Friday, January 20, 2012

Portrait of Jennie (1948): Haunting Beauty



"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.

14 comments:

  1. A charming, underrated film. Despite the title, this is Cotten's film all the way. Jones was never lovlier than she was in this picture. I found a paperback of the book several years ago, and it had more of the supernatural elements in it. A rather eerie read. I prefer the cinematic version, one of my favorite 1940s films, and one that is more deserving of attention.

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  2. Never seen this, but it has an interesting story premise. Jennifer Jones always seemed to take edgy, out of the ordinary roles. I think it was her niche.

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  3. Not many films then were made on location, but this one seems to have many authentic New York backdrops. It even looks like they were able to film at least some of the convent scene at The Cloisters, part of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, on the Hudson River.

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    1. Yes, great NYC footage!

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  4. Sounds interesting. And I've always like Joseph Cotten. Thanks!

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  5. I HAVE THIS FILM ON DVD AND ENJOY WATCHING IT AT LEAST ONCE A YEAR.....THE MUSIC, PHOTOGRPHY, AND CASTING ARE ALL PERFECT...JENNIFER JONES WAS MADE FOR THIS ROLE. THE ENDING WITH THE COLOR SHOT OF HER PICTURE, PUT THE CHERRY ON THE SUNDAE....AND BY THE WAY, THAT WAS A VERY YOUNG AND UNCREDITED ANNE FRANCIS IN THE MUSEUM.

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  6. Rupert, I've seen PORTRAIT OF JENNIE many times, including recently on TCM. This last time around, I enjoyed its views on art...the idea that one single work--inspired by events real or imagined--can capture a timeless emotion to be appreciated by so many.

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  7. Thank you for posting this! My father actually named me "Jennifer" after this film. He always called me Jenny. :)

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  8. Sempre achei Jennifer de uma beleza incontestável e seus filmes excelentes.A pintura que nos presenteia no inicio de teu post está lindissima.Adorei passar por aqui e encontrar este interessante e ótimo blog. Grande abraço.

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  9. A captivating film in no small part due to Jennifer Jones otherworldly performance. One cannot help but fall for her just as Eben (Cotten) does. A haunting fantasy of great charm.

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  10. A classic film with a great cast, excellent cinematography and script. I would give it five stars without hesitation.

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  11. Lovely post on a truly haunting film. Definitely holds up to repeated viewings, too, actually gets better. Cotten is superb, as is Jones and everyone else. A truly fascinating work. I love the way Jennifer, with her particular almost-lisp, says his name "Eben Adams". And Ethel Barrymore is so appealing and amazing in this. Wonderful movie!

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  12. I have seen this wonderful film about 4 times- each time I get lost in the fantasy of a timeless romance and love. The performances are so perfect- from Barrymore to Lillian Gish. You want it to go on forever- and the ending with the portrait is mesmerizing. I wonder what happened to the portrait. Does anyone know?

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  13. I am watching it right now on TCM. It never fails to enchant and I love the NY scenes. I hope it is never remade!

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