Last night I caught the second half of the 1943 version of Jane Eyre, the classic one with Orson Welles and Joan Fontaine. I was only half paying attention, so I guess you could say that I’ve 25% seen that movie. So that’s not what this entry is about.
I love Jane Eyre; it’s one of my favorite books*. I’ve now seen some of the most recent modern film adaptations and having stumbled across the ’43 one I’ve got it into my head to see every Jane Eyre adaptation out there that I can. Even the shitty ones!
So last night Faithful Wikipedia alerted me to the existence of the Internet Archive, where you can stream a goodly number of old movies, including the first talkie film adaptation of Jane Eyre, from 1934 (directed by Christy Cabanne). And I watched it! Full disclosure, I fell asleep once or twice. (This shouldn’t be taken as an indication of quality, though, because I started watching it at midnight.) No, a better indication of quality would be the following sentence: the movie wasn’t very good.
Thankfully it was only an hour long. Wow, the most streamlined Jane Eyre yet, you’re thinking. I mean, some of those versions are about 47 hours long, too. You could say the ’34 version distills the movie to its essence, but it also clips the story of some of its juiciest details. Details that I’m sure were altered so as not to offend anyone’s delicate 30s filmgoer sensibilities. For instance, Mr. Rochester’s first marriage has long been annulled in this version, so he’s not even an adulterer, he just…has his crazy ex-wife locked up in his manor and doesn’t tell his fiancée. Wait — spoiler alert? Are there spoiler alerts for 165-year-old novels? Alright, well, in case you didn’t know, Mr. Rochester keeps his crazy wife locked up in his manor. Another element that’s changed is Adèle’s origins — here she’s Mr. Rochester’s niece, not the daughter of his French mistress.
The detail about Rochester’s marriage is, well, kind of important, considering it fuels Jane’s moral dilemma. And so is Adèle’s story, actually. Not crucial, but it lets us know that Rochester is a pretty worldly dude and serves as a better foil for Jane’s innocence. But the marriage thing is really silly; so many of the details surrounding that reveal are pretty dumb in this version. The funniest one is the appearance of the first Mrs. Rochester, which is so anticlimactic that I didn’t even realize what was happening. She just wanders into the pre-wedding chatter like a lost lamb. Credit where credit is due, though, she soon turns creepy:
Another hilarious moment earlier in this scene: the officiant asks Mr. Rochester if there will be very many guests at the wedding, then asks Jane if she has any living family.
“None!” she answers cheerfully, smiling a smile that somewhat clashes with the revelation that her entire family is dead.
It’s strange watching older movies like this. So many aspects are different for us super-ultra-modern movie watchers. The pacing is strange and choppy, the acting is stilted and formal. In a movie of this short length, where so much has been compressed and altered, untangling what is happening and why is a little perplexing even if you know the story backwards and forwards. You know Jane and Mr. Rochester are going to fall in love. And you know how it’s supposed to happen, it’s kind of subtle and filled with witty repartée and arson. In this version, there is no subtlty, no banter; at Jane and Rochester’s second meeting, they are Thoroughly in Love Forever, because Jane played a song on the piano and it was pretty. Or something. The end?
So, the falling in love is pretty half-assed. So is the characterization — these people aren’t especially recognizable as Jane and Rochester. In this adaptation Jane has a few strange moments of open sassiness. Don’t get me wrong, book Jane is a little fiery, especially as a child, but somehow I can’t imagine the adult Jane saying, “You ought to be tarred and feathered, you ugly old crocodile!”, even to horrible Mr. Brocklehurst, as she does in this version. Rochester, on the other hand, is just kind of a dip with no real presence for most of the movie. Some of their more defining behavior from the book emerges once they become smitten with each other, though. Jane quietly and modestly pines away while Rochester becomes a real dick. “Hey Jane, help me plan my wedding to another woman!” A few minutes later: “JUST KIDDING, Jane! I was planning on marrying you the whole time, not sending you away to Ireland where you’ll never see me again! And no, by the way, I’m not even going to do you the courtesy of asking you to marry me; you’re just gonna do it, and you’re gonna like it.” Yep, the ’34 version ably captured that streak of dickishness.
Overall this movie just has none of the brooding atmosphere, none of the buildup — really, nothing — that makes this story so interesting. This sped-up adaptation excises many of the better and memorable moments and fills them instead with strange details, like a blonde-ringleted Jane who is prettier than the Blanche Ingram character and who plays the piano in a foofy dress; or a treacly Adèle who exists to provide pratfalls, or to adorably hope that her favoritest uncle marries her favoritest governess, a wish tenderly revealed to an indulgently-listening Rochester. (Sigh. Where is the Mr. Rochester who is openly hostile to his ward? That’s the Rochester I want! Another of this film’s disappointments.) While this movie wasn’t completely horrible, you can’t get much more charitable than that. Leonard Maltin probably said it best when he said it was “not uninteresting” and I’ll stop there, too.
*(Side note: I also love my copy of Jane Eyre. It was my grandpa’s copy, and his name is stamped on the inside pages, along with the words “Lutheran Pastor.” I’m not sure if he liked the book — for all I know he may never have read it — but it’s nice to have something of his, all the same. This edition was printed in 1940 but it looks older, it’s so yellowed. I read it every year or so and hope I am not hastening its demise too quickly.)