Portrait of Jennie (1948): The Transformative Power of Art

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?

This post is my contribution to The Leap Year Blogathon hosted by Taking Up Room. Thank you for letting me participate in this event! Click here to read the other timely contributions!

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Niagara (1953) – Marilyn and the Falls

Image via: https://www.hojobythefalls.com/content/marilyn-monroe

The more powerful force of nature? I’ll let you watch and decide! Niagara is the film that put Marilyn Monroe on the map. Through the character of Rose Loomis, she established the persona and style that would follow for the rest of her career.

Niagara concerns two couples on holiday at one of the most romantic places on earth, Niagara Falls; however, the two couples couldn’t be more different. Polly (Jean Peters) and Ray Cutler (Casey Adams) are there on a delayed honeymoon and are as happy as newlyweds. Rose (Marilyn Monroe) and George Loomis (Joseph Cotten) have a strained relationship and are there to regain marital bliss. The suspense builds as Polly becomes involved with the unhappy couple and notices that there’s more to them than meets the eye.

Niagara is one of the few film noirs that were shot in Technicolor, and boy, does it deliver. With the setting of the infamous falls, the addition of color is absolutely essential and heightens the drama in this suspense thriller.

The film takes full advantage of its magnificent setting by masterfully showcasing the natural beauty and danger of the falls. Niagara perfectly captures the feeling of being at the site, and the thundering of the rushing water is never far away.

The cinematography in this film is stunning. Yes, black and white noir films are beautiful and iconic; but when done artfully, color can have its own luminous quality. We can thank Joe MacDonald, the cinematographer, for that.

Joe MacDonald
image via: IMDB

MacDonald was born in Mexico and came to Hollywood in the 1920’s working as an assistant camera man. By the 1940’s he was a full fledged cinematographer at 20th Century Fox. Among the movies he filmed were My Darling Clementine (1946), Call Northside 777 (1948), and How to Marry a Millionaire (1953). Though he didn’t win (a three time nominee) any accolades during his lifetime, MacDonald holds the honor of being the first Mexican born cinematographer, and left behind a legacy of seventy-five films.

Marilyn absolutely glows throughout this movie. Not only visually, but in her role as well. She portrays a woman with a lust for life, ready to do anything to be with the man she loves. A very broad character indeed; and yet, she plays the part with such subtlety. Her performance is found in a look, a roll of the shoulder, a smirk. It is a shame that she didn’t go on to make another film noir as she is quite enjoyable to watch in this one.

Henry Hathaway and Marilyn Monroe
Image via: IMDB

Henry Hathaway, the director of Niagara, said that Marilyn was “marvelous to work with, very easy to direct and terrifically ambitious to do better. And bright, really bright…” Hathaway commented to a columnist in 1952, “She’s the best natural actress I’ve directed, and I go back. I’ve worked with Barbara LaMar, Jean Harlow, Rene Adoree-right up to today…”

Henry Hathaway learned his craft from the best. In the 1920’s he was an assistant director to such notables as de Mille and Victor Fleming. Hathaway made his own directorial debut in 1932 and became known for his work in westerns, including How the West was Won (1962), and noirs, such as Fourteen Hours (1951). He was at his best in action sequences, location shooting, and excelled at driving the narrative tension. Niagara stands as a fine example of the talented director’s work.

Let’s get to the rest of the cast! Joseph Cotten and Jean Peters work very well together on screen, creating a rapport between their characters and with us, the audience. This was a lovely piece of casting; however, Casey Adams is another story. He might have been brought in to provide some relief and lightness to the dark plot, but his style could have been better used elsewhere. The dialogue he was given does not help matters either. For me, the film does lose its steam about three-quarters of the way in (for repeat viewings only; the first time I saw it I was riveted.)

Jean Peters and Joseph Cotten

Niagara never gets old. It contains wonderful performances, standout moments, stunning visuals, and a gripping story line. All these reasons and more make it a film that’s not to be missed!

Legacy

According to film historian Sylvia Stoddard, there was a new system invented to make filming at the falls possible for the equipment. “In order to keep the camera lens free of water drops and mist during filming, a lens that could be kept dry and clear in any kind of weather was developed at a cost of $10,000…Cinematographer Joe MacDonald predicted it would be in wide use shortly and was worthy of a technical achievement Oscar.”

Marilyn’s iconic pink dress, designed by Dorothy Jeakins, was in demand the moment audience members saw it on the big screen. Since then it has been copied, sold, and served as inspiration for designers.

Side note: (This shade of pink reminds me of Esther William’s bathing suit in Bathing Beauty (1944), our first look at the swimming star in Technicolor. Was this Hollywood’s “look at me” color?)

image via: books.google.com

Niagara contains the “longest walk in cinema history” – a view of Marilyn walking away from the camera, which used 116 feet of film.

A great companion to this movie would be the book, Falling for Marilyn: The Lost Niagara Collection by Jock Carroll. Mr. Carroll spent a few weeks with Marilyn in Niagara Falls on the set and behind the scenes. He shares many photographs he took along with his reflections on the time he spent with the young starlet.

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