Love and Art as Fantasy: Portrait of Jennie
When listing the movies that were made before their time, Portrait of Jennie deserves a prominent place. Upon its release in December 1948, the movie did not receive great reviews nor did it do much business at the box office. Today it is considered a classic fantasy film and the proud possessor of a 91% fresh rating on Rotten Tomatoes. This reversal of fortune can be credited not only to a skilled cast doing solid work but the dreamlike nature of the film. More than most movies, a viewer can get lost in the film’s world until it is unclear what is reality and what fantasy.
In 1934, Eben Adams (Joseph Cotten) is a struggling young painter in New York. One day in Central Park he meets Jennie Appleton (Jennifer Jones), a lively young girl dressed in old-fashioned clothes. He sketches her, a drawing that wins him the attention of Miss Spinney (Ethel Barrymore), an art dealer who sees his potential. Emboldened by this break, Eben determines to paint a portrait of his young friend. If only he can find her.
Jennie disappears for long periods of time, then reappears having aged more that seems possible. Finding himself falling in love with his subject/muse, Eben learns she goes through events that occurred well far in the past. Investigating further, he learns she is from the past, a fact she does not seem aware of. While Eben fights to be with his love, he finds instead the inspiration to continue with his art career.
This movie was based on a novella but in many ways it can be said to be authored by its producer, David O. Selznick (of “Gone with the Wind” fame). He seized upon the story for Jones, whom he would soon marry. Displaying his usual perfectionism, Selznick went through five writers before the film was completed; he even scheduled months of reshoots that stretched the film from its 1947 completion date. He also insisted on location shooting in New York and Massachusetts at a time when movies were just starting to move off the studio lots.
Anyone familiar with Jones, Cotten, or Barrymore will not be surprised that they deliver solid performances, but in many ways the star of the film is its look. Joseph H. August earned his last credit as a cinematographer on the movie, dying shortly after it wrapped. Having worked in the silent era, August used tricks from that time, shooting through filters and using different tints on scenes. The result looks much like a work of art, more dreamlike and impressionistic than the majority of movies then being produced.
Much like a then-recent film, “The Picture of Dorian Grey,” the title portrait is shown in color. Unlike the garish, shocking artwork of that movie, here Jennie is shown in a soft color that still looks beautiful today. In the midst of the subjective appearance of the rest of the film, this shot (and the love for art and its creation that it represents) stands as the most realistic look in the film. When anyone complaints about the unrealistic nature of old studio movies, “Portrait of Jennie” can be cited as proof of the great creativity and imagination that went into movie-making of yesteryear.
– Louis Burklow (aka, Hollywood Country Boy), Staff Writer, Phoenix Genesis
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