I’m struggling with how to write about director William Dieterle’s 1948 film, Portrait of Jennie, because it’s the kind of movie it’s better not to know too much about beforehand. But how can you convince someone who’s never watched a certain movie to do so, without talking about it and possibly giving too much away? It’s tricky!
In brief, Portrait of Jennie is the story of Eben Adams (Joseph Cotten), a poverty-stricken artist who is struggling to give his paintings meaning and soul. He meets Jennie (Jennifer Jones), a strange but lovely young girl who inspires his creativity and becomes his muse. Each time he encounters Jennie she is much older than she was the last time he saw her, even though not much time has passed. She refers to places and people long gone, seeming to have lived through events that happened many years before.
As Jennie grows into womanhood, she and Eben fall in love. But who is Jennie? Where does she come from and how can this really be happening? Is there something otherworldly and out-of-time taking place, or is Eben losing his mind? It’s a haunting, eerily romantic story of obsession, artistic inspiration, and a love that defies the boundaries of time and death.
And already I fear I’ve said too much!
The actors in Portrait of Jennie are all simply wonderful, starting with Jennifer Jones. Though she was in her late 20s when she played Jennie Appleton, Jones is very convincing as she ages from little girl to teenager to young woman. Joseph Cotten gives a passionate but grounded performance as Eben Adams, providing the character with a certain realism in the midst of an ethereal story. Cotten’s Eben is a very attractive, fascinating man and artist – one you can understand Jennie loving and searching for in spite of the seemingly insurmountable obstacles keeping them apart.
The supporting actors are great too, especially Ethel Barrymore as Miss Spinney, Eben’s art dealer. She’s a source of wisdom, humor, understanding and kindness at times when he needs those things most. David Wayne plays Eben’s best friend, another loveable character who looks out for and helps his pal. He’s also very funny, providing a touch of comic relief in a film that’s otherwise rather melancholy.
The movie is a feast for the eyes and ears. The cinematography is gorgeous and atmospheric. Often views are seen through a filter that makes the scene resemble an oil painting on canvas, like something Eben might have painted. Also interesting is the use of color in the film. Most of the movie is in black and white, but at key moments toward the end, washes of color and even vivid Technicolor are used to stunning effect.
Producer David O. Selznick had the film shot on location in New York City, and when Eben and Jennie walk through a snowy Central Park, their breath coming out in puffs of steam, you can almost feel the cold yourself. Those moments of realism make the dreamier, more mystical moments – as when Jennie leaves Eben and disappears in the gloaming – that much more striking.
Composer Dimitri Tiomkin incorporated music by French impressionist composer Claude Debussy into his memorable score. Bernard Herrmann (who among his many credits wrote the score to another superb supernatural romance, The Ghost and Mrs. Muir) was initially slated to write the movie’s music, but he had to back out due to production delays. Herrmann did write the strange little song Jennie sings to Eben at their first meeting, however. Hearing it gives me me chills — it’s spooky and beautiful, setting the tone for the rest of the movie very well.
It’s difficult to do Portrait of Jennie justice with mere words. It does what great movies are so good at – taking the viewer out of his or her own time, place and prosaic reality and into another world.
Much like with Peter Ibbetson, which I wrote about last month, it helps to check your cynicism a the door and give yourself over to the sheer romanticism and beauty of the movie. When you do that, it’s easy to be swept away by the mystery and mysticism of Portrait of Jennie.