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The chief focus of Charlotte Brontë's novel Jane Eyre is the orphan-turned-governess of the title. But the center of Robert Stevenson's 1943 film version of the book -- its self-appointed Sun King, the lord and master of all he surveys -- is Orson Welles as Jane's employer and eventual love interest Edward Rochester.
Welles wasn't supposed to be the star of Jane Eyre: That honor would have gone to Joan Fontaine, who had the title role, if Welles hadn't insisted on top billing as a condition of accepting the role. But while Fontaine makes a perfectly suitable Jane Eyre, there is something a little recessive about her: She's meek at times, as the role demands, but when it's time for her to be fiery, there's a wall of reserve that she can't quite break through. Meanwhile, Welles, as the taciturn, mysterious Rochester, holds nothing back: He's a charismatic bear of a man tucked carefully into a restrictive corset, the better to ensure that with his rather robust proportions, he would still register as leading-man material. The performance is fascinating in its pig-headedness: Elsewhere in the movie, a very young (and uncredited) Elizabeth Taylor plays one of Jane's fellow orphans, and her charms are subtle but radiant. Luckily, Welles had no scenes with this marvelous little icon-in-training: He surely would have attempted to outdazzle her.
None of this is to say that Welles, as Rochester, isn't fascinating to watch; and Fontaine holds her own quite well -- she's a steady, slow-burning presence. But even if Welles wasn't the director of Jane Eyre in name, it seems he did everything in his power to take control of it. David O. Selznick approached Welles about appearing in the film as he and Stevenson were developing it. And according to Barbara Leaming's biography Orson Welles, Welles was eager to accept the part. His plan was to use the money he earned to self-finance the completion of It's All True (a project that would, of course, remain unfinished). The studio behind Jane Eyre, 20th Century-Fox, agreed to pay Welles the considerably large salary of $100,000. (He had been paid exactly that to produce, direct, write and act in Citizen Kane, 1941.) Welles also asked that he be given a Movieola so he could work on his own project during his off-hours. And in addition to demanding top billing, he insisted on being given an associate producer credit. Selznick agreed, but later persuaded 20th Century-Fox not to include that credit on-screen, fearing that it would overshadow Stevenson's very significant role in developing the picture.
Stevenson's Jane Eyre was the fifth screen adaptation of the material: There had been three previous silents, as well as a sound version in 1934, starring Virginia Bruce and Colin Clive. (It has also, of course, been adapted many times since, recently by Cary Fukunaga, starring Mia Wasikowska and Michael Fassbender.) Welles was a credible choice for this 1943 version: He had played Rochester on radio before, in 1940. And as Leaming notes, at age twenty-seven and not yet gaining weight as rapidly as he would in later years, Welles could still make a good romantic lead, though the role demanded some serious dieting and the help of that aforementioned corset -- Welles had also worn one for Citizen Kane.
The resulting performance is assuredly magnetic. Welles isn't exactly a conventional version of the character: He doesn't have Rochester's seriously brooding quality, but he's good at channeling the man's potentially cruel streak. A glorious, ominous Bernard Herrmann score underscores the story's Gothic nature. And then, of course, that very young, and already very beautiful, Elizabeth Taylor makes her evanescent appearance: At the time Jane Eyre was made, she'd recently been signed to a twelve-month contract at MGM; the studio immediately loaned her to 20th Century-Fox. Taylor's part was so small that years later, when she sat her own children down to watch the film on television, she realized she'd been cut clean out of the film as it had been edited for broadcast.
Still, it takes more than a few careless cuts to excise Elizabeth Taylor from anyone's memory. And the same goes for the pompous -- though admittedly exceptionally gifted -- Welles. In her autobiography, No Bed of Roses, Joan Fontaine tells a story about catching Welles just as he was about to make an entrance in a scene. Fontaine, following closely behind him, noticed a potential costume malfunction and whispered, "Stand up straight. Your coat gapes at the neck if you don't."
Welles roared, "Stop the camera!" He proceeded to make a fuss: "Miss Fontaine says my costume doesn't fit. Get the wardrobe man, get the tailor, get the producer!...I'm not shooting this scene until my jacket is fixed!" Fontaine relates that the wardrobe man and the tailor rushed away with the coat and let it sit in the wardrobe department for an hour, after which it was returned to Welles, unfixed. Naturally, he didn't even notice, and the director and crew could at last continue with the scene. Orson Welles may have tried to control Jane Eyre. But in the end, it took on a life of its own. What's more, one little girl in its cast -- a bright but unassuming presence -- would eventually achieve fame equal to his. And she didn't have to roar nearly as loud to get it.
Producer: William Goetz, Kenneth Macgowan
Director: Robert Stevenson
Screenplay: Aldous Huxley, Robert Stevenson, John Houseman; novel by Charlotte Brontë
Cinematography: George Barnes
Music: Bernard Herrmann
Film Editing: Walter Thompson
Cast: Orson Welles (Edward Rochester), Joan Fontaine (Jane Eyre), Margaret O'Brien (Adele Varens), Peggy Ann Garner (Jane, as a child), Agnes Moorehead (Mrs. Reed), Elizabeth Taylor (Helen).
by Stephanie Zackarek
Jerry Vermilye and Mark Ricci, The Films of Elizabeth Taylor, Citadel, 1989
Barbara Leaming, Orson Welles: A Biography, Limelight Editions, 2004
Joan Fontaine, No Bed of Roses: An Autobiography, William Morrow and Company, 1978
Alexander Walker, Elizabeth: The Life of Elizabeth Taylor, Grove Press 1991