Film review: Jane Eyre (1934), directed by Christy Cabanne
The most recent addition to the collection of Jane Eyre adaptations, and by golly the most laughable one. Now, I don’t mind old films; I used to watch them when I came home from school back in Sweden, and quite enjoyed them. However, even back in them days they made good films and they made bad films. This isn’t a good film, and as an adaptation of Jane Eyre … it’s pretty awful.
Total runtime is 63 minutes, so at least it doesn’t go on for very long!
Gateshead: Gets over and done with in about three minutes (yes, I kept track). Jane hides, Jane’s found, Jane fights John Reed (who only seems to have one sister), Jane faints (hit on the head), Bessie reads to Jane in bed, Mrs Reed tells Jane she’s being sent to an orphanage.
Lowood: The first part, Jane as a child, is handled in about two minutes flat. Lowood is an orphanage to which Jane arrives, has her hair cut and meets Mr Brocklehurst. This part of that scene made me laugh:
“Do you know what happens to the wicked when they die?”
“Oh yes, sir. They go to (points downward) and burn.”
“Do you know how to avoid that?”
“Oh yes, sir. Keep away from lightning and take very good care of your health.”
Cut to some years later, where Jane (Virginia Bruce) is a teacher. One of the girls is unable to answer a question, which turns out is because she made a not-so-flattering drawing of Brocklehurst. He sees the drawing and wants to punish the girl, Jane disagrees and is summoned to his office. She gives him a piece of her mind (you go, girl!) and gets dismissed.
Happy she’s free of the orphanage (*cringe*) because she still has some of the inheritance (!) from her uncle (!), she can do as she now pleases. Only having to be a grown-up at Lowood for 2.5 minutes, she sets off to Thornfield. She’s sitting next to Samuel Poole (John Rogers), who has picked her up from … somewhere. Sam is a bit drunk, Jane is uncomfortable with his driving and decides to walk the rest of the way. Mind the snakes and the little people of the woods, he warns, and drives off. She walks along, hears a dog … and has the first encounter with Mr Rochester (Colin Clive). The horse seems to fall a lot worse than him, I have to say. There are pleasantries exchanged.
Thornfield: Back at the house, Jane meets Adèle (Edith Fellows). No sign of her being French. It’s never mentioned, she doesn’t have an accent, she never speaks French. She’s said to be six years old, but my golly, she must be the world’s biggest six-year-old, considering she looks about twelve! She also is very silly and accident-prone. She climbs up a tree and gets her foot caught (Rochester to the rescue!), she runs and falls over (Jane to the rescue!) and manages to land herself head first in a big porcelain pot/urn/vase/whatever that Jane breaks so that the poor girl won’t suffocate in there. Want to know the clincher? Rochester is not just Adèle’s guardian, he’s her uncle.
Ah-huh, you heard me. Uncle.
Sam, who turns out to be a Thornfield servant, thanks Jane for not telling Mrs Fairfax (Beryl Mercer) or Mr Rochester about him being a bit drunk earlier, and suggests she locks her bedroom door at night. There are of course screams and laughter heard later on, and Grace Poole (Ethel Griffies) looking as grumpy as she always does.
Rochester is trying to get his marriage to Bertha (Claire Du Brey) annulled (*cringe*) in London, and he comes back with guests, such as Blanche Ingram (Aileen Pringle), who points out that Rochester has a very beautiful governess. Beautiful! Yes, the actress is pretty (bit heavy on the eyeshadow, I’d say, but that’s the 1930s for you), but Jane isn’t supposed to be beautiful! Not only is she beautiful, she’s also an accomplished dancer – like you are after a number of years in an orphanage, of course – as we find out because Rochester decides to dance with her.
Rochester has brought back a puppy as a gift for Adèle, who would much rather prefer for him to marry someone who isn’t Blanche, but maybe someone like … well, you know. She thinks he should ask her, and so the story moves along swiftly. Jane gets to pick out new curtains for a room, and some jewellery. She’s uncomfortable picking out things for whom she of course thinks is Blanche, but then he of course declares his love for Jane, and oh, they shall get married, yay.
They sit in the parlour, Jane with those pearl earrings (Blanche would’ve preferred diamonds), and Grace Poole comes in looking a bit dishevelled, as she’s discovered the door was open and her ward gone! … And into the parlour walks a confused woman who looks at the priest (who’s there to go through wedding preparations) and says “oh, will we get married again?” and calling Rochester “my husband” and the likes, before she’s led away by Grace Poole. “Oh why didn’t you tell me?” laments Jane, Rochester explains that well, he was getting the marriage annulled, he was just waiting for his solicitor to come back with the paperwork so she would never have had to know.
Nevertheless, Jane leaves Thornfield.
Morton: They’ve skipped that part. Instead, we find Jane at the “Christ Mission” somewhere in Lancashire, ladling up soup for the poor. John – not St John – Rivers is about to head off to India and asks Jane to come along. As his wife, because “white women need the protection only a husband can provide”. Jane apparently accepts, because she writes in her presumed diary that they’re getting married “tomorrow” … only to encounter Sam Poole at the soup counter. He tells her about Thornfield being burned to the ground, Bertha’s dead and Rochester’s blind and now living in the caretaker’s cottage (not Ferndean) …
Jane goes there, has the “you pity me/no I don’t” exchange, followed by “go! … Has she gone?/I will never leave you” and … that’s how it ends.
There are no cousins, no £20k inheritance, the costumes are way too posh for Jane, who has lovely, blond corkscrews and generally is nowhere near plain. The long dresses, although they seem a bit out of place, are okay, but the shorter ones show off the girls’ undergarments and look utterly ridiculous. Fair enough, they probably did wear that sort of thing back in the day, but … like that? Rochester seems like a lovestruck puppy much of the time and is just generally too bloody nice to everyone. Most of the script seems to consist of drawled out “Theeenk yoh!”s and the accents … some seemed pretty British (Sam was good), but others were American-trying-to-be-British – including Jane. Rochester isn’t supposed to be pronounced “Raw-chest-ur”, dangit. The actors weren’t very convincing, Thornfield seemed almost claustrophobic in size while at the same time bright and cheerful. It’s way too cute, and it’s not Jane Eyre!
If it had been made today, it would’ve been utterly atrocious. Because it was made in the 1930s, I can understand if it’s not a very good film, but still, it’s still very, very bad. Did they miraculously become much better story-tellers in the ten years it took before the next adaptation came out, or was it just that this was a bad production and the one that came next was much better?
Jane Eyre of 1934 gets both thumbs down from me. It really isn’t good. Not as a film, and definitely not as an adaptation of a great story. Charlotte Brontë would probably turn in her grave if she saw it.
1 out of 5 confused wives. And that’s being generous. Very generous.