By 1947, the year producer David O. Selznick undertook to make Portrait of Jennie (1948), Selznick had observed with increased frustration as his legendary streak as the most successful independent in Hollywood effectively dried up. Where once Selznick had been at the proverbial top of the heap with back to back Best Picture Academy Awards for 1939’s Gone With The Wind and 1940’s Rebecca, he had just as quickly slipped into a two-fold purgatory within the span of a few short years. On the one hand his meticulously crafted colossuses, Duel in the Sun (1946) and The Paradine Case (1947) had been financially disappointing while, on the other, his pre-packaged wheeling and dealing of stars and projects to other studios – most notably RKO - did little except to deplete Selznick International of badly needed monies to make up for his own creative misfires.
The rest of the paradigm contributing to Selznick’s fall from grace was marked by his acquisition of talent that never quite achieved the big ‘name above the marquee’ status as bona fide stars. For every Ingrid Bergman or Louis Jourdan, there was a Rhonda Fleming and Guy Madison – and somewhere in between – an Alida Valli (shortened to Valli because Selznick firmly believed in one-name monikers like ‘Garbo’); undeniable eye candy that never went beyond B-grade celebrity. Selznick had envisioned himself as a star maker en par with his one-time father-in-law, MGM’s Louis B. Mayer. However, Selznick arguably lacked the keen eye to spot genuine greatness from the many diamonds in the rough.
Selznick’s affair with, and subsequent marriage to, actress Jennifer Jones seem to impede either’s ability to procure success at the box office. Where Jones’ loan out to 2oth Century-Fox had resulted in an Oscar-winning performance (1943’s The Song Of Bernadette) with Selznick as her husband/mentor Jones seemed unable to find just the right vehicle to keep the momentum going. Jones did appear to good effect in Selznick’s wartime weepie ensemble, Since You Went Away (1944), but fizzled in the jointly produced Love Letters (1948) and aforementioned Duel in the Sun; the latter Selznick’s thinly veiled attempt to recapture the majesty of GWTW with a rather implausibly tawdry tale of obsessive love that leads to bloody death in the middle of the desert.
The rumor around town was that Selznick had lost his touch and was fast losing control of his once-promising movie-making empire. He was dragging Jones down with him. In truth, the picture was far bleaker for Selznick professionally than on the home front. Bad timing. Bad investments. It was all coming to an end much too quickly for Selznick and perhaps even more confounding too; the second mogul gearing up for the fall (the first had been Carl Laemmle – whose benevolent mismanagement – hiring virtually every member of his family whatever their skillset – caused him to lose control of Universal Pictures in 1935).
In a last ditch effort to save face and Selznick International from bankruptcy, Selznick put into production a supernatural fantasy loosely based on a novel by Robert Nathan. The movie would ultimate ruin Selznick’s chances to ever produce a picture independently in Hollywood again. Portrait of Jennie is a very strange duck indeed. Nathan’s novel is about an uninspired starving artist Eben Adams (Joseph Cotten in the film) who discovers his muse in an ethereal creature (Jennifer Jones) lingering about Central Park; the woman, Jennie a spirit long-since dead, but inexplicably resurrected to reawaken Eben’s senses to the beauty that surrounds him that can elevate his listless craft into true artistry. Along the way Eben becomes smitten, then hopelessly enamored with the girl – at first much too young for him, but who ages almost by decade-long increments each time they meet until she and Eben appear to be roughly the same age.
Selznick practically guaranteed the failure of this effervescent tale about ghosts impacting the world of the living by insisting that the production leave Hollywood for New York and Massachusetts; shooting exteriors in Central Park, Graves Light, The Cloisters and Metropolitan Museum of Art; all of which arguably could have been convincingly reproduced on the back lot. This raised the budget considerably. Selznick’s fastidious tinkering with the narrative – his perfectionist inability to simply adhere to a script once it had been given ‘final approval’ by him, resulted in several expensive sequences being filmed but later discarded on the cutting room floor.
If Portrait of Jennie is recalled at all today it remains largely a tribute to William Dieterle’s skilled direction and/or Joseph H. August’s moody cinematography. Yet the film’s reputation as a financial disappointment has somehow adhered to its artistic merits as well. This is a shame, for Portrait of Jennie is an oft’ fascinating experiment; one that tends to run a little long and obviously lag in spots. But the penultimate reveal – the frame bursting into glorious Technicolor as ‘the portrait of Jennie’ is briefly shown to the audience, is a scene virtually stolen from MGM’s The Picture of Dorian Gray (1945) albeit with far less grotesqueness.
Jennifer Jones had expressed misgivings about doing the movie. But Selznick felt he could will Jones a career and thereafter set about hand-crafting the story from the ground up, second guessing his cast and crew with a proliferation of memos. More than anything else, Selznick’s wishes were commands, the net result being that Portrait of Jennie continued to hemorrhage money badly, going way over budget and taking much too long to shoot.
The overwhelming success of Selznick’s opus magnum, Gone With The Wind had inadvertently doomed the producer’s reputation in the industry. Audiences and critics alike now expected every Selznick release to rival GWTW in both scope and sentiment, all but forcing Selznick to make feebler and feebler attempts to outdo himself on subsequent projects; an exhaustive - and self-effacing pursuit at best. By 1947, Selznick had all but lost his financial independence. Hence, Portrait of Jennie does not particularly suffer from this elephantitis. Still, it remains a flawed supernatural melodrama, utterly butchered in the editing process by Selznick after Paul Osborn and Peter Bermeis screenplay proved unwieldy. The pieces hewn together by Selznick do not fit; at least succinctly. The story meanders at its start; the premise and first ‘cute meet’ between Eben and Jennie delayed by the kindly interventions of Miss Spinney (Ethel Barrymore) and Matthews (Cecil Kellaway); shop keeps of a fashionable gallery who find nothing of merit in Eben’s present grouping of canvasses but are encouraging of his art nonetheless.
The middle act of Portrait of Jennie is almost exclusively devoted to the implausible romance between Eben and his sprite. In the novel everyone can see Jennie. In the film, only Eben does, necessitating the couple’s out of the way meetings in un-populated places or inside Eben’s artist’s loft to advance the stagnating romance. The chief problem with this middle portion of the story is that Eben is a slow learner. He finds nothing even remotely queer about Jennie’s aversion of public places; his curiosity never once peaked over the fact that she seems to have blossomed from impressionable ingénue to young lass in a matter of days; her instant womanhood delaying her heart from running away with her head.
Eben makes gallant overtures, but they are almost always met with cryptic replies that would leave any other man perplexed; wounded ego tucked between his legs and thoroughly dejected. Since the Osborn/Berneis screenplay never allows the audience to venture beyond their suspicions that Jennie is, in fact, a ghost, we are left just as confused – perhaps more so, about where this presumed love story is headed. And then there is Jennifer Jones, incapable of rendering any emotion beyond abject innocence, wide-eyed and uncertain. As such, the exercise of engaging Eben becomes more clinical than flirtatious. Jennie’s advances lack enticement, neither romantically alluring nor even hypnotically compelling; the elixir of femininity never present. No, Jennie meets Eben on an intellectual plain, one void of sentiment or even empathy and this, more than anything else, shatters the fragile poeticism of the love story.
Hence, when Eben discovers from Mother Mary of Mercy (Lillian Gish); a nun at the convent primary school Jennie attended long ago, that the woman he loves has, in fact, been dead for many years, the revelation seems merely off-putting rather than startling. This leads the story into its last act. Meeting Jennie again and for what will ultimately be his last time, she encourages Eben to go sailing despite weather advisories of a storm brewing off the coast. The pair make sail for a lighthouse, the tide turning, clouds darkening, the near capsizing of the foundering vessel narrowly averted, but with Jennie lost in the briny foam crashing against the jagged rocks; thus, fulfilling the prophecy of her own death that happened so very long ago. Saved from a similar fate by a kindly old mariner (Robert Dudley), Eben learns that no other body has been fished out from the sea.
Miss Spinney returns to comfort Eben, encouraging him to liberate his tortured mind through painting. Thus, Eben paints the one thing he knows – the woman who continues to haunt his soul and memory. Portrait of Jennie concludes on an ambiguous postscript; Spinney at the Museum of Modern Art observing a gaggle of school girls on a field trip who gaze adoringly up at Eben’s ‘portrait of Jennie’, the screen bursting into a Technicolor oil painting that is rather placid in its representation of Jones; lacking the necessary and, in fact, badly needed air of mystery that would compel anyone to take such notice of it. As the girls’ hushed comments fill the room, Spinney explains to them that “great loves always inspire great art.” All evidence to the contrary for Selznick and Jones, whose joint venture in Portrait of Jennie is remiss of such grand amour.
Portrait of Jennie is an inconsequential mystery. It lacks any staying power almost immediately once it has been seen. Lucinda Ballard’s production design is first rate, but without of any warmth – the sets looking stately but arguably never lived in. Even the location work suffers from an almost embalmed quality; presumably to complete the air of foreboding, but in effect merely augmenting the awkwardness between the two lovers who are not to be. There is zero chemistry between Jennifer Jones and Joseph Cotten – each a fine actor, but having committed their most memorable work elsewhere. With so much going for it Portrait of Jennie ought to have been an exquisite hallucination; a daydream wrapped inside the enigma of a nightmare; unraveling to some grander, more cryptic verisimilitude. Instead, we get a rather nimble and not terribly engaging ‘spook story’ sumptuously sheathed in the trappings of an A-list fantasy that regrettably never gets beyond the preliminary stages in its attempt to rattle the audience’s nerves.
Hollywood can be so cruel. Those who had raised Jones to the rafters for her performance in The Song of Bernadette were equally quick to eviscerate her reputation after Portrait of Jennie had its debut. Jones was disappointed with the outcome. But Selznick was humiliated – his reputation as an impresario in tatters. Selznick sold off his entire interest in Gone With The Wind the subsequent year to MGM, the studio that had begrudgingly afforded him distribution. Selznick’s relationship with L.B. Mayer had ended on a sour not after Selznick divorced Mayer’s daughter, Irene, to marry Jones. Now, the pugnacious mogul cut Selznick a deal for his magnum opus that was hardly unkind, but substandard to what an outright purchase of arguably the greatest motion picture of all time ought to have fetched.
Selznick used the profits to help co-fund Carol Reed’s The Third Man (1949). The film made back Selznick’s investment and a profit besides. But subsequent investments miserably failed, as did Selznick’s final attempt to produce; this time an adaptation of Hemmingway’s A Farewell to Arms (1957) again with visions of elevating Jennifer Jones to the stratosphere of A-list actresses; again with negative results that all but swamped Jones’ consideration around Hollywood as a star who could carry a whole movie.
Portrait of Jennie’s spectacular thud at the box office instantly branded it an artistic flop too. But this snap assessment is all too unkind and generally unwarranted. Portrait of Jennie is more a somber tome than a love story. Upon repeat viewing, the realization of the supernatural elements is utterly void of the usual hokum and visual trickeries (double exposure, transparent images, disappearing/reappearing dissolves into the ether). The film has merit of a different kind, and, quality aplenty. That its assets never come together is the real disappointment and mystery. Portrait of Jennie may very well be the first intelligent ghost 'love' story ever put on film, but it lacks the emotional center to truly inspire.
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 tinted green (to heighten mood) are richly saturated. The final moment, in full spectrum Technicolor is more subdued in its richness than expected. Overall, picture quality 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)