What a difference a decade can make. In 1938 producer David O. Selznick was preparing Gone With the Wind (1939) the film that has ultimately become synonymous with his name. Selznick had capped off nearly a decade of solid work at other studios with this opus magnum for his own. But GWTW's overwhelming success had a curious backlash. It simultaneously elevated Selznick's stature in the industry while relegating the remainder of his artistic pursuits to rivaling the grandeur and majesty of GWTW. Portrait of Jennie (1948) comes at the tail end of Selznick's exhaustive - and self-effacing pursuit to top himself. That the finished film remains little more than a flawed supernatural melodrama, utterly butchered in the editing room by Selznick after Paul Osborn and Peter Bermeis screenplay proved unwieldy, is a disappointment.
The film stars Joseph Cotton as New York artist, Eben Adams. Disheartened by his lack of success in the art work, Adams' artistic sensibilities are all but castrated when gallery owner, Miss Spinney (Ethel Barrymore) points out that there is no passion in his work. There's no point in arguing with her. Spinney's right and Adams knows it. The gallery's co-ower, Matthews (Cecil Kellaway) urges Adams not to be disheartened. But Adams is all set to toss his fledgling career in the ash can when he suddenly comes across the sprite child, Jennie (Jennifer Jones) throwing snowballs in Central Park.
Although Jennie doesn’t have much to say about Adams work either, he suddenly becomes inspired to sketch her portrait. However, before he can finish, Jennie vanishes into thin air. Taken with this strange and elusive experience Adams persists in drawing Jennie from memory and consequently labels her his muse. Showing Spinney some of his sketches, the old proprietor concurs that there's something fiery and real about Adams' new work. He seems particularly engaged with his subject.
Adams continues to draw Jennie from memory until he accidentally stumbles upon the girl again. This time she appears older to him, perhaps a girl at the cusp of her marrying years. Adams is struck by her maturity, her mesmerizing charm and her surreal affinity for people and places long since dead and gone. She's an old soul trapped in a young woman's body and Adams finds himself hopelessly falling in love with her.
Jennie agrees to pose for Adams. But as the portrait nears completion Jennie departs from Adams life. Determined to know what's become of the woman he's asked to marry him, Adams tracks down Jennie's lineage to a convent in Massachusetts where Mother Mary of Mercy (Lillian Gish) informs him of the secret of Jennie. That she has been dead for many years and has come to Adams as a spirit guide to help him find himself.
Adams does not believe this story for a moment. After all, its too fantastic and implausible. Nevertheless, he is determined to confronts Jennie with this truth when next they meet. Jennie agrees to a picnic luncheon with Adams at a remote lighthouse. But a gale has come up, violent and destructive, dashing Jennie's boat to pieces and all but drowning Adams. Rescued by the lighthouse's kindly keeper, Adams realizes that the old nun's story is true. He resigns himself to having lost Jennie forever. The film ends with Miss Spinney observing a small gathering of young girls admiring Adams' portrait of Jennie currently hanging in the Metropolitan Museum of Art. She comments that great loves always inspire great art.
Portrait of Jennie is a very strange film indeed. For decades it remained one of Selznick's all but forgotten gems. Even on late night TV it rarely resurfaced. And, in hindsight, its failure at the box office in 1948 seems to mirror the losing battle Selznick was fighting on two fronts. On the one hand, his dreams of transforming Jennifer Jones into an actress whose stature was on par with Garbo had miserably failed. Jones, who had achieved almost instant acclaim without Selznick when she made The Song of Bernadette, had quickly become the brunt of professional criticisms after becoming the second Mrs. Selznick in 1945.
Apart from her rather expert turn in Selznick's Since You Went Away (1944), Jones quickly found her career on a downward spiral with few outside offers for her services. Worse for Selznick, he had squandered his studio's fortunes on a series of films that, while arguably rich in artistry, had nevertheless failed to capture the public's fascination.
Seen in that context, Portrait of Jennie is just another flop - the last Selznick would personally supervise under his own studio banner. Viewed today, however, it is an unconventional movie in many ways; from its end title credit sequence (a first in mainstream Hollywood films), to the sparing inclusion of Technicolor in an otherwise B&W movie, glimpsed only for the final moment - in a vibrant close up of Adams' portrait of Jennie - and, with fascinating usage of sepia and green tinted film stocks to elevate the mood of particular scenes, Portrait of Jennie rises to the occasion on so many levels that it is virtually impossible to mark it an artistic disaster as well as a financial one.
Curiously, the chief hurdles one has to overcome when viewing the film today is its supernatural subject matter and rather awkward absence of genuine heart for what is essentially supposed to be a very haunting love story. Jennifer Jones and Joseph Cotten - both giving competent performances - lack that elusive spark to ignite the passion that is suppose to inspire Adams to paint Jennie's portrait. In place of passion, Cotten gives us a sort of frenetic obsession that gradually builds but becomes more unsettling than haunted. As for Jones, she teeters on the verge of some strange aloofness that is never entirely understood or explained away. Her stare may be penetrating, but her performance is not.
Cecil Kellaway and Ethel Barrymore have great good fun together. Barrymore in particular was an actress not terribly well served by her Hollywood tenure - often miscast as prickly spinsters or sour dowagers with very brittle dispositions. But her Miss Spinney is a warmhearted gal indeed; kind and with a guiding hand, masked beneath her slightly cross exterior so as not to be perceived by struggling artists as a light touch.
Selznick obviously invested a great deal of himself in Portrait of Jennie. He broke another time-honored tradition by shooting a lot of the film on location in Central Park, Graves Point, The Metropolitan Museum and The Cloisters. Joseph H. August's cinematography - nominated posthumously for an Academy Award - also proved experimental. He shot many scenes through a canvas to simulate the brush strokes of a painting, or the way an artist like Adams might see the world around him.
Selznick's tinkering with the novel resulted in a few key sequences being shot, then dropped from the final cut. The producer also insisted that, unlike in the novel, only Adams be allowed to see Jennie in the film. These changes were minor - given Selznick's usual zeal for 'improvements'. However, when Portrait of Jennie had its debut it was obvious it would not be the colossal success that either Selznick or Jones had hoped.
The film's spectacular thud at the box office instantly branded it an artistic disaster too. But that snap assessment is all too unkind and generally unwarranted. Portrait of Jennie is more of a tone poem to love than a love story. The realization of the supernatural elements on film are utterly void of the usual hokum for a good spook story (double exposure, transparent images, gradual dissolves into the ether) usually populating movies like Topper or Blithe Spirit. In the final analysis, Portrait of Jennie may be the first and arguably only intelligent ghost 'love' story ever put on film.
MGM’s DVD is rather impressive. The B&W picture exhibits a very nicely balanced gray scale with smooth, solid blacks and very clean whites. Age related artifacts are present throughout but do not distract. Some minor edge enhancement crops up but pixelization is kept to a minimum. Sequences photographed in sepia and green (to heighten emotional mood) are richly saturated. The final moment, when the screen bursts into Technicolor is perhaps more subdued in its richness than one might expect. Still, there is much to admire in the overall picture quality that will surely not disappoint. The audio is mono but more than adequate. There are no extras.
FILM RATING (out of 5 - 5 being the best)