For an English-language film directed by a Frenchman and based on a Russian novel, Julien Duvivier's 1948 adaptation of Tolstoy's Anna Karenina is a pleasing filmed book as compared to the dull production of Jane Eyre from 1944. Both are recent additions to 20th Century Fox's Cinema Classics Collection.
Aside from wonderfully gothic cinematography by George Barnes, the reason to watch Jane Eyre, at least from a cinematic perspective, is Joan Fontaine, an always-lovely vision with an arresting, silent film'star face. She plays the title character, Charlotte Brontë's orphaned heroine, but gets second billing to Orson Welles at his most hammy and melodramatic. From a literary bent, fans of the novel should be pleased with this adaptation's fidelity to the book; it even features photographed pages shown intermittently, with certain passages highlighted and narrated by Fontaine ' not that unflappable adherence to source material has anything to do with the quality of the film.
This novelistic approach is the problem, in fact. The visual flourishes that work to the film's benefit cause friction against the stagy, talky direction of Robert Stevenson, who turns the story into a bunch of stolid mush. (He later became Disney's prime director-for-hire, helming family classics including Mary Poppins and Old Yeller.)
Anna Karenina is almost 15 minutes longer than Jane Eyre, but it feels leaner. A compelling condensation of Tolstoy's epic, Karenina features strong and restrained performances by Vivien Leigh as Anna and Kieron Moore as her young lover, and Duvivier's atmospheric direction captures the need to escape empty, extravagant comfort in order to experience liberating passion.
While these transfers are as lush as can be expected, both DVDs drop the ball on the featurettes. Jane Eyre lines up the defense for the mediocre movie, with two commentaries from cast members, film historians and a Welles biographer, but the Men Behind Jane Eyre supplement, following the career trajectories of Stevenson and Welles before and after the film, says little about the movie. It's a geyser of information, though, compared to the 35-minute biography of Tolstoy on the Anna Karenina disc. Inexplicably divided into two featurettes, the piece is an entertaining dissertation on the author and his place in history but also offers nothing about the film.