September Affair

September Affair (1950)


Last week I watched a movie that’s been on my to-watch list for a while now, September Affair starring Joan Fontaine and Joseph Cotten, directed by William Dieterle.  Fontaine plays a concert pianist on her way to New York from Florence, Italy to give her first big performance.  Cotten is a successful engineer who’s in an unhappy marriage and came to Florence alone to try and figure out where his life is going.  When the plane they’re on has to land in Naples for a repair, they spend a few hours exploring the city together.  Then when they miss the plane, they decide to be “unconventional” and stay on together for a few more days as tourists and friends, exploring Naples, Pompeii, and Capri.

During those days they fall in love.  When they read in the paper that the plane they missed crashed and they’re presumed dead, they decide to escape their pasts and make a new life together in Italy.  Of course that new life is based on deceit and selfishness, so how can their love last?  Image

It’s hard to ever feel good about the couple’s newfound happiness since it’s founded in the unhappiness of others, most particularly that of Cotten’s wife and teenaged son. The movie doesn’t shy away from the questionable nature of their choices or give the characters a free pass when it comes to their behavior, even though they’re both likeable people and you can’t help wishing they could be together.  The one person who knows the pair is still alive is Fontaine’s piano teacher in Florence, portrayed by Françoise Rosay.  Rosay says and feels all the things I felt as a viewer watching the film.  She’s sympathetic with the lovers to a point, but also deeply uncomfortable about the decision they’ve made and its effects on other people.

Joseph Cotten is one of my favorite actors and he’s really good in this.  We can sense how disconnected his character has become from his family and his work, allowing us to understand why he’d snatch at the first thing that’s made him feel alive in years, regardless of the consequences.

Joan Fontaine has grown on me a lot in the past few years too as I’ve seen more and more of her movies, like Letter to an Unknown Woman and The Constant Nymph.  She’s lovely in September Affair, showing us a woman of intelligence and talent who struggles between what her heart wants and what she knows is right.

Jessica Tandy has a supporting role as Cotten’s wife, a woman who comes across as a decent and understanding sort of person, making her husband abandoning his family even more disconcerting.

The movie’s music is wonderful.  Rachmaninoff’s 2nd piano concerto is featured, as is the 1930s version of “September Song” sung by Walter Huston.  You can hear it in this YouTube video, and it’s very touching.

ImageIt’s a nice film to look at.  There’s just something special about Italy in the ’50s.  Cotten and Fontaine wander through a country that’s romantic and beautiful, but with a certain post-war grittiness still apparent.  Florence, Naples, Pompeii and Capri all look great, though it would’ve been nice to see them in color instead of black and white — especially when they visit the Blue Grotto.

The costumes by Edith Head are pretty, with shades of what was to come in Audrey Hepburn’s Roman Holiday wardrobe a few years later appearing in Joan Fontaine’s white blouses, full skirts with itty-bitty belted waists, and summery sandals.

It’s too bad the movie isn’t out on DVD, because it’s a good romantic tearjerker along the lines of Summertime, Now Voyager, and Brief Encounter.  However, it’s available for streaming on Amazon Prime and on Netflix and is well worth checking out if you have access to one of those.

Portrait of Jennie

portrait of jennie

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, portrait - cotten barrymoreespecially 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.