CAPSULE: PORTRAIT OF JENNIE (1948)

Where I come from
Nobody knows
And where I am going
Everyone goes.
– Young Jennie (Jennifer Jones)

DIRECTED BY: William Dieterle

FEATURING: , , Ethel Barrymore,

PLOT: A struggling painter has an artistic breakthrough when he meets a precocious girl whose very presence seems supernatural.

Still from Portrait of Jennie (1948)

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: Jennie has unusually fantastic subject matter for its time, and uses novel visual techniques to set a mood. However, the supernatural twist is an end to itself, the tone is reverential to the point of pretentiousness, and ultimately its gimmicks are not enough to shake off the slow pace and lack of real heat.

COMMENTS: Many a romance has been driven by the efforts of a pair of lovers to overcome some major obstacle to their destined love. There’s a subset of said films where the obstacle is time itself, a group large enough to be recognized as its own subgenre. Portrait of Jennie is an early iteration of these tales, a story of an artist whose muse (and love interest) comes to him from across the boundaries of time.

Audiences today are well-versed in this kind of fantasy premise. Clearly, this was not the case in 1948, as the film carefully walks its protagonist through a full investigation into the mystery of Jennie, a young girl who magically appears one evening in Central Park to inspire the artist and returns several times, significantly older on each occasion. The script— five separate screenwriters were tasked with wrestling the story into cinematic form—takes great pains to explain how the charming young lady we meet could actually have come from decades in the past. (The movie is less concerned with why Jennie is making these occasional skips forward; it’s just simply where she’s supposed to be).

Portrait of Jennie’s flirtation with weirdness takes two forms. The first is in style, with director William Dieterle and cinematographer Joseph August employing a number of tricks to create an unsettled, fantastic atmosphere. Establishing shots are often treated with a filter to create the impression of a painted canvas, alluding to both the hero’s profession and to the way in which art traps a moment in time. Jennie herself is frequently filmed emerging from or disappearing into bright light, accentuating her role as an angel from beyond. Most noteworthy are the filmmakers’ experiments with color. While mostly monochromatic, Jennie plays with tinting deep into the third act, bathing the screen in the angry green of a cataclysmic storm and a warm amber sepia for its aftermath. And of course, the final shot revealing the painter’s masterwork is presented in vibrant three-strip Technicolor.

But to what end? Seeing the portrait in full color puts an exclamation point at the end of the tale, and is a strikingly beautiful image, but it feels more like it is supposed to be laden with meaning, rather than actually being menaingful. It’s in keeping with the film’s other weird element: the strangely foreboding tone of the entire production, which can almost certainly be laid at the feet of producer David O. Selznick. The Gone with the Wind producer presumably could have coasted on the reputation of that film for the rest of his career. Instead, he pursued the twin goals of outdoing one of the biggest movies in history while simultaneously striving to make a screen legend out of his infatuation, actress Jennifer Jones, cast here as the pure and captivating object of painter Joseph Cotten’s affection.

Selznick clearly felt he was working with an epic story; the film opens with a literal God’s-eye view of New York, as an imposing narrator offers quotations from both Euripides and John Keats to set the mood. Selznick insisted on location shooting throughout, driving up production costs. The actors tend toward recitations that treat the dialogue as sacred text, particularly Jones, who—while not an especially convincing 12-year old—navigates the difficult feat of switching from precocious youngster to representative of humankind-confronting-the-awesome-power-of-the-Supreme and back. The leads talk at length about how theirs is a romance for the ages.

It all adds up to a movie that deems itself “important,” which it ultimately is not, and the movie knows it. Consider the barely connected plotline of Cotten’s commission to paint a mural in an Irish pub. Evidently, these scenes were shoehorned in to capitalize on the public’s affection for actors David Wayne and Alfred Moore, who had similar interplay in the Broadway hit Finian’s Rainbow. Similar are lengthy scenes with Ethel Barrymore as a wise gallery owner and Lillian Gish providing exposition as a nun with a strong connection to the mysterious girl. They are charming and provide valuable exposition, but help mainly to explain the story’s weight, rather than giving us a chance to feel it. With a running time of less than 90 minutes, the film still manages to feel padded.

Portrait of Jennie is definitely a curiosity when compared with the traditional Hollywood product of the day. However, it’s ambition far exceeds the story’s ability to carry it.

TRIVIA:

As of 2014, the actual “Portrait of Jennie,” painted by Robert Brackman, was on display at the Norton Simon Museum in Pasadena. That museum’s chairman of the board was Simon’s wife: Jennifer Jones.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“It may not be realistic, as he investigates the mystery of what happened to Jennie at that lighthouse years before and tries to prevent it from happening again, and then at the drop of a dime try to woo what is essentially thin air, but what it is is weird, and in an era like the ‘40s when clichéd melodramas and dull romances were being churned out to theaters by the dozens, weird is good.”–Nick Simon, “Simon’s Film Related Rants and Musings” (DVD)

 

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