PORTRAIT OF JENNIE: Blu-ray (Selznick International, 1948) Kino Lorber
By 1947, the year David O. Selznick undertook to make Portrait of Jennie (1948), the producer had observed with increased frustration as his legendary streak of success, in fact, the most successful independent in Hollywood, effectively dried up. Where once Selznick was at the proverbial top of his game (with back to back Best Picture Academy Awards for 1939’s Gone With The Wind and 1940’s Rebecca) he had inexplicably plummeted into a two-fold purgatory within the span of just a few short years. On the one hand, his meticulously crafted twin colossuses, Duel in the Sun (1946) and The Paradine Case (1947) were financially, if hardly artistically disappointing. Indeed, Selznick had hoped Duel in the Sun would transform Jennifer Jones into a major star. She had shown promise her first time out the gate, winning a Best Actress Oscar on loan to 2oth Century-Fox for The Song of Bernadette (1943). On the other hand, Selznick’s pre-packaged wheeling and dealing of stars and projects to other studios – most notably RKO - had done little but deplete Selznick International proper of badly needed monies to make up for these financial misfires. As the forties wore on it became increasingly clear Selznick had lost his edge; perhaps, suffering from the pall and angst of a midlife crisis brought on by the sudden death of his beloved brother, Myron; divorcing his wife, Irene to woo away Jones from her husband: actor, Robert Walker. Selznick playing Svengali to Jones may have brought forth the hushed opinion around town that he had misplaced his creative ‘thinking cap’ on the wrong head, but doggedly he persisted to try and salvage the second Mrs. Selznick’s movie career.
The rest of the paradigm contributing to Selznick’s fall from grace was marked by his acquisition of other talent never to achieve the big ‘name above the marquee’ status as bona fide stars. Even when a star under contract to him proved he/she could carry the load, Selznick inexplicably could never seem to find the right vehicle to build up their status. Vivien Leigh, as example, and Joan Fontaine for another, therefore drifted out of Selznick’s employ after a meteoric launch – only to continue their best work elsewhere. Selznick had fashioned his ‘acquisition of stars’ after his former father-in-law: Louis B. Mayer – the ultimate star maker. In fact, during his own brief – and occasionally rocky tenure at MGM, Selznick had seen the sound logic in Mayer's star system, able to crib from an enviable parade of top-tier talent always at his fingertips. Upon his split with Metro Selznick invested quite a bit of time and money to hire away ‘the leftovers’ yet to be signed to long-term contracts by other major studios. Selznick did have a keen eye for talent. Alas, for every Ingrid Bergman or Louis Jourdan, he was swayed by a pretty face: Rhonda Fleming and Guy Madison – and somewhere between – Alida Valli (shortened to Valli because Selznick firmly believed in one-name monikers like ‘Garbo’). While Ingrid Bergman would rise like cream to the top of her profession in a scant few months, to varying degree, many of the stars Selznick tried to cultivate either moved on to greener pastures or never went beyond their minor A-list celebrity.
Only in hindsight can we see how devastating Selznick’s affair and subsequent marriage to Jennifer Jones proved, as an impediment in the way of either achieving greatness in their respective fields. Hollywood then was rather Puritanical – or, as Marilyn Monroe once pointed out, “holier than thou for the public” with all hell breaking loose behind closed doors. Nevertheless, the industry en masse had been wounded by scandals before; some, threatening to involve the U.S. government to regulate their business. Like all hypocrites, it was not impropriety that offended Hollywood’s self-contained image as a starlit Mecca where dreams came true; only the suggestion of such improprieties leaking beyond its borders into the world at large – star-struck by these beautiful, seemingly ‘perfect’ people. Selznick might have hoped for his peers to overlook such transgressions. But as his picture-making power dimmed, so too did his authority to corral and keep the best in his employ. And this backlash cut two ways. After The Song of Bernadette, Jennifer Jones quickly discovered possessing an Oscar did not add up to steady employment. Selznick counteracted this stalemate by creating two epics for Jones to star in: the aforementioned Duel in the Sun and Since You Went Away (1944) – the latter, a superbly crafted melodrama about women’s struggles on the home front during these terrible years of war. Since You Went Away, apart from being commercially successful, is an important – if sadly underrated picture today. Jones is part of an ensemble of players and she does her part to convincingly tell the tale. But Jones fizzled in the jointly produced Love Letters (1948) as well as Duel in the Sun; the latter unceremoniously dubbed ‘Lust in the Dust’ by the critics (frankly appalled by the picture’s salacious sexuality). So, Selznick’s thinly veiled attempt to rechristen the tenets of GWTW for Duel did not come to pass.
At this juncture in the story rumors began to circulate: Selznick had lost his touch. Worse, he was dragging Jones down with him. In truth, the picture was far bleaker for Selznick professionally than personally. The Selznicks were devoted to each other. Bad timing. Bad investments. It was all coming to an end much too quickly for Selznick; the second self-made mogul gearing up for an epic 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). Selznick might have also had the specter of a more personal failing staring back at him; his father’s implosion in the picture-distribution business that bottomed out the family’s investments when Selznick was barely out of his teens. Had the proverbial apple fallen so close to the same tree? 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, is a spirit long-since dead, but inexplicably resurrected to reawaken Eben to beauty and inspire him from a listless craft into true artistry. Along the way, Eben becomes smitten, then hopelessly enamored with his muse – at first much too young for him, but then curiously aging in decade-long increments each time the couple subsequently meets until she and Eben are roughly the same age. Selznick practically guaranteed the failure of this effervescent tale about ghosts impacting the world of the living by insisting 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 could have been convincingly reproduced on his back lot. This raised the film’s budget considerably. Selznick’s fastidious tinkering with the narrative – his inability to simply adhere to a script once it had been given ‘final approval’ by him, resulted in several expensive sequences being filmed and later discarded on the cutting room floor.
If Portrait of Jennie is recalled at all today it is largely as tribute to William Dieterle’s skilled direction and Joseph H. August’s moody cinematography. But its’ reputation as an expensive flop has long since adhered to its artistic merits. This is a shame, as Portrait of Jennie is an oft’ fascinating experiment – at a time when Hollywood still believed in taking chances. The picture tends to run long. It also obviously lags in spots. But the penultimate reveal – the frame bursting into glorious Technicolor as ‘the portrait of Jennie’ is briefly featured as a true work of art, is a scene virtually stolen from MGM’s The Picture of Dorian Gray (1945) albeit with far less grotesqueness. Early on Jennifer Jones had expressed misgivings about doing this movie. Selznick believed he could will and hand-crafting the story around her strengths. More than anything Selznick’s wishes were to be considered first and foremost as commands, the net result being Portrait of Jennie continued to hemorrhage money badly, as Selznick blindly invested everything he had in time, patience and money to ensure it a quality affair from top to bottom. In doing so, the production went way over budget. It also took much too long to shoot.
To some extent the overwhelming success of Gone With The Wind inadvertently doomed Selznick to his own reputation. Arguably, nobody expected another GWTW from Selznick. But they did desire for him to continue making movies of such highly personal and professional levels in quality craftsmanship. On this score, Selznick endeavored never to disappoint. But he did fall into the rut of seeing every new movie as his chance to replicate GWTW’s success; using the size and scope of ‘Wind’ as his template. As such, and in his efforts to outdo himself by copying himself, an exhaustive - and self-effacing pursuit at best, by 1947 Selznick had all but sacrificed his own financial independence. Mercifully, Portrait of Jennie does not suffer greatly from this acute elephantiasis. But it remains a flawed supernatural melodrama at best, utterly butchered in the editing process by Selznick after Paul Osborn and Peter Bermeis’ screenplay proved unwieldy. The pieces hewn together by Selznick quite simply do not fit; at least succinctly. The story meanders; 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 art gallery who find little of merit in Eben’s present grouping of canvasses he is trying to sell.
The middle act of Portrait of Jennie is almost exclusively devoted to the implausible romance between Eben and this inspirational 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 loft. The chief problem with this middle act is our Eben is a very slow learner. He finds nothing even remotely queer about Jennie’s aversion of public places; his curiosity never once peaked by the fact she seems to have blossomed from impressionable ingénue to comely lass in a matter of days; Jennie’s instant womanhood delaying her school girl’s heart from running away with her head. Eben makes gallant overtures. But they are almost always met with cryptic replies to leave any other man woefully perplexed. Since the Osborn/Berneis screenplay never allows its audience to venture beyond their suspicions 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. Hence, the exercise of engaging Eben becomes more clinical than flirtatious. Jennie’s advances lack the spark of ‘come hither’ enticement. She is neither romantically alluring nor even hypnotically compelling because the elixir of earthy femininity is never present. No, Jennie meets Eben on an intellectual plain, 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 school Jennie attended long ago, that the woman he loves has been dead for many years, the revelation is more off-putting than startling. This ‘big reveal’ leads into a frustratingly hurried last act. Meeting Jennie for what will ultimately be his last time, she encourages Eben to go sailing despite weather advisories of a storm brewing. The pair makes sail for a distant lighthouse, the tide suddenly turning, clouds darkening. The near capsizing of the foundering vessel is narrowly averted through Eben’s captaining skills. Regrettably, Jennie is lost, the ship crashing against the jagged rocks. She has thus fulfilled the prophecy of a death already happened long ago. Saved from a similar fate by the kindly old mariner (Robert Dudley) Eben learns no other body was fished from the sea. Miss Spinney comforts Eben, encouraging him to paint Jennie’s portrait. 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 at Eben’s ‘portrait of Jennie’, the screen bursting into Technicolor. 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 virtually remiss of even faint glimmers of their own grand amour. Portrait of Jennie is more invested in the enigma behind a convoluted ghost story than it is in this affair du Coeur. The picture lacks staying power. Lucinda Ballard’s production design is first rate, but without even a spark of warmth – the sets, stately, if never possessing that essential ‘lived in’ quality. Even the location work suffers from an embalming quality. Selznick encouraged cinematographer, Joseph H. August to experiment with ways of reminding his audience the tale is one of an artist’s tradition. To this end August uses various in-camera tricks to create an almost cheese cloth, canvas and gauzy effect. It’s not enough to break the stoicism between these two would-be lovers. With so much going for it Portrait of Jennie ought to have been an exquisite hallucination; a daydream wrapped inside a life-altering nightmare. Eben’s journey should have been grander, more cryptic in its verisimilitude. Instead, we get a rather sad-eyed ‘spook story’ sumptuously sheathed as an A-list fantasy. Perhaps most lethal of all, there is zero chemistry between Jennifer Jones and Joseph Cotten. Each is a very fine actor. Alas, both have committed their best work elsewhere.
Hollywood can be so cruel. Those who had raised Jones to the rafters for her performance in The Song of Bernadette were as quick to eviscerate her reputation after Portrait of Jennie. Jones was distinctly disappointed with the final cut. But Selznick was humiliated – his reputation as both Jones’ Svengali and an impresario of high art left in tatters. To leverage his reputation and ensure his lavishly appointed lifestyle could continue Selznick sold off the remainder of his controlling interests in Gone With The Wind to MGM, the studio that had begrudgingly afforded him distribution. Selznick’s relationship with L.B. Mayer, ended on a sour not after Selznick divorced Irene, to marry Jones, left Mayer in the driver’s seat of a professional relationship he all but severed once the ink on the GWTW deal had dried. Selznick used these profits to help co-fund Carol Reed’s The Third Man (1949). It made back Selznick’s investment and a profit besides. But subsequent investments miserably bottomed out even Selznick’s last ditch effort to produce; this time, an adaptation of Hemmingway’s A Farewell to Arms (1957) again with visions of building a star vehicle to catapult Jones into the movie-land stratosphere with even more dire consequences inflicted upon her reputation. Portrait of Jennie’s spectacular thud instantly branded it an artistic flop too. Yet, this snap assessment is unkind and generally unwarranted. Portrait of Jennie is more of a somber tome than a love story. While it may not have lived up to audiences’ expectations, it continues to hold renewable merits of a different kind; also, quality aplenty. That its assets never came together to cohesively tell the tale is the genuine disappointment, and perhaps the real mystery at hand. While Portrait of Jennie may very well be the first intelligent ghost 'love' story ever put on film it regrettably lacks the emotional core to truly inspire us.
Kino Lorber’s newly minted Blu-ray easily advances over MGM’s tired old DVD release. For starters, the image shows more information on the right. It’s properly framed too and free of the digitized look that plagued the standard disc release. Finally, the grey scale is noticeably brighter; contrast advancing to reveal more detail. By direct comparison, the DVD now appears too dark and incredibly softly focused. Sequences photographed in sepia and tinted green (to heighten mood) are fully saturated. The final shot of Jennie’s portrait is in full spectrum Technicolor; more subdued than rich, but looking exquisite nonetheless. Selznick utilized experimental 3-channel stereo to heighten the violence of the storm sequence. It was a risky business then. Walt Disney had tried as much with Fantasia (1940); a costly endeavor to say the least. As not all theatres could utilize stereo a mono version was also prepared by Selznick for Portrait of Jennie’s general release. We get both on this Blu; the 3-channel remastered as 5.1 DTS. Dmitri Tiomkin’s score, including an arrangement of Debussy’s Arabesque No. 1 in E sounds sublime. Kino has also gone the extra mile with an informative audio commentary by Troy Howarth. It’s jam-packed with much more of Jennie’s fascinating backstory. Well worth a listen. Finally, we get trailers – five; one for Jennie and four others Kino hopes you’ll want to buy up in tandem. Bottom line: Portrait of Jennie looks and sounds better than I expected. You’ll like what you see here. Recommended for fans of this movie! Those new to the experience may wish to reconsider Jennie as a wholly unconventional, and not altogether satisfying movie.
FILM RATING (out of 5 - 5 being the best)