David O. Selznick’s marvelous romantic fantasy ode to Jennifer Jones was almost wholly unappreciated back in 1948. It’s one of those peculiar pictures that either melts one’s heart or doesn’t. Backed by a music score adapted from Debussy, just one breathy “Oh Eben . . . “ will turn average romantics into mush.
Portrait of Jennie
KL Studio Classics
1948 / B&W w/ Color Insert / 1:37 flat Academy / 86 min. / Street Date October 24, 2017 / available through Kino Lorber / 29.95
Starring: Jennifer Jones, Joseph Cotten, Ethel Barrymore, Lillian Gish, Cecil Kellaway, David Wayne, Albert Sharpe.
Cinematography: Joseph H. August
Production Designers: J. MacMillan Johnson, Joseph B. Platt
Original Music: Dimitri Tiomkin, also adapting themes from Claude Debussy; Bernard Herrmann
Written by Leonardo Bercovici, Peter Berneis, Paul Osborn, from the novella by Robert Nathan
Produced by David O. Selznick
Directed by William Dieterle
Once upon a time David O. Selznick’s Portrait of Jennie was an obscurity — I was blown away by just a few minutes of it back in 1971 when it came to network TV in a special series of ‘rescued’ Selznick pictures. A well researched Cinefantastique article by Dennis S. Johnson (Summer 1971) whetted my appetite to see the whole thing, and I suddenly became interested in the lifetime pursuit of MOMNEHO (Mysterious Old Movies Nobody’s Ever Heard Of). And what was that amazing music in the show? I didn’t know Debussy from Aunt Lucy, but the film’s wistful, ethereal soundtrack cast a romantic spell unlike anything I’d previously encountered.
Except for the Hitchcock titles, the films in the Selznick Collection haven’t received much restoration attention on disc. When word came that Kino Lorber had them, we wondered if they’d appear in good encodings. I was happy to report in August that their Duel in the Sun Blu-ray is a pleasing upgrade.
Jennie is a superior romantic old-school ghost fantasy reflecting the posh taste of producer Selznick, who seems infatuated with visual themes of innocent romance taken from silent cinema. Selznick’s Duel in the Sun sexed-up Jennifer Jones’ image in an attempt to overcome her association with the religious-themed Song of Bernadette. For this film Selznick’s paramour plays a film-blanc– inflected romantic lamia ‘unstuck in time.’ Predating Slaughterhouse-Five and Somewhere in Time, and perhaps inspired by The Enchanted Cottage, Selznick’s Portrait of Jennie remains a favorite romantic fantasy.
Viewers in April of 1949, sadly, proved resistant to the story’s delicate concept. Starving painter Eben Adams is freezing through a depression-era New York Winter. Soon after the elderly art dealer Miss Spinney (Ethel Barrymore) buys one of Eben’s uninspired drawings, real inspiration arrives. Eben meets Jennie Appleton (Jennifer Jones), a kid playing alone in a gloomy, spooky Central Park. Jennie dresses and talks like an adolescent from 1910, and offers to sing a ghostly tune. Eben sketches her from memory and makes a substantial sale; and when he bumps into Jennie only a few days later, she appears to be several years older. Appearing and disappearing mysteriously, Jennie returns repeatedly over the months, each time maturing by leaps, fulfilling a promise that the ten-year-old had made to Eben, that she would “hurry and grow up so they can be together always.” Suspecting that he’s crazy and that Jennie is a phantom, Eben confides only in Miss Spinney. When the adult Jennie disappears, Eben assembles clues from her stories and from Jennie’s teacher (Lillian Gish) that launch him in a race to halt a foretold death. He rushes to the rocks below a storm-tossed Cape Cod lighthouse to keep a rendezvous with his ghostly lover.
Portrait of Jennie isn’t perfect, but it is a powerful romantic fantasy and an ideal vessel for the Jennifer Jones / Joseph Cotten combo. William Dieterle’s approach is unlike the Hollywood fantasies current at the time, which tended to be semi-comic films blanc like Here Comes Mr. Jordan or Heaven Can Wait. Always teetering on the edge of indulgent preciousness, Jennie generates emotional moments that touch on the ‘timeless, ageless’ beauty sought by David O. Selznick. Stories just don’t get more ‘amour fou’ than this. Eben Adams’ love is romantic delirium. The show strikes an immediate chord with viewers that romanticize the precious things in life.
The producer was after something different. His creative team invests the B&W show with a terrific look; it might not work at all in color. Since the ephemeral Jennie is the subjective romantic imagination of charcoal & oils artist Eben Adams, the excessive pictorial emphasis given her seems entirely correct.
The premise of an impossible love is handled simply enough. The fusion of spectral visuals and the adapted Debussy music establish Jennie Appleton as a creature out of time. Jennifer Jones successfully convinces us she’s growing from pigtails to womanhood. Her coquettishness and immaturity are engaging, while her adult incarnation embodies romance like a goddess fallen to Earth. Matinee idol Joseph Cotten may already seem a bit old, yet this is one of his better films. Good character support is offered by Cecil Kellaway and David Wayne, along with the great Albert Sharpe of Darby O’Gill and the Little People. Lillian Gish has little to do but spout quasi-reverent lines, more than the story needs.
On the other hand, Ethel Barrymore has a solid character to play and handles it with great sensitivity and reserve. Often squandered in stiff-backed roles for MGM, Barrymore seems surrounded by an aura of impassioned dignity. It doesn’t take much imagination or story analysis to theorize that the phantom Jennie is very likely a romantic projection of Barrymore’s Miss Spinney character. Spinney (read: Spinster) is clearly in love with Eben from the start. As in Somewhere in Time, the fatalistic notion is indulged that an ideal life companion-lover waits somewhere out there for each of us, and that only the fortunate find their ideal mate in their own place and time. Spinney is too old for Adams, as Jennie is too young for him. Yet we’re continually assured that Time does not matter, only Love.
That’s what I keep telling Jane Greer and Debra Paget in my dreams, but do think their timeless, eternal spirits take notice? Fiddlesticks.
Realist painter Eben is a surrealist hero. He finds something totally irrational in his life, and instead of denying it accepts and worships it for what it is. Thus he lives in a New York of his own creation, a (literally) canvas-textured world. When the mood calls for mystery, Central Park resembles a Mario Bava forest from Black Sunday. On another occasion a seedy artist’s garret becomes a sacred, glowing place. Reality and fantasy are no more distinguishable than Jennie’s various impossible ‘editions.’ In one inspired bit of visual manipulation, Jennie ‘grows’ without a cut, simply by skating forward from a backlit vanishing point. Looming in perspective, a little-girl silhouette becomes a young woman, in the flesh. Jennie soars whenever the visuals and music are in control. The deliberate blurring of fantasy and reality makes it a bona fide surrealist picture, even if the overly literal dialogue sometimes breaks the spell.
Eben finally finds himself in an impossibly violent storm on a rocky spit of land, making love to a woman who doesn’t exist while a tidal wave (of reality?) crashes down to vanquish his fantasy forever. This is the closest that ’40s Hollywood came to the delirious surrealism of Henry Hathaway’s Peter Ibbetson, a flavor of fantasy not in keeping with the national mood. New York males in 1949’s movies weren’t falling in love with the ghosts of old women, they were pushing them down staircases.
Director Dieterle applies special attention to the expression of Eben Adams’ moods, whether he’s enthused or wallowing in a creative funk. Dieterle and Selznick successfully convey creative frustration and inspiration, which is a frequent stumbling block in movies about writers and artists. Even David Lean in Doctor Zhivago has to fall back on symbolism, with blasts of balalaika music and giant flowers & snowflakes to take the place of written poetry. All of Eben’s scenes with Miss Spinney are marvelous. We’re highly receptive to her advice to the lovelorn artist, as well as the romantic musings of her business partner in the art gallery, Mr. Matthews.
It’s a tough thing to criticize Portrait of Jennie but the flaws are there. Most are easily pinned on producer Selznick, who continually revised it with additional bits of business, and enough prologue opening titles and narration to launch three movies. As if fearing that viewers wouldn’t follow the story, every plot point is made literal and obvious. The only tangible evidence of Jennie’s existence is a scarf, which is treated as far too special an object by all that come in contact with it. Likewise, everyone who describes Jennie immediately refers to her ghostlike quality, as if they were reading heavenly publicity handouts.
The film’s ‘Irish’ business with David Wayne and Albert Sharpe is lively and welcome, even if it seems a tangent apart from Eben Adams’ main conflict. Other sidebar scenes are less appealing. The retired costumer provides Eben with Jennie’s background far too conveniently, and her performance is amateurish at best. The entire detour to the Catholic school is sentimental in the extreme. Guest star Lillian Gish shows up as a spiritually elevated presence, as if to assure the Breen Office that whatever cosmological monkey business is going on with Jennie Applegate, it has the Church’s approval. It’s difficult not to roll our eyes when Lillian Gish suggests that Jennie is rushing to a strange rendezvous on Cape Cod. She all but hands Cotten a celestial roadmap with a red “X” for the Land’s End light. We almost expect her to reach into her wimple and produce a revolver for Eben. You know, in case he has trouble securing a boat.
The big-scale storm scene is impressive, but also slanted way toward the absurd end of the scale. The lovers meet on a spit of rock bombarded by enormous waves. As tons of water smashes them against the rocks, they exchange tidy verbal nuggets of pat romantic wisdom. These appear to be last-minute looped additions. Despite all the spooky trappings, it all seems too literal to be a dream.
After saying all that, I must emphasize that on the romantic level IT ALL WORKS — the music, the visuals and our beautiful lovers come together in a climax worthy of an expressionist silent film. The movie has its excesses, but it is all of a piece. The soundtrack alone is so pleasant that the story’s petty absurdities just don’t matter.
Portrait of Jennie had a hellacious production and distribution history, most of which can be blamed directly on the over-controlling, egotistical Selznick. He had optioned the Robert Nathan story at least as early as 1944. After a filming start in February of 1947, Selznick was unhappy with much of the material he was getting, and frustrated by bad weather. A second unit was sent to Massachusetts to film a storm, but came back with no useful shots. At this time Selznick reports that he was also trying to mastermind the distribution roll-out for Duel in the Sun. He had to set aside The Paradine Case for lack of time. As Strother Martin might say, ‘What we have here is Failure to Delegate.’
Selznick shut the film down for re-thinks and re-writes; here’s where all the extra writers came in, plus Selznick’s own rewriting. The majority of the live action was filmed in the Fall. Selznick hired Bernard Herrmann to score the film but their collaboration didn’t last very long: by this time Selznick expected his artistic hires to place his visions and ideas before their own. Herrmann receives a strange non-credit credit for the haunting ghost song that Jennie sings in their first encounter, the chiller that begins with, “Where I come from no one knows.”
Replacement composer Dimitri Tiomkin fell in with Selznick’s notion to adapt Debussy’s ‘sea nocturnes.’ The resulting score is indeed magical, but one would think that one of Hollywood’s many superb orchestrators could have done the job as well. Tiomkin likely handed the details to his own orchestrating and arranging team. He did compose his own, additional ‘Jennie’ theme, which works very well in context.
Unhappy with his finished film, Selznick nevertheless allowed it to premiere at a charity gala. When it was poorly received he cancelled a planned release rollout. His memos throw acid in all directions, blaming his inefficient production company, the lack of a General Manager to take the load off his shoulders, etc.
The wounded producer ordered an extensive overhaul for his sickly movie, spending over $200,000 on new special effects. The revised movie begins without a title or credits, but by the time Joseph Cotten’s welcome V.O. presence arrives, we think somebody changed the channel to a different station. When in doubt, Selznick’s fallback position was to add another classical quotation or ponderous voiceover. By such things do audiences reject movies outright.
Ben Hecht must have laughed all the way to the bank, to cash the check for his ponderous opening narration:
“Since the beginning, Man has looked into the awesome reaches of infinity and asked the eternal questions: What is time? What is space? What is Life? What is Death? . . . “
The climax was rewritten to accommodate a monstrous tidal wave. Added to the gimmicky final reel were the green tinted storm, the sepia-toned aftermath and a finale that displayed the eponymous portrait in full Technicolor. Trick Technicolor inserts of this kind had recently been the domain of producer-director Albert Lewin, a man who shared Selznick’s elevated tastes.
Actually, David O.’s Technicolor portrait is an inspirational payoff that’s always a hit in screenings. As the final image, it can be argued that it works better than Lewin’s Technicolor insert of The Picture of Dorian Gray. After jumping to color, Lewin’s stylistic backtrack to B&W always seems an anticlimax.
Selznick raved about the miracle of Magnascope, a grossly expensive presentation gimmick that was likely seen in only two premiere venues in April of 1949, the Carthay Circle in Los Angeles and the Rivoli in New York. Magnascope utilized a larger screen and was revealed only when the green-tinted storm began. Selznick paid to have the oversized screens installed, along with motorized black mattes that opened up on cue. It wasn’t CinemaScope or a new process. Across a reel change, a projector with a wider throw magnified the picture, so when the green lightning bolt hit, viewers were suddenly confronted with a much larger picture.
Some accounts make it sound as if a zoom projection lens was used. Selznick wrote in 1955 that his studio demo screen was “20 feet by 90 feet”, so it’s likely that when the picture expanded, it mostly grew wider, cropping the top and bottom (and likely becoming softer and dimmer, as well). Or perhaps Selznick’s numbers were bogus, as 20 x 90 works out to an absurd 4.5:1 aspect ratio. Did William Castle experience Magnavision? Most of the special exhibition ballyhoo gimmicks that he’d later invent for his horror films are much more practical.
Audiences may have been more impressed by the film’s expanded soundscape — other records state that the movie had an experimental three channel stereophonic soundtrack. Bosley Crowther’s New York Times review dismissed the audio boost, and advised that patrons “take a mental recess and have some cotton ready to stuff in your ears.”
Crowther’s review said plenty that Selznick didn’t want to hear: ’embarrassing,’ ‘far-fetched,’ ‘maudlin and banal,’ ‘ponderous and meaningless,’ ‘soggy and saccharine,’ ‘deficient and disappointing in the extreme.’ Did Crowther wander into the wrong screening? Did Selznick’s car run over Crowther’s dog?
The failure of Jennie was a daunting financial setback for Selznick. In 1950 he reissued it as Tidal Wave, to no great acclaim. The producer would eventually bounce back once more for another major production, but for several years he had to content himself with investing in pictures. He also plagued fine filmmakers that had the misfortune of engaging Ms. Jones’ services by way of a partnership: Michael Powell in Gone to Earth, Vittorio De Sica in Indiscretion of an American Wife. He micromanaged their movies worse than he did his own.
Portrait of Jennie’s faults no longer seem all that terrible — Bosley Crowther’s review is shameful. It must have been the wrong movie in the wrong year, for it has been charming viewers — mostly TV viewers — for decades. David O. Selznick was his own worst enemy, yet he is surely responsible for what’s good in the movie as well. The radiantly beautiful Jones and the melancholy Cotten make a sublimely attractive couple, and the intense romanticism survives all the meandering detours of the plot. The visuals of William Dieterle and Joseph August carve a romantic paradise out of a wintry New York. The capricious Jennie is always disappearing when Eben least expects it.
As Eben paints Jennie’s portrait, subtle optical tricks further idealize the actress. The most ethereal shots superimpose canvas textures and magical wisps of light over Jones. She seems to be dissolving before our eyes. Who knows — could this have been Alfred Hitchcock’s inspiration for the unexplained shafts of colored light that ghost over Kim Novak in Vertigo? . . . ‘That obscure object of desire?’
The KL Studio Classics Blu-ray of Portrait of Jennie is highly anticipated by its fans, as few have seen really good copies of the movie. The Selznick Releasing Organization showed little faith in it after the 1971 network re-premiere; I do know a friend that saw it that year at a Selznick revival at the County Museum of Art, who reports that he was blown away by the experience.
To my disappointment it appears that nothing has been done to restore a film greatly in need of repair. The Anchor Bay DVD from 2000 has a rather smooth appearance, perhaps because the lower resolution of NTSC hides a lot of flaws. All the problems are enlarged in Blu-ray: the image is inconsistent throughout. The transfer element could very well be a print assembled from different sources.
Much of the movie looks reasonably good, if not real HD quality, and some sections are a bit better than the DVD. But the various sources used are pretty badly scratched and dinged-up, and many shots have fluctuations in density that comes off as a slight flicker. The problem is all the opticals and dissolved scenes, which are already optical dupes of reduced quality. We know that the movie was long ago assembled, taken apart and reassembled more than once; it’s possible that Selznick tried to save money by duping entire optical sequences rather than starting from scratch.
The green storm scene is mostly okay, which makes sense if much of it was new photography added after the 1948 charity premiere. But when we come back to the sepia-toned epilogue the quality takes a precipitous nosedive. The battered, poorly duped remnant exhibits ugly mottled contrast and dirt. The final Technicolor portrait also looks weak, soft and far too contrast-y. That Selznick’s pictures are treated this way is a mystery.
This is what Kino was given to work with, so there’s no point in getting on their case. If you don’t have the earlier DVD the new Blu-ray will still be the best way to see the picture: what’s there is given a good encoding. And Kino has done a fine job with the audio, which is much stronger than I remember. Don’t be thrown when ‘Jennie’s Song’ doesn’t match her lips. It never did, which is probably why that scene is printed rather dark. The menu offers a separate audio option, with the storm sequence in surround sound. They don’t say if it’s from an original stereo mix, or is something cooked up for the disc.
The menu also calls out a new audio commentary by the experienced Troy Howarth, whose work increases the desirability of many horror pictures. I found this one disappointing, chatty and under-researched. He vamps his way through part of the second half, repeating many times that Selznick was obsessed by Ms. Jones, and strove for perfection to make his movies monuments to his love for her. We get actor filmographies but no quotes from Selznick’s abundant memos. At the finale the track expends a good five minutes describing Magnascope in vague terms. And did you know that Selznick was obsessed with Jennifer Jones?
Howarth does introduce a good point: the film can seem uncomfortable if we interpret Eben Adams’ fantasy as an unnatural relationship with an underage girl. But I don’t think the movie would appeal to pedophiles. Adams’ prime need is a muse, not a sexual object. When Jennie ‘comes of age’ the couple’s preferred activity is to wander New York at night, wondering about the stars and the mystery of love. Even with its howling storm and poetic vision of Death, the movie doesn’t really have a dark side. It’s not like Vertigo, where glamorous allure is a lie, and an attempt to recreate a lost obsession leads directly to the grave.
At the end I was hoping that Howarth would resolve another issue about Jennie, but he repeats without comment the oft-told identification of the three teenaged school girls that admire the finished title portrait. From right to left, they are said to be Anne Francis (who would have been 16 or 17 in 1947), Nancy Olson (who would have been 18 or 19) and Nancy Reagan nee Davis, who at the time of filming would be at the youngest 25 or 26 years of age.
Can this be so? Anne Francis is a dead ringer for herself, nobody doubts that. ‘Nancy Olson’ also bears a passing resemblance to the admired star of 1950’s Sunset Blvd. But interviewer Dick Dinman reports that Olson says this girl is not her, that her first film appearance is Canadian Pacific, a western released in 1949. I’m iffy on Olson.
But the girl on the left looks nothing like any Nancy Davis photo I’ve ever seen, and she was very distinctive in appearance. The earliest movie I’ve seen Davis in is 1949’s East Side, West Side, where she has a very mature face. But I guess anything is possible. Is the schoolgirl on the left indeed Nancy Davis pretending to be ten years younger? Next, you’ll be telling me that she’ll one day become the First Lady of the White House.
Reviewed by Glenn Erickson
I also recommend the discussion of Portrait of Jennie at John Grant’s Wonders in the Dark page.
Portrait of Jennie
Supplements: Audio commentary by Troy Howarth, Reversible Blu-ray Art, Selznick trailer gallery
Deaf and Hearing Impaired Friendly? YES; Subtitles: English (feature only)
Packaging: Keep case
Reviewed: October 7, 2017
Text © Copyright 2017 Glenn Erickson