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With: Orson Welles, Joan Fontaine, Margaret O'Brien, Peggy Ann Garner, John Sutton, Sara Allgood, Henry Daniell, Agnes Moorehead, Aubrey Mather, Edith Barrett, Barbara Everest, Hillary Brooke, Elizabeth Taylor
Written by: John Houseman, Aldous Huxley, Robert Stevenson, based on the novel by Charlotte Brontë
Directed by: Robert Stevenson
MPAA Rating: Unrated
Running Time: 96
Date: 12/24/1943
IMDB

Jane Eyre (1944)

3 1/2 Stars (out of 4)

The Full Bronte

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

Orson Welles has to be the most interesting film artist of the past 100 years, and here's why: not only did he make what is considered the greatest movie of all time (Citizen Kane) as well as eleven other amazing films, but also he left twice that many puzzles for film buffs and historians to tackle. Jane Eyre (1944) was Welles' third completed film after Kane and The Magnificent Ambersons (1942). Officially, Welles starred as Rochester, but did not direct or write. Yet even the extras on this DVD are devoted to discovering just what, in fact, Welles did do. Clearly there are certain shots in the film, striking, deep-focused shots or startling camera moves that could have -- and most likely did -- come from Welles. Some will argue that the screenplay, which has characters talking about Rochester long before he actually shows up, has Wellesian trademarks as well. (Welles cronies John Houseman, credited as screenwriter, and Agnes Moorehead are also aboard.) And then there are the memos passed back and forth between producers arguing about what kind of credit Welles would eventually get.

Regardless of who did what, the finished film exists, and it's a good one. Based on Charlotte Bronte's gothic romance, the film begins when young Jane (the extraordinary Peggy Ann Garner) departs the company of her evil auntie (Agnes Moorehead) for an equally awful orphanage. There she briefly befriends Helen Burns (an uncredited, astonishingly beautiful Elizabeth Taylor), but suffers under the tyrannical Henry Brocklehurst (Henry Daniell). When she comes of age (now played by Joan Fontaine) she takes a job as a governess to little Adele (Margaret O'Brien, also in Meet Me in St. Louis), working for the mysterious, brooding Rochester. She finds herself drawn to him, despite his odd behavior and mixed messages.

Credited director Robert Stevenson (who went on to become one of Disney's top men, making Darby O'Gill and the Little People, Mary Poppins and many others) gives the production a touch of class, even if the performances don't always appear to be on the same page. Welles brings a large theatricality to his role, and O'Brien is a delightful little ham, while Fontaine tries to hide her beauty behind a "mousy" fa├žade (something she was also asked to do in Rebecca four years earlier). The standout is easily Peggy Ann Garner, whose extraordinarily unguarded face gives the young Jane a beautiful soul. Stevenson also chooses to film actual printed passages from the novel, accompanied by narration. Another clue that Welles didn't actually direct the film is that the dialogue sounds like normal, Hollywood talk (everyone speaks in turn) rather than Welles' trademark overlapping dialogue. Indeed, it's difficult to watch the film without considering aspects of authorship, but if you can, there's a very good film underneath.

DVD Details: Fox's 2007 DVD comes in a gorgeously remastered transfer with oodles of good extras. Welles biographer Joseph McBride (who teaches at my school, SFSU) provides a commentary track, along with snippets from Margaret O'Brien. Three film historians provide a second commentary track. There's an isolated score/FX track, and a featurette all about the film's authorship issues. Actor and writer Simon Callow (Four Weddings and a Funeral), who also wrote a book about Welles, participates. Also included are a trailer, production stills and posters, and a wartime short film from Stevenson, who enlisted and joined Frank Capra's filmmaking squad.