Friday, January 20, 2012
"Who knoweth if to die be but to live, and that called life by mortals be but death?" ~ Euripides
Portraits have played key plot elements in several classic movies during the 1940’s, sometimes even being the central theme around which the film is based. From Kitty (1945) and Laura (1944) to The Picture of Dorian Gray (also 1945), the mystery and enchantment of someone’s painted image intrigued moviegoers throughout the decade. One of the most fascinating examples in this circle took over four years to get on the screen. Portrait of Jennie (1948) is a romantic fantasy with shades of mystery and more than its share of haunting beauty.
The film was based on a 1940 novel by Robert Nathan, who had also authored The Bishop’s Wife, which was adapted for the screen in 1947. MGM had taken an option on the story but dropped it, when producer David O. Selznick picked it up in late 1944. When casting discussions began, Vivien Leigh was considered for the part of Jennie. She was still under contract to Selznick at the time and there was even talk of she and husband Laurence Olivier starring together but the idea was dropped. There was also discussion among Selznick’s production team to film it with Shirley Temple, who was also under personal contract, over a period of years to take advantage of Temple’s transition from youth to young adulthood. As tempting as the marketing angle was to the publicity genius, Selznick felt it would be a perfect project for his then lover Jennifer Jones. Joseph Cotten was then cast in the male lead, making it the fourth film teaming for the duo in as many years (Cotten and Jones had previously co-starred in Since You Went Away (1944), Love Letters (1945) and Duel in the Sun (1946)).
Eben Adams is a downtrodden artist, a wandering soul in search of what he’s not entirely sure. His name fairly drips of early-mid century American artist. He half heartedly wanders into the low key but high quality gallery of Matthews and Spinney, the latter name belonging to a straight talking, self proclaimed old maid who takes a shine to Adams. Receiving a verbal as well as a financial renewal at Matthews and Spinney, the artist heads back out into the cold that is Manhattan in winter. While wandering in the park, he encounters a strange but lovely girl named Jennie. She talks of things and places from 20+ years earlier, as if they were happening that day. She leaves as suddenly as she appeared, leaving Adams to speculate on such an odd child. Taken with Jennie’s unique spirit, the artist creates a sketch of her which he presents to Matthews and Spinney. Mr. Matthews, who originally thought Eben’s work lacking, finds the sketch so striking and inspired, that he offers him a relatively substantial sum.
Adams once again meets Jennie, while out and about, but notices that she seems to have aged somewhat, changing from a child into a pre-adolescent. His subsequent encounters with her prove just as strange, each revealing a maturity in years. As she “ages” he falls in love with her and she with him. This romance, created beyond the confines of time and space, blossoms but where will it lead?
With production beginning in February 1947 and ending in October 1948, Jennie was fraught with problems, least of which was Selznick’s perfectionism. William Dieterle was chosen to direct. His creative sense of the visual had been used to great effect in the fantasy The Devil and Daniel Webster (1941), which had photographic elements that could transfer into this project. Ethel Barrymore was perfectly cast as Miss Spinney, as was Cecil Kellaway as Mr. Matthews and Lillian Gish as a kind nun who knew Jennie as a child.
Portrait of Jennie was released on Christmas Day 1948 and although not very well received, has over the course of time become a classic. Joseph Cotten won the International Prize for Best Actor at the 1949 Venice International Film Festival for his portrayal of Eben Adams and Selznick and Jones married the following year. Though problems and chaos plagued production of the movie, the end result is a fascinating fantasy ghost romance.