Film: Jane Eyre (1943). Young Actresses: Peggy Ann Garner, 11, Margaret O'Brien, 6, and Elizabeth Taylor, 11.
I hated Jane Eyre when I read the book in high school. But it's impossible to hate this movie, which has three great performances from three great young actresses: Peggy as young Jane, Elizabeth as young Jane's only friend Helen (an uncredited performance that was one of her first times onscreen), and Margaret as Adele, the little French girl that grown-up Jane tutors.
Peggy is easily my favorite of all the actresses who have played young Jane (which have recently included Anna Paquin and Georgie Henley) because she gives Jane a perfect combination of rebelliousness and vulnerability. She has several scared scenes, but she also stands up to her abusive aunt and cousin [see the photo below] with the courage of someone twice her age. Peggy captures all of Jane's emotions so easily and so completely that her performance draws you in, even if you don't know why.
A few vintage young Janes: Jean Darling (1934), Peggy, Juliet Waley (1973), and Sian Pattenden (1983).
More at my Jane Eyre comparison album.
Peggy wasn't especially striking to look at -- she built much of her career around her plain appearance -- but she has such presence that whenever she's onscreen, it's almost impossible to look away from her (even when she's sharing the screen with Elizabeth Taylor!). And as many times as I've seen Peggy's childhood films, I'm still not sure what it is that makes her so extraordinary. But believe me, she is extraordinary. Her face had an incredibly pure, innocent look, especially in this film, where her character suffers so much, that I find both beautiful and tragic. Looking at that face, one of the few characters who sympathizes with young Jane says, "Such a strange, solitary little thing."
Margaret ranks as my second-favorite Adele (after Josephine Serre, who played her in the 1996 film). She does do a poor French accent, and being so petite, she almost gets lost in her big fancy period dresses. But so much of the film is dark and foreboding, and so many of its characters grim and gloomy, that Margaret steals every scene she's in as happy, cheerful Adele. As much as I love Peggy's performance, her young Jane suffers enough to rival Job, making Margaret's ever-smiling Adele is a very refreshing contrast. Some films of Jane Eyre take a different approach to Adele, making her a spoiled brat, and while this Adele is spoiled and showered with expensive gifts from her wealthy guardian Mr. Rochester (Orson Welles), she's never bratty, but a purely sweet, sympathetic little girl -- the perfect role for Margaret.
Cue the angst relief: Margaret as a picture-perfect Adele.
Most versions of Jane Eyre also have Jane work as Adele's tutor only, while another woman is the girl's governess and primary caregiver. But in this version, no one is employed to look after Adele except Jane, making the bond between the two deeper and much more touching. In particular, Adele's first scene, where she's so delighted to meet Jane, is incredibly sweet and charming. Probably my favorite moment of the film is when Jane says that she's never known anyone "so heavenly" as Adele. I dare anyone reading this review to watch that scene and not smile at it; but I'm warning you now: you can't do it.
Young Jane and Helen: Peggy & Elizabeth, Juliet Waley & Tina Heath (1973), Leanne Rowe & Anna Paquin (1996).
More at my Jane Eyre comparison album.
And finally, Liz Taylor (yes, the Liz Taylor) is just a little girl here, but she's totally recognizable, and her screen presence is almost as commanding as in her adult roles. As impossible as it seems now, Liz was so much the unknown back then that she wasn't even credited for her ten-minute role as Helen, an unrealistically sickly, selfless character (I was reminded of Little Women's Beth March). While Liz's acting here can in no way compare to Natalie Wood's in Miracle on 34th Street, both films give you that same thrill of seeing a legendary star as a little girl.
Post about a new film, Jane Eyre (2011) and my breakdown of The Best Young Jane.
Comparison photo album of Child Actresses in Jane Eyre.
Other reviews of Peggy's films: Junior Miss (1945).
Other reviews of Margaret's films: The Secret Garden (1949).