“JANE EYRE” (1943) Review

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“JANE EYRE” (1943) Review

Many fans of Charlotte Brontë’s 1847 novel, “Jane Eyre”, are aware that numerous (probably over twenty) television and movie adaptations of it had been made over the past several decades. While perusing the Internet, I was surprised to discover that the opinion of the 1943 adaption seemed to be extremely divided. Fans either regard it as the best adaptation or the worst. There seemed to be no middle ground.

As many know, “JANE EYRE” told the story of young 19th century English orphan who is forced to live at the Yorkshire estate of her widowed aunt-by-marriage, Aunt Reed. After a recent altercation between niece and aunt, the latter sends Jane Eyre to be educated at an all-girls school operated by a tyrannical and religious zealot named Mr. Lowood. Jane spends eight years at the school as a student and two years as a teacher. She eventually leaves Lowood School after she is hired as a governess for Adèle Varens, the French-born ward of a mysterious landowner named Mr. Edward Rochester. Not long after her arrival at Thornfield Hall, the Rochester estate, Jane meets her enigmatic employer. It does not take long before Jane and Rochester’s relationship evolve from employee/employer to friends, before it eventually becomes romantic. However, a possible romantic rival for Jane and a secret in Thornfield’s attic prove to be major obstacles in the road to romance for the young governess and her employer.

So . . . how does “JANE EYRE” hold up after 71 to 72 years? Actually, I believe it holds up pretty well. I thought director Robert Stevenson and the screenplay he co-wrote with John Houseman, Aldous Huxley, and Henry Koster did a solid job in translating Brontë’s novel to the screen. Many critics and movie fans have noted that this adaptation seemed to have convey the novel’s Gothic atmosphere a lot stronger than other versions. I supposed one has cinematographer George Barnes, production designer William L. Pereira and set decorator Thomas Little to thank. However, I recently learned it was Orson Welles (who not only served as leading man, but also an uncredited producer) who had convinced Stevenson and his fellow co-producers William Goetz and Kenneth Macgowan to inject more Gothic visuals into the movie. I could not say that René Hubert’s costume designs contributed to the movie’s Gothic atmosphere. But I was impressed by how Hubert’s costumes reflected the movie’s early 1840s setting, as shown in the images below:

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I certainly had no problems with how the movie handled Jane’s story through most of the film. From the opening scene in which the leading character found herself harassed by the Reed film to her disrupted wedding to Edward Rochester. I usually find it difficult to endure the Lowood School scenes in other adaptations of Brontë’s novels. But I cannot say the same about this adaptation. I really had no problem with it. It could be that I was so fascinated by the performances of Peggy Ann Garner, Elizabeth Taylor and Henry Daniell that I completely forgot that I was watching one of my least favorite sequences in the story. And of course, the best part of “JANE EYRE” remained the growing friendship and romance between the titled character and Rochester. This was especially apparent in two sequences – Rochester’s courtship of Blanche Ingram during his house party and Jane’s confession of her love for him.

Although I was impressed by how Stevenson and the film’s other screenwriters handled Brontë’s tale up to Jane and Rochester’s disastrous wedding ceremony, I could not say the same about the rest of the film. In fact, it suffered from the same narrative problem that plagued several other adaptations – a weak finale. First of all, this is the only adaptation in which Jane never meets the Rivers siblings – St. John, Diana and Mary. She does meet a Doctor Rivers, who first treated Jane when she was a Lowood student. Instead of seeking refuge with the trio, Jane returns to Gateshead Hall, the home of her dying Aunt Reed. Following her aunt’s death, Jane reunites with Rochester. That is it. And I hate to say this, but the entire sequence – between Jane’s departure from Thornfield Hall to her return – seemed very rushed and unsatisfying.

I also have another major problem with the movie – its Gothic elements. There were times when these elements served the mysterious aspects of the movie very well. However, a good deal of these “Gothic touches” struck me as heavy handed . . . to the point that they ended up annoying me. This was apparent in Jane’s first meeting with Rochester, with so much fog swirling around the pair that at times they seemed almost hidden. The worst aspect of these “Gothic touches” occurred in the scene in which Jane and Rochester confessed their love for one another. The moment the pair sealed their engagement with a kiss, a bolt of lightning came out of the sky and struck a nearby log. I mean . . . come on! Really?

A good number of critics and movie fans did not seem particularly impressed by Joan Fontaine’s portrayal of Jane Eyre. I never understood the complaints. I thought she did an excellent job. More importantly, her portrayal of the passionate, yet introverted Jane seemed spot on. What were these critics expecting? An over-the-top performance by Fontaine? Jane Eyre is not an overtly emotional character – at least as an adult. However, I am happy to note that Fontaine certainly had a strong screen chemistry with her leading man, Orson Welles. Many have stated that Welles pretty much dominated the movie. To me, that is like saying every actor who has portrayed Edward Rochester overshadowed the actresses who have portrayed Jane. Personally, I thought Welles’ enigmatic and quick-witted portrayal of Rochester complimented Fontaine’s more introspective performance rather well. I guess these fans and critics did not want balance . . . just two very theatrical performances.

The other performances in the movie struck me as first-rate. Agnes Moorehead, who was part of Welles’ Mercury Theater company before her arrival in Hollywood, portrayed Jane’s haughty Aunt Reed. And I must say that she did an excellent job in portraying the character with a not-too-shabby English accent. Henry Daniell was equally impressive as the tyrannical head of Jane’s school, Mr. Lowood. But I was really impressed by Margaret O’Brien, who did a remarkable job as Rochester’s French ward, Adèle Varens. I would not know an authentic French accent, if I was stuck in the middle of Paris. But I must say that O’Brien’s accent was just as good as the other young actresses who portrayed Adèle. And she gave such a charming performance . . . at the age of six.

But O’Brien was not the only child star who gave an excellent performance. Peggy Ann Garner was equally impressive as the young Jane Eyre, who had no qualms about butting heads with the haughty Reed family. Also in the film was a young Elizabeth Taylor, who gave a mesmerizing performance as Jane’s doomed young friend, Helen Burns. I was surprised to discover that Hillary Brooke, who portrayed Blanche Ingram, was an American actress. I thought she was very convincing as the charmingly bitchy and very English Blanche. The movie also featured solid performances from Sara Allgood, John Sutton, Edith Barrett and Barbara Everest.

So . . . do I feel that “JANE EYRE” is the best or worst adaptation of Charlotte Brontë’s novel? Honestly? I would say neither. Yes, there were times I could barely deal with the movie’s over-the-top Gothic atmosphere. And yes, I found the last quarter of the film both weak and rushed. But overall, I would say that it is a pretty good film. And I believe that it still holds up rather well after 73 to 74 years.

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“LIFE WITH FATHER” (1947) Review

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“LIFE WITH FATHER” (1947) Review

Warner Brothers is the last studio I would associate with a heartwarming family comedy set in the 19th century. At least the Warner Brothers of the 1940s. And yet, the studio did exactly that when it adapted Howard Lindsay and Russel Crouse’s 1939 play, “Life With Father”, which happened to be an adaptation of Clarence Day’s 1935 novel.

If I must be frank, I am a little confused on how to describe the plot for “LIFE WITH FATHER”. But I will give it my best shot. The movie is basically a cinematic account in the life of one Clarence Day, a stockbroker in 1880s Manhattan, who wants to be master of his house and run his household, just as he runs his Wall Street office. However, standing in his way is his wife, Vinnie, and their four sons, who are more inclined to be more obedient of their mother than their father. You see, Vinnie is the real head of the Day household. And along with their children, she continues to demand that Mr. Day overcome his stubbornness and make changes in his life.

Thanks to Donald Odgen Stewart’s screenplay, “LIFE WITH FATHER” focused on Mr. Day’s attempt to find a new maid; a romance between his oldest son Clarence Junior and pretty out-of-towner named Mary Skinner, who is the ward of his cousin-in-law Cora Cartwright; a plan by Clarence Jr. and second son John to make easy money selling patent medicines; Mrs. Day’s health scare; Mr. Day’s general contempt toward the trappings of organized religion; and Mrs. Day’s agenda to get him baptized. Some of these story lines seem somewhat disconnected. But after watching the movie, I noticed that the story lines regarding Clarence Junior and John’s patent medicine scheme were connected to Clarence Junior’s romance with Mary and Mrs. Day’s health scare. Which played a major role in Mrs. Day’s attempt to get her husband baptized. Even the baptism story line originated from Cousin Cora and Mary’s visit.

Many would be surprised to learn that Michael Curtiz was the director of “LIFE WITH FATHER”. Curtiz was not usually associated with light comedies like “LIFE WITH FATHER”. Instead, he has been known for some of Errol Flynn’s best swashbucklers, noir melodramas like “MILDRED PIERCE”, the occasional crime drama and melodramas like the Oscar winning film, “CASABLANCA”. However, Curtiz had also directed musicals, “YANKEE DOODLE DANDY” and “FOUR DAUGHTERS”; so perhaps “LIFE WITH FATHER” was not a stretch for him, after all. I certainly had no problem with this direction for this film. I found it well paced and sharp. And for a movie that heavily relied upon interior shots – especially inside the Days’ home, I find it miraculous that the movie lacked the feel of a filmed play. It also helped that “LIFE WITH FATHER” featured some top notch performers.

William Powell earned his third and last Academy Award nomination for his portrayal as Clarence Day Senior, the family’s stubborn and temperamental patriarch. Although the Nick Charles character will always be my personal favorite, I believe that Clarence Day is Powell’s best. He really did an excellent job in immersing himself in the role . . . to the point that there were times that I forgot he was an actor. Powell also clicked very well with Irene Dunne, who portrayed the family’s charming, yet manipulative matriarch, Vinnie Day. It is a testament to Dunne’s skill as an actress that she managed to convey to the audience that despite Clarence Senior’s bombastic manner, she was the real head of the Day household. Unlike Powell, Dunne did not receive an Academy Award nomination. Frankly, I think this is a shame, because she was just as good as her co-star . . . as far as I am concerned.

“LIFE WITH FATHER” also featured excellent performances from the supporting cast. Jimmy Lydon did a wonderful job portraying the Days’ oldest offspring, Clarence Junior. Although Lydon was excellent portraying a character similar in personality to Vinnie Day, I found him especially funny when his Clarence Junior unintentionally project Mr. Day’s personality quirks when his romance with Mary Skinner threatened to go off the rails. Speaking of Mary Skinner, Elizabeth Taylor gave a very funny and superb performance as the young lady who shakes up the Day household with a burgeoning romance with Clarence Junior and an innocent remark that leads Mrs. Day to learn that her husband was not baptized. Edmund Gwenn gave a skillful and subtle performance as Mrs. Day’s minister, who is constantly irritated by Mr. Day’s hostile stance against organized religion. The movie also featured excellent performances from Martin Milner, ZaSu Pitts, Emma Dunn, Derek Scott and Heather Wilde.

Another aspect of “LIFE WITH FATHER” that I found admirable was its production values. When it comes to period films, many of the Old Hollywood films tend to be on shaky ground, sometimes. For the likes of me, I tried to find something wrong with the production for “LIFE WITH FATHER”, but I could not. J. Peverell Marley and William V. Skall’s photography, along with Robert M. Haas’ art direction, and George James Hopkins’ set decorations all combined to the household of an upper middle-class family in 1885 Manhattan. But the one aspect of the film’s production that really impressed me was Marjorie Best’s costume designs. Quite frankly, I thought they were beautiful. Not only did they seem indicative of the movie’s setting and the characters’ class, they . . . well, I thought they were beautiful. Especially the costumes that Irene Dunne wore.

As much as I had enjoyed “LIFE WITH FATHER”, I could not help but notice that it seemed to possess one major flaw. Either this movie lacked a main narrative, or it possessed a very weak one. What is this movie about? Is it about Clarence Junior’s efforts to get a new suit to impress Mary Skinner? Is it about Mrs. Day’s health scare? Or is it about her efforts to get Mr. Day baptized? I suspect that the main plot is the latter . . . and if so, I feel that is pretty weak. If this was the main plot in the 1939 Broadway play, then screenwriter Donald Odgen Stewart should have changed the main narrative. But my gut feeling tells me that he was instructed to be as faithful to the stage play as possible. Too bad.

I see now that the only way to really enjoy “LIFE WITH FATHER” is to regard it as a character study. Between the strong characterizations, and superb performances from a cast led by Oscar nominee William Powell and Irene Dunne, this is easy for me to do. It also helped that despite the weak narrative, the movie could boast some excellent production values and first-rate direction from Michael Curtiz. You know what? Regardless of the weak narrative, “LIFE WITH FATHER” is a movie I could watch over and over again. I enjoyed it that much.

“LITTLE WOMEN” (1949) Review

“LITTLE WOMEN” (1949) Review

Louisa May Alcott’s 1868 novel is a bit of a conundrum for me. I have never been a fan of the novel. I have read it once, but it failed to maintain my interest. Worse, I have never had the urge to read it again. The problem is that it is that sentimental family dramas – at least in print – has never been appealing to me. And this is why I find it perplexing that I have never had any problems watching any of the film or television adaptations of her novel.

One of those adaptations proved to be Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer’s 1949 adaptation, which was produced and directed by Mervyn LeRoy. It is hard to believe that the same man who had directed such hard-biting films like “LITTLE CAESAR”, “I AM A FUGITIVE FROM A CHAIN GANG” and “THEY WON’T FORGET”, was the artistic force behind this sentimental comedy-drama. Or perhaps MGM studio boss, Louis B. Meyer, was the real force. The studio boss preferred sentimental dramas, comedies and musicals. Due to this preference, he was always in constant conflict with the new production chief, Dore Schary, who preferred more realistic and hard-biting movies. Then you had David O. Selznick, who wanted to remake his 1933 adaptation of Alcott’s novel. One can assume (or not) that in the end, Meyer had his way.

“LITTLE WOMEN”, as many know, told the experiences of the four March sisters of Concord, Massachusetts during and after the U.S. Civil War. The second daughter, Josephine (Jo) March, is the main character and the story focuses on her relationships with her three other sisters, the elders in her family – namely her mother Mrs. March (“Marmee”) and Aunt March, and the family’s next-door neighbor, Mr. Laurence. For Jo, the story becomes a “coming-of-age” story, due to her relationships with Mr. Laurence’s good-looking grandson, Theodore (“Laurie”) and a German immigrant she meets in New York City after the war, the equally good-looking and much older Professor Bhaer. Jo and her sisters deal with the anxiety of their father fighting in the Civil War, genteel poverty, scarlet fever, and the scary prospect of oldest sister Meg falling in love with Laurie’s tutor.

Despite my disinterest in Alcott’s novel, I have always liked the screen adaptations I have seen so far – including this film. Due to the casting of Margaret O’Brien as the mild-mannered Beth, her character became the youngest sister, instead of Amy. Screenwriters Sally Benson, Victor Heerman, Sarah Y. Mason and Andrew Solt made other changes. But they were so mild that in the end, the changes did not have any real impact on Alcott’s original story. Ironically, both Victor Heerman and Sarah Y. Mason wrote the screenplay for Selznick’s 1933 film. I thought Mervyn LeRoy’s direction injected a good deal of energy into a tale that could have easily bored me senseless. In fact, MGM probably should have thank its lucky stars that LeRoy had served as producer and director.

As much as I admired LeRoy’s direction of this film, I must admit there was a point in the story – especially in the third act – in which the pacing threatened to drag a bit. My only other problem with “LITTLE WOMEN” is that I never really got the impression that this film was set during the 1860s, despite its emphasis on costumes and the fact that the March patriarch was fighting the Civil War. Some might say that since “LITTLE WOMEN” was set in the North – New England, as a matter of fact – it is only natural that the movie struggled with its 1860s setting. But I have seen other Civil War era films set in the North – including the 1994 version of “LITTLE WOMEN” – that managed to project a strong emphasis of that period. And the production values for this adaptation of Alcott’s novel seemed more like a generic 19th century period drama, instead of a movie set during a particular decade. It is ironic that I would make such a complaint, considering that the set decoration team led by Cedric Gibbons won Academy Awards for Best Art Direction.

I certainly had no problems with the cast selected for this movie. Jo March seemed a far cry from the roles for which June Allyson was known – you know, the usual “sweet, girl-next-door” type. I will admit that at the age of 31 or 32, Allyson was probably too young for the role of Jo March. But she did such a phenomenon job in recapturing Jo’s extroverted nature and insecurities that I found the issue of her age irrelevant. Peter Lawford, who was her co-star in the 1947 musical, “GOOD NEWS”, gave a very charming, yet complex performance as Jo’s next door neighbor and friend, Theodore “Laurie” Laurence. Beneath the sweet charm, Lawford did an excellent job in revealing Laurie’s initial loneliness and infatuation of Jo. Margaret O’Brien gave one of her best on-screen performance as the March family’s sickly sibling, Beth. Although the literary Beth was the third of four sisters, she is portrayed as the youngest, due to O’Brien’s casting. And I feel that Le Roy and MGM made a wise choice, for O’Brien not only gave one of her best performances, I believe that she gave the best performance in the movie, overall.

Janet Leigh, who was a decade younger than Allyson, portrayed the oldest March sister, Meg. Yet, her performance made it easy for me to regard her character as older and more emotionally mature than Allyson’s Jo. I thought she gave a well done, yet delicate performance as the one sister who seemed to bear the strongest resemblance to the sisters’ mother. Elizabeth Taylor was very entertaining as the extroverted, yet shallow Amy. Actually, I have to commend Taylor for maintaining a balancing act between Amy’s shallow personality and ability to be kind. The movie also featured solid performances from supporting cast members like Mary Astor (who portrayed the warm, yet steely Mrs. March), the very charming Rossano Brazzi, Richard Stapley, Lucile Watson, Leon Ames, Harry Davenport, and the always dependable C. Aubrey Smith, who died not long after the film’s production.

Overall, “LITTLE WOMEN” is a charming, yet colorful adaptation of Louisa May Alcott’s novel. I thought Mervyn LeRoy did an excellent job in infusing energy into a movie that could have easily sink to sheer boredom for me. And he was enabled by a first-rate cast led by June Allyson and Peter Lawford. Overall, “LITTLE WOMEN” managed to rise above my usual apathy toward Alcott’s novel.