The Presence of Orson Welles in Robert Stevenson's Jane Eyre (1944)

By Campbell, Gardner | Literature/Film Quarterly, January 1, 2003 | Go to article overview

The Presence of Orson Welles in Robert Stevenson's Jane Eyre (1944)


Campbell, Gardner, Literature/Film Quarterly


When one thinks of the presence of Orson Welles in the 1944 film version of Jane Eyre, one thinks first of his acting in the role of Mr. Rochester, his first major credit after the series of RKO fiascoes that cost him his directing contract with that studio. Many critics have seen the performance as Welles's hid for a career as an actor instead of an auteur. Of course Welles would eventually have a long and lucrative, if uneven, career as an actor; indeed, he regularly took acting work as a way of raising money for his movies. Moreover, Welles's part in Jane Eyre was undeniably designed as a star-making role: the adaptation transforms Charlotte Bronte's gruff, hard-featured, middle-aged Rochester into a tall, dark, svelte matinee idol. At times Welles's performance seems in harmony with this design. He uses his voice, size, and baby-faced good looks to suggest Rochester's violence, sweetness, and odd vulnerability. Yet the more characteristic notes here are dissonant. Deliberately or not, as an actor Welles undermines his purported comeback in this project. Sometimes he focuses so insistently on Rochester's mordant, ironic wit that he seems to be smirking at the entire project, perhaps because of self-consciousness at his lack of physical grace. As David Thomson suggests, Welles's physical awkwardness nearly sinks the performance-the boy wonder was flatfooted, and though he could move with energy and conspicuous power, he could rarely move with ease or poise (242).

Jane Eyre may have been designed to restart Welles's Hollywood career, and Welles's Rochester may often loom before us more vividly or loudly than Joan Fontaine's Jane, but one can hardly say his performance steals the show from her, or that his presence overpowers the narrative. Yet this is precisely the argument of those critics who believe this film adaptation of Jane Eyre ruthlessly excludes Jane's point of view. The Encyclopedia of Novels into Film quotes critics complaining that this Jane is completely bereft of intelligence, and that Welles's star in turn robs her character of the presence and authority she enjoys in Bronte's novel (202-03). Kate Ellis and E. Ann Kaplan's 1981 critique goes even farther in suggesting that "the limitations of film form," as well as director Robert Stevenson's "reversion . . . to patriarchal structures," lead to a "dilution of Jane's rebellious vision" in which she "is seen, for the most part, from a male point of view" (83-84). I agree that Welles's performance as an actor in this film is uneven and sometimes distracting, but I am much less certain that his Rochester or the film as a whole disempowers Jane to such a significant extent. Instead, I will argue below that Welles's presence as an uncredited producer/co-director in fact complicates an apparently simple Hollywood narrative and manages to reinscribe Jane's narrative authority in interesting and important ways.

Certainly, large parts of this film adaptation of Jane Eyre are melodrama pure and simple. And one must also concede that these melodramatic elements do not necessarily empower Jane as a female character, although one might also argue that they are not so much a reversion to patriarchy as a 1940s mass-market film analogue of the blood-and-thunder Gothic strain in Bronte's novel. It would probably be more accurate to say that the melodrama in Stevenson's Jane Eyre, if it in fact reinforces patriarchal structures, does so as an afterthought. The melodrama's primary focus after Jane is grown seems to be the story of the wounded lovers, mad with love and longing, who find and keep each other against all odds. Ronald Haver observes that David O. Selznick, the originator and initial creative force behind this adaptation of Jane Eyre, was a romantic devotee of stories of l'amour fou, the madness of love, and Haver goes on to point out the essential similarities between Selznick's visions of Rebecca and Jane Eyre, both of which movies starred Joan Fontaine (7, 327). …

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