Jane Eyre (1949): Under an Hour, Over the Top, But OK
hard to find a physical copy of the 1949 film version of Jane Eyre, starring Charlton Heston and
Mary Sinclair. However, it can be watched online via the Archive.org website; find it here. (Be warned: the picture is fuzzy, especially in full-screen mode, and the sound is
sometimes frustratingly muddy.)
hour-long adaptation was part of the "Studio One" TV series, sponsored by Westinghouse, which ran from
1947-1958. Within that hour, the producers had to squeeze not only a full production of Jane Eyre,
but also several Westinghouse commercials. Hence, drastic plot shortcuts were
Jane Eyre can be divided into segments in various ways. A rough breakdown might go
Jane endures childhood misery at
Jane spends eight years as a student and teacher at
Jane gets to know Thornfield and its
Jane returns to Gateshead and settles matters with the
Jane's feelings grow;
Rochester proposes; they plan to marry.
Fleeing Thornfield after the
wedding is stopped, Jane suffers and is rescued by the Rivers family.
Jane teaches school and is
pursued by St. John.
Jane returns to Mr. Rochester
and marries him.
condensed 1949 film skips 1 and 2, hurries through 3, skips 4, makes a mad dash through 5, skips most of 6 and
all of 7, and arrives suddenly at 8.
"What's left can hardly be Jane Eyre," one might think. Despite these severe cuts,
though, the movie actually entertains while providing a reasonably Brontë-esque
Action starts with the the grown-up Jane (age 20, not 18 as in the book) leaving Lowood
while being excoriated by the nasty Miss Scatcherd. Jane's retorts fill the viewer in on the rudiments of her
earlier years. "For what am I supposed to be grateful? For the years of humiliation? I pity the wretched
trusting children that pass through this gate into your merciless hands. ... Well, I was one of those
children. ... It's true, I have no family or friends. But God gave me spirit, which even Lowood School wasn't
able to quench."
Having bid that wretched place goodbye, Jane arrives at Thornfield a scant three minutes
into the film!
While she loves the manor instantly, viewers are warned that not all is right. Mrs. Fairfax
tells Jane, "Like all old houses, Thornfield sometimes has strange stirrings at night"; immediately,
foreboding music swells.
type of heavy-handed dramatic touch is typical of this production (and of other films of that era). What it
lacks in subtlety, though, it often makes up in professionalism. Shots are well composed, and the actors play
their roles admirably. Mrs. Fairfax and Adele are both fully believable. Mr. Mason and his solicitor, Briggs,
look and act as one imagines a successful trader and lawyer would. We spend little time with Blanche Ingram
and her mother, but they fit in well too (although Blanche is presented as less ostentatiously glamorous than
Charlton Heston is an impressive Rochester. While he doesn't resemble Brontë's
broad-shouldered blacksmith, he oozes with gravitas in a way matched only by Orson Welles among Rochester's
film portrayers. The viewer is well aware that he is acting, but he doesn't chew the scenery as voraciously
as Welles did. Unfortunately, this abridged version allows him few tender moments, making it hard to see why
Jane falls for such a stern and often tempestuous master. Meanwhile, Mary Sinclair — the first actress to
sign a long-term contract with a TV studio — does well enough in her curtailed role as Jane. We mainly get to see her
being happy at Thornfield, jealous of Rochester's attention toward Blanche, overjoyed to accept his proposal,
and devastated when the wedding is interrupted. She doesn't get to display much of Jane's calm resolve or her
gradually developing emotions.
Within the scenes covered by this shortened production, significant changes are made,
perhaps for the sake of simplicity and time. For example, Jane and Rochester are being wed at Thornfield
[rather than a church], while Bertha gapes at them from her window. The extended high-society gathering at
Thornfield is replaced by a simple visit from Blanche and Lady Ingram. After fleeing from Thornfield, Jane is
alone in a windswept setting, where she hears Rochester's voice (we don't know how much time has passed). And
so on. As the film ends, they are together again, but we don't learn of their subsequent marriage or
their credit, the writers included a lot of Bronte's dialog — some verbatim, some shortened but still
recognizable. It's so nice to hear Rochester say that Jane must have been "tenacious of life" to have
survived so long at Lowood, or to hear his voice catch when he tells her "Goodnight, my
isn't a model for Jane Eyre films in general, but it's a fine example of how to compress a long
story into a short time while still preserving more than a little of its essence. It's certainly worth a
viewing by any Brontë enthusiast. (Interestingly, Heston and Sinclair starred in a Studio One production of
Wuthering Heights the following year.)
The quaint Westinghouse ads provide great comic relief to this emotionally heavy tale. In the first, showing
an electric range, the pitchwoman enthuses, "Your children and your husband will boast about your cooking
when you own a Westinghouse." What a blast from the past!
Liberal use of Brontë's original language
Heston dominates the screen without acting
Other cast members make good
- Bare-bones plot flows surprisingly
Time constraints force most of the
plot to be excised
Jane's feelings for Rochester appear
mysteriously; he doesn't seem likeable
We don't find out what happens after they