Portrait of Jennie (1948)

  • Director: William Dieterle
  • Writers: Robert Nathan, Paul Osborn, Peter Berneis
  • Stars: Jennifer Jones, Joseph Cotten, Ethel Barrymore, Lillian Gish
  • Awards: Won 1 Oscar. Another 1 win & 2 nominations.

Jennifer Jones…Jennie Appleton, Joseph Cotten…Eben Adams, Ethel Barrymore…Miss Spinney, Lillian Gish…Mother Mary of Mercy, Cecil Kellaway…Matthews, David Wayne…Gus O’Toole, Albert Sharpe…Moore, Henry Hull…Eke, Florence Bates…Mrs. Jekes (landlady), Felix Bressart…Pete, Clem Bevans…Capt. Cobb, Maude Simmons…Clara Morgan

Portrait of Jennie is a 1948 fantasy film based on the novella by Robert Nathan. The film was directed by William Dieterle and produced by David O. Selznick. It stars Jennifer Jones and Joseph Cotten. At the 21st Academy Awards, it won an Academy Award for Best Special Effects (Paul Eagler, Joseph McMillan Johnson, Russell Shearman and Clarence Slifer; Special Audible Effects: Charles L. Freeman and James G. Stewart). Joseph H. August was also nominated for an Academy Award for Best Cinematography – Black and White.

In 1934, impoverished painter Eben Adams (Joseph Cotten) meets a fey little girl named Jennie Appleton (Jennifer Jones) in Central Park, New York City. She is wearing old-fashioned clothing. He makes a sketch of her from memory which involves him with art dealer Miss Spinney (Ethel Barrymore), who sees potential in him. This inspires him to paint a portrait of Jennie.

Eben encounters Jennie at intermittent intervals. Strangely, she appears to be growing up much more rapidly than is possible. He soon falls in love with her but is puzzled by the fact that she seems to be experiencing events that he discovers took place many years previously as if they had just happened. Eventually he learns the truth about Jennie and though inevitable tragedy ensues, she continues to be an inspiration to Eben’s life and art, and his career makes a remarkable upturn, commencing with his portrait of Jennie.

  • Jennifer Jones as Jennie Appleton
  • Joseph Cotten as Eben Adams
  • Ethel Barrymore as Miss Spinney
  • Lillian Gish as Mother Mary of Mercy
  • Cecil Kellaway as Matthews
  • David Wayne as Gus O’Toole
  • Albert Sharpe as Moore
  • Henry Hull as Eke
  • Florence Bates as Mrs. Jekes
  • Clem Bevans as Capt. Cobb
  • Nancy Davis as Teenager in Art Gallery
  • Anne Francis as Teenager in Art Gallery
  • Brian Keith as Ice-Skating Extra
  • Nancy Olson as Teenager in Art Gallery
  • Robert Dudley as Another Old Mariner
  • Maude Simmons as Clara Morgan

The book on which the film was based first attracted the attention of David O. Selznick, who immediately purchased it as a vehicle for Academy Award winner Jennifer Jones. Filming began in early 1947 in New York City and Boston, Massachusetts, but Selznick was unhappy with the results and scheduled re-shoots as well as hiring and firing five different writers before the film was completed in October 1948. The New York shooting enabled Selznick to use Albert Sharpe and David Wayne who were both appearing on stage in Finian’s Rainbow, giving an Irish flair to characters and the painting in the bar that was not in Nathan’s novel.

As Portrait of Jennie was a fantasy, Selznick insisted on filming on actual Massachusetts (The Graves Light) and New York City locations (Central Park, The Cloisters, and The Metropolitan Museum of Art) as opposed to studio sets, which dramatically increased the film’s production costs.[3] The film’s major overhaul came when Selznick added a tinted color sequence for the final scenes. The final shot of the painting, appearing just before the credits, was presented in three-strip Technicolor.

Portrait of Jennie was highly unusual for its time in that it had no opening credits as such, except for the Selznick Studio logo. All the other credits appear at the end. Before the film proper begins, the title is announced by the narrator (after delivering a spoken prologue, he says, “And now, ‘Portrait of Jennie'”).

The portrait of Jennie (Jennifer Jones) was painted by artist Robert Brackman. The painting became one of Selznick’s prized possessions, and it was displayed in his home after he married Jones in 1949.

The film is notable for Joseph H. August’s atmospheric cinematography, capturing the lead character’s obsession with Jennie, amongst the environs of a wintry New York. August shot many of the scenes through a canvas, making the scenes look like actual paintings. August, who used many lenses from silent film days,[4] died shortly after completing the film. He was posthumously nominated for an Academy Award for Best Cinematography.

Dimitri Tiomkin used themes by Claude Debussy, including Prélude à l’après-midi d’un faune (Prelude to the Afternoon of a Faun), the two Arabesques, “Nuages” and “Sirènes” from the suite Nocturnes, and La fille aux cheveux de lin, with the addition of Bernard Herrmann’s “Jennie’s Theme” to a song featured in Nathan’s book (“Where I came from, nobody knows, and where I am going everyone goes”), utilizing a theremin. Herrmann was assigned the original composing duties for the film but left during its extended shooting schedule.

A scene of Jennie and Eben having a picnic after witnessing the ceremony in the convent, features in the original screenplay. It was filmed but deleted when it looked as if Jennie’s hair was blending into the tree next to her. The scene that featured Jennie doing a dance choreographed by Jerome Robbins took over ten days to film,[4] but was not used in the completed film.

When it was released in December 1948, it was not a success, but today it is considered a classic in the fantasy genre [5] with a 91% “fresh” rating on Rotten Tomatoes.[6] Upon its release, The New York Times reviewer Bosley Crowther called it “deficient and disappointing in the extreme;”[7] but the Variety reviewers found the story was “told with style, taste and dignity.”[8] Most modern film critics have also given the film strong praise: for example, Leslie Halliwell noted that it was ‘presented with superb persuasiveness by a first-class team of actors and technicians’. [9]

“Portrait of Jennie,” the title song written by J. Russell Robinson, subsequently became a hit for Nat King Cole. An EmArcy Records (MG-36005) recording, Clifford Brown with Strings (recorded January 18, 19, 20, 1955) featured the late great, lyrical jazz trumpeter, Clifford Brown with his poignant readings of several standards and evergreens including “Portrait of Jenny.” Although this instrumental version of the song was arranged by Neal Hefti for Mr. Brown’s date, it should be noted that the melodic line is close to what Nat King Cole had recorded in 1948. However, for some unknown reason, the track listing appears on Mr. Brown’s lp (long play vinyl) jacket cover with the spelling of the name, “Jenny” with a “y” instead of an “ie.” In other words, despite the spelling difference of the song’s name, the melody IS the same. It was even revisited in 1958 by pianist Red Garland on Manteca, and again in 1966 by jazz trumpeter Blue Mitchell on his Bring It Home to Me.

Portrait of Jennie is a haunting evocation of one man’s pained artistic process, and the genius of the film is how Dieterle delicately equates the creative impulse to an ever-evolving spiritual crisis. (Is it any coincidence then that the film was a favorite of atheist auteur Luis Buñuel?) Once Eben learns to channel his artistic spirit via his paintbrush, he realizes he can only draw if Jennie pays him a visit beforehand. He walks through the park and sleeps on the park bench where he met the girl, hoping that his muse will appear and inspire yet another creative catharsis. Eben’s relationship to Jennie becomes an addiction of sorts and, therefore, an obstacle he must conquer. This is all part of Dieterle’s god-like master plan: Eben is repeatedly tested until he can create without the temptation that Jenny comes to represent.

Dieterle establishes a difficult duality between art and life. How does Eben channel Jennie into the reality of his paintings without loosing himself to her ghost? Jennie is seemingly conscious of her not-being but even when Eben goes to visit the locale where Jennie supposedly met her doom, he still refuses to believe that she is not of his world. Not since Murnau’s Sunrise had a film so fascinatingly and tirelessly concerned itself with the nature of obsession as Portrait of Jennie. Eben is forced to acknowledge Jennie’s true identity by having him witness the recreation of her death. What is Jennie then but a metaphor for supreme creative (read: spiritual) enlightenment? A quick glance at Eben’s portrait of Jennie shows that he has yet to finish drawing her left arm. The shot evokes a devastating foreshadowing that isn’t lost on Eben. Indeed, he is very conscious of the fact that if he finishes the arm, Jennie will disappear soon after.

Dieterle forces Eben to experience Jennie’s death before he can transcend her memory. As such, the film is a unique testament and tribute to every artist who’s had to brave creative stasis. By film’s end, not only can Eben paint without visits from his muse but he also learns to appreciate the simple pleasures and joys of the world around him. Dieterle’s remarkable use of color compliments Eben’s spiritual evolvement. The once-dreary New York City milieu comes to life by film’s end. For added effect, Dieterle shoots the film’s final scenes in color, but perhaps most remarkable is the way his mise-en-scène and rigorously self-reflexive compositions bring to mind the malleable surface of a canvas. Dieterle’s stylistic choices also call attention to Eben himself as a work-in-progress. Not until the release of Abel Ferrara’s Driller Killer would another film pay such profound and careful attention to the creative process in such spiritual panic.

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