Weary artist Eben Adams (Joseph Cotten) is struggling to make ends meet. When a chance meeting with a curious young girl, Jennie Appleton (Jennifer Jones), stirs Eben’s creative juices, he begins again on a successful path. Encouraged by a friend and dealer, Miss Spinney (Ethel Barrymore), Eben continues to see Jennie and notices that each time they meet she is years older. He also notices how she talks about things that happened in the past. As their meetings continue, Jennie grows older, and the two fall in love. They realize their lives are intertwined although time and space conspire to keep them apart.
A fantasy picture was a strange choice for Selznick International Pictures to produce, but nonetheless they secured the costs at a low price and went to work at adapting Robert Nathan’s novella for the big screen. Vivien Leigh and Laurence Olivier were considered for the leading roles before Jennifer Jones and Joseph Cotten were chosen.
I have yet to be let down by a performance by Joseph Cotten. As Eben Adams, Cotten is sensitive, vulnerable and believable as the man who fell in love with a woman from the past and will do anything in his power to be with her. Cotten plays his scenes with utmost sincerity, especially the scene with Mother Mary (Lillan Gish) at the convent.
Jennifer Jones delivers as the girl who is mysteriously tied to the past while still being firmly rooted in the present. Jones has the girlish quality that is well suited for Jennie, and as the film says has “big, sad eyes, and something about her that seemed to come from far away.” It must not have been easy acting as a little girl when she was almost 30 but Jones accomplishes it well; however, when she transitions to womanhood, this is where Jones really shines. The delivery of her lines about life, love, and the future are mesmerizing.
Composer Dimitri Tiomkin had the inspired idea of using themes from Claude Debussy for the film’s score. Debussy’s music captures the desperation of a struggling artist, the joyful vitality of childish Jennie, the mysterious, enigmatic quality she possesses, and the longing the lovers have for each other. The song Jennie sings when she meets Eben: “Where I came from, nobody knows, and where I am going everyone goes” was written by Bernard Herrmann, the original choice for composing the film.
Always intent on high quality, Selznick’s decision to shoot in New York City added a realness to the film (a wise choice, as New York has a distinct atmospheric flavor) as well as considerable production costs. The Oscar winning special effects used in the ending of the film are striking, unexpected, and ultimately drove the film way over its budget. According to Selznick biographer David Thomson, Portrait of Jennie was the last film Selznick produced in Hollywood. Although it was not well received on its release, the film has gained appreciation over the years, and is one of Jennifer Jones’ most memorable roles.
Portrait of Jennie is equally about love and the transformative power of art. Eben’s love for Jennie gives him new eyes to see the beauty in the world, transforming his work as an artist and more importantly, as a human being.
There has never been and probably will never be another movie quite like Portrait of Jennie. In a manner similar to The Ghost and Mrs. Muir (1947), this film seamlessly blends the supernatural with reality, the dream world with the real world, and the past with the present. So tastefully done in its execution, the end result is far from saccharine, nor is it excessive. And what has the makings of a sad story is anything but when one looks carefully at the themes contained within. Reflective and romantic, Portrait of Jennie hits all the right notes and is a gem among many in the classic film treasury.
That just barely skims the surface of this beautiful, haunting film. Time and space (see what I did there?) 😉 prevents me from covering all the wonderful character actors involved and going deeper in analysis. I intend to cover that in a future post.
What do you think of Portrait of Jennie?
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