Silver Screen Standards: Jane Eyre (1943)
I’ve spent the fall of 2023 swimming in the wake of Jane Eyre, both the original 1847 novel by Charlotte Brontë and the 1943 adaptation starring Joan Fontaine and Orson Welles. I’ve been teaching a class about the novel for one lifetime learning program and hosting a film series of Gothic thrillers for another, so it’s fair to say that my imagination has run toward shadowy corridors and secret sins, especially with the Criterion Channel serendipitously dropping a feature collection focusing on “Gaslight Noir,” a genre that owes a lot of its plot points and atmosphere to Brontë by way of the 1940 film adaptation of Daphne du Maurier’s Rebecca. Jane Eyre is such a rich, complicated text that we see a new film adaptation of it almost every decade, and its cinematic influence spreads far beyond straightforward retellings, but the 1943 version possesses unique charms in spite of its infidelity to its source material, mainly in its iconic cast and its terrifically moody ambience. It’s a picture that warrants return visits even though more recent adaptations, like the 2006 and 2011 versions, have merits of their own for dedicated Jane Eyre fans.
My favorite part of the 1943 adaptation is actually the first act, which follows the novel by introducing us to young Jane and her early misfortunes. Child star Peggy Ann Garner plays this version of Jane, although her performance is somewhat eclipsed by the radiance of a very young – and uncredited – Elizabeth Taylor as Jane’s tragic friend, Helen Burns. Little Jane is a tempestuous, opinionated, truth-telling heroine, unfit for Victorian society but all the more lovable to readers and viewers for the very qualities that make her an outcast. Garner’s young Jane isn’t impossibly lovely like Taylor, but there’s a fierce energy in her that perfectly suits the character. She’s a survivor, unlike the martyred angel Taylor plays. Garner also benefits from outstanding supporting actors who revel in their villainous roles, with Agnes Moorehead oozing disdain as the resentful Mrs. Reed and Henry Daniell absolutely loathsome as the sadistic and hypocritical Mr. Brocklehurst. Although the plot elements of this section can be seen in almost every Shirley Temple movie, they work so well here precisely because Garner isn’t made out to be a cute, curly-haired tyke with sugar in her smile, and there’s no happy family waiting to rescue young Jane, just years of bitter loneliness and deprivation.
Joan Fontaine takes over as the adult Jane, although she’s far too tall and fair to be an accurate depiction of Brontë’s tiny, dark heroine, whom Rochester repeatedly describes as elfin. Fontaine plays a more reserved Jane, making Garner’s performance critical to our understanding of her character as someone who feels much more than she expresses. I don’t love Fontaine’s version of Jane; I think several of the more recent adaptations boast better Janes who more closely resemble the literary original in both appearance and feisty demeanor. Fontaine, however, has continuity on her side, having already played the nameless heroine of the 1940 film adaptation of Rebecca, which leans very heavily on Jane Eyre for its inspiration. Ironically, Rebecca lets Fontaine look much less glamorous, while Jane Eyre lights her up like Renée Jeanne Falconetti in The Passion of Joan of Arc (1928), emphasizing the heroine’s Christian faith and martyrdom rather than her blunt manner and self-possession. Fontaine’s Jane isn’t plain, but she embodies a vision of Victorian womanhood that simultaneously conforms to the beauty standards of 1940s Hollywood, neither of them what Brontë had in mind for her original version of the character.
Luckily, Fontaine also has a tremendously interesting supporting cast backing her up, including Edith Barrett as Mrs. Fairfax, Hillary Brooke as Blanche Ingraham, and Margaret O’Brien as Adèle. O’Brien, as the third child star to have an important role, makes for a fascinating contrast with Garner and Taylor, especially as a little girl who has wealth and comfort but still lacks a loving parent to care for her. If Fontaine is too sweet and lovely for a proper Jane, her leading man, Orson Welles, has all the stormy temper and dark, brooding looks required for Mr. Rochester. Welles’ version of the Byronic hero is mercurial, sometimes even cruel; he burns with the torment of his secrets and his growing passion for Jane. Many great actors have played Rochester, including George C. Scott, Timothy Dalton, Ciarán Hinds, Toby Stephens, and Michael Fassbender, but when I think of Edward Rochester calling out for Jane it’s always Welles’ deep, tortured voice that I hear. The 1943 film is a little kinder to Rochester in its conclusion than Brontë chose to be, but Welles still conveys the demeanor of a man who has sinned and paid the price for it.
There are more than a dozen film and TV adaptations of Jane Eyre, some more faithful to the novel than others. If you’re looking for movies that share the era and atmosphere of the 1943 version you might sample the spate of films made in the years after Rebecca opened the floodgates for Eyre adjacent Gothic tales. Some of my favorites are I Walked with a Zombie (1943), The Spiral Staircase (1946), Dragonwyck (1946), and Blanche Fury (1948). For a unique double feature, check out the fictionalized Brontë sister biodrama, Devotion (1946), in which Joan Fontaine’s sister, Olivia de Havilland, plays novelist Charlotte Brontë. Like the 1943 Jane Eyre, Devotion varies widely from its source material, so be sure to read up on the novelist if you want the real story about her life.
— Jennifer Garlen for Classic Movie Hub
Jennifer Garlen pens our monthly Silver Screen Standards column. You can read all of Jennifer’s Silver Screen Standards articles here.
Jennifer is a former college professor with a PhD in English Literature and a lifelong obsession with film. She writes about classic movies at her blog, Virtual Virago, and presents classic film programs for lifetime learning groups and retirement communities. She’s the author of Beyond Casablanca: 100 Classic Movies Worth Watching and its sequel, Beyond Casablanca II: 101 Classic Movies Worth Watching, and she is also the co-editor of two books about the works of Jim Henson.