Monday, September 29, 2008

Jane Eyre (1944)

Jane Eyre is not my favorite adaptation of Jane Eyre, nor is it a strictly faithful one. It relies heavily on its “literary” merits, demonstrated by passages of typed exposition that do not actually appear in the novel (though large parts of the dialogue do). Its 96 minutes necessitate gross cutting of major subplots. And at no time does anyone look remotely like they're outside, in England or anywhere else. But there is much to love about this version, and in many respects is beautifully done.

One of the things I love most about it is, unfortunately, one of its chief problems. That is Orson Welles. As Rochester, Welles throws his considerable weight about Thornfield much as he probably did on set, playing the brooding Byronic heartthrob to about 11. It's not that this is a particularly bad way to play Rochester; there's something rather charming about his own awareness of his complete self-absorption and his dramatic flair matches the high-contrast, gothic atmosphere gorgeously provided by the cinematography and Robert Stevenson's direction. The problem, however, is that Welles so completely dominates the film that it should have been called Edward Rochester. Joan Fontaine's saintly Jane, aside from what might be my favorite young Jane and a few flashes of “spirit” early on, is no match for him as far as our attention is concerned. Despite the similarities, I always considered Jane to be a little more interesting in her own right than the second Mrs. DeWinter, whom Fontaine had played a few years before. Her Jane impresses Rochester with her quiet assertiveness in the face of his pouty ill-temper, then has little to do for the rest of the film but moon about after him despite the fact that Welles seems to make it clear in every scene how much contempt he has for his supposed intended, Blanche Ingram, and how much he values the company of his ward's governess.

Considering the lengths the film goes to to insert a male role model into young Jane's life who teaches her what duty means, this is likely neither Welles' nor Fontaine's fault, but merely the result of my looking back from a more egalitarian position at a film which is perfectly content with a relationship in which one party saves the other through her quietness. I am also likely spoiled by the 2006 miniseries whose longer running time allows for more subtlety and whose actors are able to convey a more complex and motivated relationship.

A few other things mar the film: Welles sounds like the jaded middle-aged man Rochester should be, but due to pressure to present the moviegoing public with a leading man, looks all of his 29 years. The narration informing us that Rochester is a nice man and everything will be okay is completely at odds with the operatic shadows and Bernard Herrmann's score, and it feels as though it was inserted for fear the too-short courting period wouldn't earn the relationship we're supposed to see blossoming between them. But long exchanges between them remain intact, Welles and Fontaine perform admirably among some absolutely gorgeous black and white scenery, and overall it is a satisfying movie, albeit probably not as much for the purist. Read more!

The Magnificent Ambersons (1942)

After Citizen Kane failed to reach audiences (for various reasons) in 1941, Orson Welles set out to make an even better film. Thus began the tortured pattern of Welles’ relationship with Hollywood, as he negotiated away final cut, had forty minutes removed without his consent, and was in South America on another project as an upbeat ending was tacked on. The film was The Magificent Ambersons, and as charming and tight a family drama as it remains, one cannot help but wonder what it would have been if it had remained in his hands.

The film concerns the fortunes of the Amberson family, large fish in the small pond of Indianapolis that is getting bigger with every new road and automobile. It takes place in the decades around the turn of the last century, when ladies wore velvet and silk and a foolish, intoxicated mistake on the part of a young man could get him jilted and his girlfriend married off to a more sensible fellow. Cut to years later, when Eugene Morgan (Joseph Cotton) returns no longer a foolish young man but a successful automobile manufacturer with attractive young daughter Lucy (Anne Baxter) in tow. Isabel Anderson Minafer (Dolores Costello), her husband Wilbur, and utterly spoiled son George (Tim Holt) are still in town, still Ambersons, and unaware that everything is about to change.

The film’s message about industrialization and the march of progress is decidedly ambiguous, but more to the point are the interpersonal relationshps that are revealed among this old guard family through their renewed relationship with Morgan and his daughter and the diminishment of their importance. And given that at the present time one is looking back at a period film directed in 1941, it’s surprising how delightful, unstilted, and punchy the film is. The dialogue (adapted by Welles from a Booth Tarkington novel) is snappy and delivered in a naturalistic fashion, often overlapping (a particular favorite is George’s frequent disgusted rendering of “oh my gosh!”). The camera moves about the Amberson mansion like another character, frequently in long tracking shots or playing with the characters’ positions through different levels of the house. Welles’ narration (only his voice appears) is sometimes interruptive but generally spot-on, and Agnes Moorehead’s Aunt Fanny is a complex (if shrill) portrait of an unmarried woman past her prime. While some of the technique looks old-fashioned to our eyes, other aspects of the cinematography and directing are arresting and fresh, and overall it’s a neat piece of filmmaking that is, amazingly, unavailable on DVD in this country.

Financial troubles dogged Orson Welles throughout his life, most likely because he was a man who wanted to go his own way yet chose a medium that requires major backing to produce. While no one will ever know if the original cut was better (even he thought it needed some trimming, but RKO took control and all the cut footage was destroyed “to save space” before Welles could get his hands on it) the film as it exists bears the scars in the holes in plot that make some of it hard to follow. Watching it now, it seems clear to me that Welles (as far as movies were concerned) should have lived later, and it's probably a testament to his directing (and Stanley Cortez's cinematography) that even the studio version holds up as well as it does. Read more!