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PORTRAIT OF JENNIE

Review by Ed Nguyen

Stars: Joseph Cotton, Jennifer Jones, Ethel Barrymore, Lillian Gish
Director: William Dieterle
Audio: Dolby Digital English mono
Subtitles: None
Video: Black & White, full-screen 1.33:1
Studio: Anchor Bay
Features: Trailer
Length: 86 minutes
Release Date: November 28, 2000

"She was real to him, or she couldn't look so alive."

Film ****

David Selznick was one of the most legendary figures in Hollywood history.  As a producer, he had a great flair for crafting crowd-pleasing, dramatic films.  Among his many famous productions were King Kong, The Third Man, the western epic Duel in the Sun, and a slew of Hitchcock classics including Rebecca and Notorious.  But towering over them all was his unforgettable Civil War romance, Gone with the Wind, a film that was not only his greatest triumph but also an impossibly high standard to which he strived to match for the remainder of his career.

One of Selznick's most earnest efforts to repeat the success of Gone with the Wind was the deeply personal project Portrait of Jennie (1948).  It was essentially his tribute to the film's beautiful young star, Jennifer Jones.  But, its production was also a very troubled one, and the film took two years and $4 million to make, an enormous sum for a film in those days.  The poor financial return on the film's initial release signaled the start of the end for the Selznick Studios.  Nevertheless, over the intervening years, the production woes of Portrait of Jennie have been forgotten and the film has garnered well-deserved fame as one of the most hauntingly beautiful love stories made during Hollywood's golden studio years.

In casting the film's leads, Selznick drew from his stock of contract actors, many of whom were considered among the best in the business.  Joseph Cotton, who would later be so memorable in The Third Man, was cast as Eben Adams, a poor artist.  Jennifer Jones, who Selznick had catapulted to stardom earlier in The Song of Bernadette, was to play Jennie, the enigmatic young girl who drifts in and out of Eben's life and slowly changes his destiny.  The film required Jennifer Jones to portray the character of Jennie over a wide range of ages from childhood into young adulthood.  At the time, the actress was in her late twenties but was clearly capable of the age demands of the role, as she had already proven so convincingly in The Song of Bernadette.

As Portrait of Jennie opens, wintry skies have fallen upon New York City, where Eben Adams is a young artist struggling to sell his paintings.  One day, an elderly art shop owner, Miss Spinney (Ethel Barrymore), takes pity upon him and purchases one of his flower paintings.  She feels that Eben has potential for greatness but she senses no love yet in his paintings.  Miss Spinney urges him to seek new subjects, though Eben is not so confident.

Walking home that evening, Eben wanders through Central Park.  He experiences a strange sense of muted passage, "as though time were melting with the snow" and the sights and sounds of long ago had somehow returned from the past.  For him, it is an eerie feeling, but his revelries are soon interrupted by the sound of a young girl.  Her name is Jennie Appleton, and she is building a snowman when he arrives.  Jennie is a friendly child, greeting Eben and quickly warming up to him as she prattles on about her family and her friends.  She even comments on the paintings he has in hand, though she doesn't like them very much.  Her comments mirror those of Miss Spinney's, that Eben should paint portraits of people and not places or objects.  As they stroll along, Jennie sings an old tune, "Where I come from, nobody knows, and where I am going, everything goes."  Before they part company, Jennie asks Eben to wait for her, that someday they might always be together.  And with those mysterious words, she turns and runs off, vanishing into the darkness, leaving Eben alone once more with only her scarf.

The encounter is presented surreally.  The expressive cinematography by Joseph August and the lush score, which draws from Debussy, paint an almost mystical aura about the evening walk.  We as the audience sense what Eben does, that something beautiful yet unnatural has transpired.  The encounter perplexes Eben, and though he does not see Jennie again for some time, he is inspired enough to begin drawing sketches of her.  Throughout the film, we will catch glimpses of the studies, the sketches, and this portrait that is the film's namesake.

When next Eben sees Jennie, he is again in Central Park.  It is mid-day, and a friendly crowd is skating on the frozen pond while Eben is out enjoying the fresh air.  In a magical moment, wonderfully photographed, Jennie re-appears again, silhouetted against the bright sun glare as she skates closer to Eben.  She is pleased to meet Eben once more and seems somewhat older now; speaking of new friends and new schools.  Yet, she mentions events and places which existed once but no more, something she had done in their last encounter as well.  Eben and Jennie skate briefly around the pond, and once again, she soon departs.  By now, Eben is determined to learn more about Jennie.

His investigations send him to an elderly lady who recalls the lovely Hammerstein Victoria, a theater that Jennie had mentioned.  She remembers a high-wire family named the Appletons who also had a daughter named Jennie.  But, those Appletons lived over twenty years ago, and both husband and wife had been tragically killed in a trapeze accident long ago.  As for the daughter, she had disappeared into the Northeast shortly thereafter, and the old woman never learned whatever had become of her.

By this point, Portrait of Jennie has presented an enigmatic puzzle.  Is Jennie the apparition of a long-lost girl, searching for love and understanding through the passage of time?  Or, is she merely a young girl with a fanciful imagination, denying age and reason?  Or, is she purely an invention of Eben's mind?  The film offers no decisive answers.

Eben's search eventually leads him to a convent.  Therein, he speaks with Mother Mary (the great Lillian Gish), who fondly remembers a pupil from years past by Jennie's name.  But, Mother Mary is somewhat skeptical of Eben's tale, to which he replies, "Yes, we know so little.  And yet now, I know a little more.  I know now the pattern of Jennie's life, but I also know now that I am part of it."

Eben encounters Jennie on several more occasions throughout the film.  Each time, she is progressively wiser and more mature.  "I'm hurrying up," she remarks to Eben one day.  Whether it is a carefree response of a whimsical young girl or an allusion to a more surreal nature, the film does not say.  In fact, the entire film has a tangible aura of enchantment, as though time had ceased and voices and places of different eras were slowly intertwining.

Despite its supernatural elements, at its heart, Portrait of Jennie is a romance story.  Eben falls for the mysterious Jennie, for they are somehow linked in a bond that defies time and space.  If love is eternal, then perhaps Eben and Jennie have realized the true essence of love.  By the film's conclusion, Eben's completed portrait of Jennie is his ultimate declaration of love to her, for in her, he has at last found the inspiration to become a great artist.

Strangely, in its initial release, Portrait of Jennie received a lukewarm response from audiences.  In fact, only the overwhelming success of The Third Man the following year rescued Selznick's production company.  After Portrait of Jennie, Selznick would never again produce such a high-profile film and by the mid-1950's had effectively retired from the film industry.  But Portrait of Jennie remained his most intimate production, his love letter to star Jennifer Jones, to whom Selznick later married and to whom he completely devoted himself for the remainder of his days.

Video ** 1/2

For a modest DVD, the full-frame video presentation here is fairly good.  The contrast levels are solid and deep, and the picture possesses a decent degree of clarity and details.  It is also relatively free of dust, debris, or scratches and looks quite good for a film from the 1940's.   There are a few minor defects in the transfer and an occasionally wobbly frame but nothing out of the ordinary.  Oddly, there are a couple of very brief instances in which the film is not in correct focus, although this appears to be inherent to the actual photography (and possibly a tell-tale sign of the production difficulties) and not due to the mastering process.

Portrait of Jennie is presented in black & white, although the final reel, in addition to displaying an impressive array of Oscar-winning special effects, offers a surprise.  I will not reveal that surprise here, but I will say that we will eventually see the completed portrait of Jennie (painted by Robert Brackman).

Audio ** 1/2

The audio is presented as a 2.0 mono mix.  It possesses a warm and lyrical musical score that draws heavily from the ethereal works of Claude Debussy, in particular Deux Arabesques and Prélude to the Afternoon of a Faun.  The soundtrack is free of pops or hiss, and while it is a little thin, it is sufficient for the film.  On the other hand, the storm sequence near the film's conclusion is quite loud and forceful, another surprise for such an old film with a monophonic soundtrack!

On a different note, post-dubbing is a little problematic for the film.  The spoken (or sung) dialogue does not always match the actors' lip movements or physical gestures in a couple of scenes; this is particularly true of a conversation between Eben and an old sailor and makes the scene somewhat confusing.  Again, this is a property of the film itself and not of the mastering process.

Features 1/2 *

There is just a movie trailer.  That's it.  It's woeful.  Portrait of Jennie certainly deserves better.

Summary:

Portrait of Jennie is one of the most hauntingly beautiful films ever made.  Its images and story will linger with many viewers long after the film has concluded.  Part supernatural story, part unrequited love story, it is producer David Selznick's most poignant and intimate film.  Absolutely nothing in recent memory even comes close to matching the romantic tone of this film, so if you're looking for a classic love story, Portrait of Jennie gets my top recommendation!