Portrait of Jennie is one of those movies that demonstrates that David O. Selznick, in spite of his idiosyncratic and dictatorial producing style, sometimes could produce the goods.
Made in 1948 by Selznick’s Vanguard Films, it’s a romance and a fantasy, a story that may or may not be happening entirely inside the head of the main character, a story that may be impossible or it may be true. It might be a ghost story or it might not. It’s also a story of romantic and artistic obsession, but it’s obsession without the kinds of perverse connotations that such a story would inevitably have if filmed today.
William Dieterle directed with Jennifer Jones (soon to be Mrs Selznick) and Joseph Cotten starring. Selznick was notorious for his penchant for interfering in areas that should have been left to the director but in this case the end result is a movie that works perfectly. Like most Selznick films it had a troubled production history but despite these problems it’s a strange and beautiful film.
Eben Adams (Joseph Cotten) is an artist, and a very unsuccessful one. He’s your archetypal starving artist. He can’t give his paintings away. He’s not without talent but his pictures are lacking something. They’re technically excellent but they’re soulless. A couple of kindly art dealers, Mr Matthews (Cecil Kellaway) and Miss Spinney (Ethel Barrymore) buy one of his paintings but it’s more out of pity than anything else.
Then one day he meets a strange young girl, little more than a child, in the park. It is 1934 but somehow she looks like she belongs to a previous age. And she says odd things. She tells him her parents are high-wire performers at Hammerstein’s, but everybody knows that Hammerstein’s was knocked down years ago. And she tells him she wants to hurry up and grow up so they can be together always. He’s vaguely puzzled but fascinated.
He does a sketch of the girl and it’s the best thing he’s ever done. Matthews and Miss Spinney buy the sketch immediately. Suddenly he starts to believe he might actually be an artist. His next meeting with the girl is even more puzzling. Only a very short time has passed but somehow she seems older. She offers to pose for a portrait but she tells him he’ll have to wait until she’s older. And then he meets her again, and now she seems more like a young woman than a girl. She’s obviously the same girl, he can’t mistake those eyes, but she seems to be growing up abnormally quickly. She tells him she’s hurrying up so they can be together always.
By this time he’s thoroughly unnerved but more and more fascinated, and more and more anxious to paint her. He decides to find out who she really is. He discovers that there really was a Jennie Appleton whose parents were high-wire performers but her parents died years ago. She can’t possibly be this same Jennie Appleton but an old vaudeville performer shows him a very old photograph and there she is - the very same girl he met in the park just a short time before.
Matthews and Miss Spinney and his friend Gus humour him but it’s obvious they don’t believe Jennie exists. And he’s the only person who ever sees her. But he’s sure he’s not dreaming. He speaks to her. He can even touch her. She’s real. She was a young girl just weeks earlier, now she’s a beautiful young woman. He paints her. Eben and Jennie are convinced they were destined to be together always, to be married, to spend their lives together.
The painting makes his reputation immediately. What was missing in his pictures before is now there. He has found his muse. But his friends are more and more convinced there is no Jennie. He has simply found his artistic inspiration. Perhaps he’s crazy but if he can paint pictures like Portrait of Jennie they figure it’s a good kind of craziness.
But does Jennie exist? The whole story is of course impossible, but the movie cleverly leaves the question open. Is she a ghost? Has she somehow become dislocated in time? Is it possible that if two people are destined to find another then somehow they will do so even though they live in different times? Or is she just an illusion? Eben is a lonely and rather unhappy man, a man longing for love. Has he created this woman out of his own longings? And if she is somehow, impossibly, real, can such a love survive? Does the world, or God, or whatever it is that controls our destinies, allow such a thing to be? The most likely explanation would seem to be that she is a ghost but the movie leaves open other possibilities. She may be a product of Eben’s spiritual and/or artistic quest.
This is a movie that verges dangerously close to sentimentality but it avoids the worst pitfalls and is instead strangely moving. Its success is at least partly due to Joseph August’s breath-takingly beautiful cinematography. It was shot in black-and-white but with some judicious use of tinting, a common practice in the silent era but unusual in 1948. The tinting is effective and is more than just a gimmick. Bernard Herrmann was replaced by Dimitri Tiomkin during the production and the score (and very effective it is) borrows heavily from Debussy.
The two leads, Joseph Cotten as Eben and Jennifer Jones as Jennie, give fine performances which also contribute in large measure to the film’s success.
The British DVD from PT Video looks splendid.
A haunting movie about love, loneliness, spiritual emptiness, art, life and death. Highly recommended.