Presenting Miss Joan!
Joan Fontaine wasn’t a lady to be pigeonholed. She could be sweet, she could be romantic, and she could be steely. In the case of 1944’s Jane Eyre, she was a mixture of all of these qualities and more, sharing scenes with Orson Welles, one of the most formidable figures in entertainment history.
Jane Eyre is a familiar story, but I’ll sum it up anyway: The title character, who’s initially played by Peggy Ann Garner, is an orphan who lives with her Aunt Reed (Agnes Moorehead) and cousin George in a fancy mansion. With the exception of Bessie (Sara Allgood), one of the maids, everyone bullies Jane and treats her like an interloper. Finally, Aunt Reed sends Jane to Lowood, a charity school run by stern and unreasonable Mr. Brocklehurst (Henry Daniell). Jane is too happy about getting away from her aunt to realize what she’s going into.
At Lowood, Jane experiences much of the same harsh treatment as before, except that now she has an entire school to shun her. However, she does find friends in Helen (played by an eleven-year old Elizabeth Taylor) and Dr. Rivers (John Sutton), the kindly physician who looks after the students. The conditions at the school are deplorable. The students aren’t fed properly and the windows are left open on cold days. It’s not as if Mr. Brocklehurst is too hard-up to take care of the girls. Oh, no. He’s just being a twerp. Jane and Helen are punished for Helen having naturally curly hair and Jane pleading with Mr. Brocklehurst not to cut it. Their sentence? To walk in endless circles around a muddy, rainy courtyard carrying a sad iron in each hand. This absurdity ends up killing Helen, who already had a troubling cough to begin with.
Poor Jane is heartbroken and wants to run away from school, but Dr. Rivers convinces her to stay and learn everything she can even though she hates Lowood. Jane is loathe to go back, but she muscles through school, and her grades improve considerably. When Jane turns eighteen, Mr. Brocklehurst wants to make her a teacher because he’s thinking she’ll be cheap labor. Jane has other ideas, however–she puts an ad in a newspaper offering her services as a governess, and a place called Thornfield answers.
Once Jane gets there, she finds a large stone house on the moors with an absentee master named Edward Rochester, a kindly housekeeper, Mrs. Fairfax (Edith Barrett) and a little girl named Adele (Margaret O’Brien) who loves to dance. Jane takes to her new situation immmediately and happily settles in.
Lest life seem too easy, though, one day Jane is taking a walk on the moors when she and a horse surprise each other, throwing the horse’s rider. He’s thunderingly gruff, brushing off Jane’s help and riding away PDQ. Jane goes back to Thornfield wondering what in the world just happened, when a flustered Mrs. Fairfax tells her that Mr. Rochester has returned and wants to see her right away. One guess as to who it is.
Yup. Angry Horseback Rider Guy. Yipe.
Mr. Rochester is barely civil to Jane at the outset, but as time goes on, it’s clear he likes her in his own explosive way. They develop a solid friendship and they look out for each other, even though they’re from different classes. Not even the lilting, sparkly–and snobby–Blanche Ingraham sways Mr. Rochester from Jane. Mr. Rochester even goes so far as to shake hands with Jane on a few occasions. That might sound all kinds of small to us now, but in early nineteenth-century England, an upper class man shaking hands with a governess was tatamount to him taking her out for a buggy ride–it was crossing social lines. Mr. Rochester is evidently a maverick, though, because he quickly goes from shaking hands to proposing marriage. Jane is so love-starved, she readily accepts, and she in turn loves Mr. Rochester wholeheartedly.
However, Thornfield is hiding a secret. From the beginning, Jane hears mysterious laughter in the corridors at night, and once she comes out of her room to find a lit candle on the floor. She smells smoke and rushes into Mr. Rochester’s room, where she finds the bed curtains on fire. Mrs. Fairfax chalks it up to Grace Poole (Ethel Griffies), the lady who does the sewing, being too noisy, but that ruse doesn’t last. Across from Jane’s room is a door that always stays closed and locked, and the one time Jane sees it open, she gets curious and goes up the staircase she finds behind it. At the top she sees a door with padding on it, but before she can investigate futher, a scream from behind the door scares her back downstairs. As if that weren’t enough, Grace Poole threatens her about poking her nose where she shouldn’t, and honestly, the woman looks like death warmed over. Whatever secret Thornfield is hiding, it means that Jane’s road to matrimony won’t be smooth…if it happens at all.
I haven’t seen any other versions of Jane Eyre so I can’t comment on their quality (although I’d really like to watch the one with George C. Scott), but I honestly think the 1944 version is one of the best. It captures the spirit of the book without weighing anything down. It had excellent people at the helm–Robert Stevenson directed and co-wrote the screenplay with Aldous Huxley and John Houseman. According to IMDb, Stevenson was a member of the Brontë Society, so he had the street cred. Then, of course, there’s Orson Welles.
Welles is known for many things, but he’s never been known for being modest and retiring. We’re talking about someone who left a hundred dollar tip for a twenty-five cent Coke. And who liked using real daggers in his stage productions because of their menacing shininess. And who would eat two full steak dinners in a sitting. Oh, and let’s not forget he was the guy who only fooled most of America one night in 1938 with his War Of the Worlds broadcast. Then there’s Citizen Kane, but we won’t go into that. Not this time, anyway. Welles was a perfect Rochester. His character’s melancholy habit of striding over the moors with his cape billowing behind him seems completely natural for a guy who made being larger than life an art form. Amazingly enough, Welles was associate producer of Jane Eyre, but refused any screen credit because he didn’t want to overshadow Robert Stevenson, who deserved every bit of credit he got.
Joan Fontaine’s performance is terrific–she’s exactly who I would picture in the role of Jane Eyre. Jane isn’t an especially talk-y character, so Joan’s face had to tell the story. Whether Jane looks anguished, or quiet, or happy, or strong, she makes people feel for her. Playing opposite Orson Welles must have been quite an experience for Joan, too. One of the great things about the Fontaine and Welles pairing is that Fontaine didn’t seem to find Welles at all intimidating. In their scenes together, she listens to him with her eyes steady, never flinching under Welles’s intense stare. Welles may have been the larger personality, but Fontaine was no slouch herself. She plays Jane with backbone and grace, matching Welles’ bravado with her own brand of strength.