David Selznick has a unique position in the history of the picture business of his day. He had produced movies at MGM in the early thirties. He became an independent and produced Gone With the Wind (1939). By the early forties, though still producing, he owned contracts for film stars and directors (Ingrid Bergman and Alfred Hitchcock, most notably) and rented them out for use in carefully selected vehicles; and packaged stories, stars, director and crew for sale to one of the major studios for them to produce. Jane Eyre was one of his packages, sold to 20th Century-Fox in November, 1942. In the package was the story, from the 1847 Charlotte Brontë novel, the director Robert Stevenson, the cinematographer George Barnes, the script by Aldous Huxley, Stevenson, and John Houseman, the production designs by William Pereira and the major casting of Orson Welles and Joan Fontaine. Robert Stevenson was an English screenwriter and director active from 1928 on in British films, and after 1940 in Hollywood. From the fifties he also directed on television and in the sixties made several films for Walt Disney, most notably Mary Poppins (1964).
The film was made from February through April, 1943 and was released in February, 1944. It featured Welles’ Mercury Theater colleague Agnes Moorehead, perennial bad guy Henry Daniell, child stars Margaret O’Brien and Peggy Ann Garner, and a young (and uncredited) Elizabeth Taylor. The music was by Bernard Herrmann, who was also working at the time on an opera of Wuthering Heights from the novel by Brontë’s sister Emily.
In April, 1943 Selznick wrote a letter to his brother-in-law William Goetz, 20th Century-Fox studio head, saying it would be unfair to Stevenson’s considerable work on the project to give Welles a producer credit on the movie. He wrote “You know as well as I do that Orson is such a personality that if he is credited as a producer, Stevenson’s credit is likely to degenerate into something of a stooge status, as has occurred with Norman Foster on Journey Into Fear.” In July, 1943 a Selznick lawyer, acquiescing to whatever 20th Century-Fox chose to do with the producer credit, wrote that Welles was involved with casting, editing, and script changes on Jane Eyre. The studio chose not to show a producer credit. Kenneth Macgowan was listed as producer on the studio’s film charts. Welles biographer Simon Callow wrote “Merely acting in a film was clearly regarded by Welles and his team as a dire demotion: how could he, who had done every job on a movie, simply take direction from some lesser mortal? . . .There was from the beginning some confusion about exactly what Welles would be doing on the film, a confusion that Welles did nothing to dispel. This was a pattern that would be repeated many times throughout his career: the creation of a suspicion that he might have had something of a guiding hand in the realization of another director’s film.” Welles did more than create a suspicion. In a late sixties interview with Peter Bogdanovich he said he produced it, which is a strange assertion, in the light of how Selznick’s packaging structures the film. Subsequent watchers of this movie have identified Wellesian touches in the direction, which they say is unlike the style of Stevenson’s other films, but Callow writes “(George Barnes’) cinematography. . .is of great refinement of tone, softly focused, evocative and painterly in a way that Welles and Toland. . .had utterly set themselves against in Citizen Kane. . . Barnes’s work in Jane Eyre, by contrast contrives to create a world in which the viewer can forget that he or she is watching a film and simply marvel at the expressive beauty of the pictures.”
Brontë purists don’t like Fontaine’s narration, which is not from the book, or the variations to, excisions from and additions to the original plot of the novel, like the character Dr. Rivers who was not in the novel. Jane Eyre has been adapted at least eight times for film and television since this movie, which was the second sound film of the novel.
Bosley Crowther in the New York Times felt that the story had become that of Edward Rochester rather than Jane Eyre. “With Orson Welles playing Rochester, the anguished hero of the book, they mainly gave way to the aspects of morbid horror to be revealed. They tossed Mr. Welles most of the story and let him play it in his hot, fuliginous style. As a consequence, the heroine of the classic, little Jane, played by Joan Fontaine, is strangely obscured behind the dark cloud of Rochester's personality.” James Agee in The Nation wrote of Welles’ acting: “It is possible to enjoy his performance as dead-pan parody; I imagine he did. I might have more if I hadn't wanted, instead, to see a good performance.” Welles himself told Stevenson he had received the worst notices of any American actor since John Wilkes Booth. Nevertheless I think you’ll find it a satisfying Victorian costume drama, reminiscent of Selznick’s earlier Dickens productions like David Copperfield, and I hope you enjoy watching it with me tonight.