enjoy his performance as dead pan parody; I imagine he did” (Agee 77). This was the only time he would play a full out romantic leading part in a Hollywood film. Always prone to overweight, Welles dieted, took steam baths, worked out and wore a corset, as well as adding what he thought was a more dramatic nose to his own. Mr Rochester is supposed to be 40, old enough to be Jane’s father. Both actors were in their 20s, and the studio wanted Welles to look his age, 27, for publicity purposes. The moody romantic photography was meant to transport the audience to another world—and it did. My mother, as a teenager, fell in love with this Orson Welles, as if he was the WW II version of Twilight’s dreamboat vampire, Edward Cullen. His spectacular entrance, cape flying, garnered appreciative chuckles from the NCMA audience. Welles dismissed his performance, saying his reviews for this film were “The worst accorded an American actor since John Wilkes Booth” (Callow 168).
There have been at least six more versions of Jane Eyre since this one, including a Hindi version, Sangdil (1952), starring Dilip Kumar and Madhubala. I’m rather partial to the latest BBC one, starring Ruth Wilson and Toby Stephens, catering to modern tastes with a tad more bodice ripping than earlier versions. But for romantic melodrama and escapist mood, this one triumphs.