|Portrait of Jennie|
|Written by Bill Warren|
|Tuesday, 28 November 2000|
This somber but deliriously romantic movie is a great favorite of people the world over, largely because of its superb black-and-white photography of New York city. It was the greatest triumph of the master cinematographer Joseph H. August, who died just as shooting ended. 'Portrait of Jennie' was one of the first major films to do extensive location work in New York, and the effort made to shoot on the streets and in Central Park really pays off: this unusual fantasy is given a solid foundation in reality -- while the city itself is shot in such a way that it meets the film halfway, becomes dream-like, almost surreal. The best scenes in the film represent some of the finest black-and-white photography of all time.
On the other hand, the story is set in the early 1930s, though the production design by J. McMillan Johnson and Joseph B. Platt looks exactly like the late 1940s, when the movie was made. There's rarely been a "period" film that looked less like one. This strange "error," however, is probably not due to the production designers themselves, but to obsessive producer David O. Selznick.
From 'Gone With the Wind' until the end of his life, Selznick tried way too hard to make sure that his obituaries would not read "Producer of 'Gone with the Wind'" dies -- and because of this effort, that's exactly how his obituaries did read. Almost all of his post-GWTW personal productions -- a surprisingly small number -- were bloated and elephantine. And worse, Selznick meddled steadily from script to final cut, often insisting -- as with 'Portrait of Jennie' -- on endless reshoots, recuts and other alterations. The movies almost inevitably wound up confusing, overstated, and overemphatic in the wrong areas.
'Portrait of Jennie,' however, works very well most of the time. It's a full-scale fantasy, directed by William Dieterle, a tasteful, intelligent director who stayed close to the storyline (from Robert Nathan's novel), despite all of Selznick's interference and restructuring.
The movie opens with a vast expanse of belching clouds, complete with quotes from Keats and Euripides, in a misguided effort to ease Regular People into the fantasy and to lend an air of importance to the movie's delicate story. Furthermore, most of the film is narrated by Joseph Cotten in character as artist Eben Adams, whose most famous work, Portrait of Jennie (1934) hangs in a prestigious New York museum. There's an effort to convince us the story is true, as if the audience really cares.
In the early 1930s, Eben is a struggling artist whose work is very promising, but essentially routine, lacking in spirit. A dealer (Ethel Barrymore) takes some interest in him, but urges him to seek the passion in life. Soon thereafter, on a wintry afternoon in Central Park, Eben meets young Jennie (Jennifer Jones), who seems to be about 12, or so we're told -- Jones is not convincing at this age, but she is more so later on.
He's enchanted by the outgoing child, whom he meets a few days later -- but she's now several years older. He finds evidence that Jennie is coming across time to meet him at increasingly older ages; the youngest incarnation says she's going to hurry up and grow so they can be together, and that's exactly what happens. Each time he meets her, she's a few years older, passing through time in a way the movie doesn't even suggest an explanation for. And he does fall in love with her.
Furthermore, his sketches of her begin to express the passion his friend the dealer has urged him to seek in himself, and he becomes an increasingly better painter. He picks up a few bucks here and there, thanks to a couple of Irish friends (David Wayne and Albert Sharpe), but it's his work about Jennie that really matters.
The story leads to a gigantic, overblown climax in New England as a remote abandoned lighthouse is battered by a tidal wave. (In fact, when 'Portrait of Jennie' flopped under that title, it was reissued as 'Tidal Wave.') At this point, the movie turns green, and in selected theaters, the screen itself got larger. This isn't likely to happen on your TV set. Finally, in the very last scene, we see his Portrait of Jennie fully for the first time -- and the shot is in delicate Technicolor.
'Portrait of Jennie' is seriously flawed both as a romance and on a narrative level; sometimes Eben acts as if there's nothing remotely unusual about seeing a child grow to a woman in a matter of months, at other times it's as if it isn't even happening. About 2/3 of the way through, the movie lurches in the direction of religion, with Jennie sent off to a convent (though, as the film repeatedly states, she's not Catholic), which seems to exist outside of time for a while, then catches up later.
Selznick had fallen deeply in love with Jennifer Jones, and married her before the film was completed; the movie is largely a rapturous love letter to her -- but more objectivity would have helped in making Jennie-as-a-child more believable. But after her first appearance, Jones is much more convincing, so much so that the ending, intended to be bittersweet, can take you aback and seem more like a tragedy than a kind of romantic fulfillment.
Cotten was always fine; it's impossible to find an uncaring, thoughtless performance by this actor. He's handicapped here by the inconsistent script, and probably by the reshoots (watch the scene with him and Lillian Gish -- it's clearly made of several versions), but his sense of reality and truth win out. It's more likely Selznick's fault than Cotten's that the actor never really seems like a painter: too well dressed. And we're never given a hint of his background.
The big Tidal Wave sequence, coming partway through Chapter 24, just about overwhelms the fragile fantasy of the movie, is the highlight for the home theater buff. Without Dolby 5.1 or the superior recording techniques of today, the sequence is still thunderous and magnificent, marred only by poor miniatures of the boats. There's an "aerial" shot of the lighthouse that effects technicians of today would be hard-pressed to improve upon.
The movie tries to evoke the idea that this is the tale of an artist (rather than just the story of a romance) by adding a kind of canvas-looking overlay to introductory scenes. Also, usually when Jennie turns up again, she appears to move toward Eben out of light, suggesting a kind of doorway between her time and his. But like the rest of the movie this is inconsistent. (Having the portrait itself literally glow is a bit much.) Coloring the tidal wave sequence green doesn't seem to add much -- aren't such waves gray-blue anyway? But that last shot of the portrait itself is as magical as Selznick wanted it to be.
'Portrait of Jennie' is a favorite of many people the world over, usually those who caught it on TV when they were teenagers. It has the kind of dreamy romanticism that often engages the affection of teenagers -- and could very well catch yours, too. It's an awkward movie, but at its best, it's one of the great romantic fantasies. Too bad Selznick couldn't have left the filmmakers more to their devices.
No extras other than an evasive trailer; the folder includes good production notes by Bruce Eder.