Director Robert Stevenson collaborated with novelist Aldous Huxley and theatrical-producer John Houseman on the screenplay for this 1944 adaptation of Charlotte Bronte's gothic romance Jane Eyre. After several harrowing years in an orphanage, where she was placed by a supercilious relative for exhibiting the forbidden trait of "willfulness," Jane Eyre (Joan Fontaine) secures work as a governess. Her little charge, French-accented Adele (Margaret O'Brien), is pleasant enough. But Jane's employer, the brooding, tormented Edward Rochester (Orson Welles), terrifies the prim young governess. Under Jane's gentle influence, Rochester drops his forbidding veneer, going so far as to propose marriage to Jane. But they are forbidden connubial happiness when it is revealed that Rochester is still married to a gibbering lunatic whom he is forced to keep locked in his attic. Rochester reluctantly sends Jane away, but she returns, only to find that the insane wife has burned down the mansion and rendered Rochester sightless. In the tradition of Victorian romances, this purges Rochester of any previous sins, making him a worthy mate for the loving Jane. The presence of Orson Welles in the cast (he receives top billing), coupled with the dark, Germanic style of the direction and photography, has led some impressionable cineasts to conclude that Welles, and not Stevenson, was the director. To be sure, Welles contributed ideas throughout the filming; also, the script was heavily influenced by the Mercury Theater on the Air radio version of Jane Eyre, on which Welles, John Houseman and musical director Bernard Herrmann all collaborated. But Jane Eyre was made at 20th Century-Fox, a studio disinclined to promote the auteur theory; like most Fox productions, this is a work by committee rather than the product of one man. This in no way detracts from the overall excellence of the film; of all adaptations of Jane Eyre (it had previously been filmed in 1913, 1915 and 1921, and has been remade several times since), this 1943 version is one of the best. Keep an eye out for an uncredited Elizabeth Taylor as the consumptive orphanage friend of young Jane Eyre (played as child by Peggy Ann Gardner).
by Hal Erickson synopsis