MGM // 1948 // 86 Minutes // Not Rated
Reviewed by Judge George Hatch (Retired) // February 22nd, 2005
"Where I come from nobody knows,
and where I am going everything goes.
The wind blows, the sea flows,
and where I am going, nobody knows." -- Jennie Appleton
Portrait of Jennie is an excellent adaptation of author Robert Nathan's classic 1940 romantic fantasy. The screenplay required five writers, including script doctor Ben Hecht and producer David O. Selznick, both uncredited. Selznick was a perfectionist and only placed his personal "opening-credit logo" stamp of approval on films that met his meticulously detailed standards. For Portrait of Jennie, Selznick pushed his own limits by including imaginative and dynamic special effects, which earned the film its only Academy Award. Portrait of Jennie is an outstanding production that should lure you under its spell, and capture your heart with its unique and timeless love story.
Eban Adams (Joseph Cotton, Citizen Kane) is a struggling artist who can't even palm off one of his paintings to pay the rent. "My bathroom is full of then now!" his landlady tells him. "Where do you expect me to put it? In the parlor?" That about sums up the value of his work, even to the well-respected New York City art dealers. "Yes, well, we have more than enough bridges, lighthouses, and landscapes." The kindly Miss Spinney (Ethel Barrymore, The Paradine Case), though, buys one of his florals, and bluntly advises Eban that there is no passion in his work. "It's paint on canvas, or charcoal on paper, but without any feeling behind it." She suggests that he find some inspiration, other subject matter, or try a new technique.
Carrying his still-packed portfolio on his way through Central Park, he encounters the charming Jennie Appleton (Jennifer Jones, Since You Went Away), a 16-year-old girl brimming with the joy of life and some kind of cosmic energy. Eban is immediately enthralled but concerned about her being out so late in the day. Jennie tells him she's waiting for her parents who are stage performers. "The Appletons' High-Wire Act! You must have seen them! They're playing nearby." But when Eban tries to tell her that that particular theater had been torn down decades ago, Jennie says it's time for her to go. Eban retrieves the scarf she left behind, wrapped in an old newspaper, and calls out to her; but she's already disappeared.
Cab driver Gus O'Toole (David Wayne, The Three Faces of Eve), is one of Eban's few friends, and admits to envying him because, "doing what you want to do, at any cost, is the real measure of a man." Gus cleverly wrangles a local pub owner into hiring Eban to paint a mural over the bar, providing Eban with money and free food for the next few weeks. Celebrating their ruse, Eban tells Gus about Jennie and shows him her scarf. But Gus is more interested in the old newspaper because it's dated 1910. Both men quickly note the story about the Appletons' tragic accident in which both performers were killed. Eban remembers that Jennie's clothes, even for a schoolgirl, weren't really in accord with current fashions, and he recalls her saying, "I wish you would wait for me to grow up so that we can always be together."
Jennie does indeed "grow up" over the course of her encounters with Eban. One of his sketches of Jennie impresses Miss Spinney enough to admit, "Remember my saying there is something eternal about a woman? Something not of the present, nor of the past? Well, you've captured it! What you see in this face is without age or time."
At their next meeting, Eban asks her pose for him so he can go beyond a mere sketch and paint a genuine a portrait of Jennie. She's delighted, and echoing Miss Spinney's comment, Jennie reminds Eban, "The strands of our lives are woven together, and neither the world nor time can tear us apart." Then Jennie completely vanishes from Eban's life. His search into her background evinces some surprising revelations about this girl whom he'd watched grow into a woman, and about the nature of loneliness, love, and the unpredictable peculiarities of time.
I won't go any further into the plot except to say that the portrait hangs in the Metropolitan Museum of Art, and several schoolgirls are admiring Jennie's beauty. "I wonder if she was real," says one of them. "She must have been!" Miss Spinney is standing nearby and tells the girl, "What difference does it make? She was real to him...otherwise she couldn't look so alive." Even Miss Spinney isn't sure if Jennie was real, or a mere figment of his imagination, but she knows that Eban had finally discovered his artistic Muse.
The performances of Jennifer Jones, Joseph Cotton, and Ethel Barrymore are faultless. Jones is totally believable as Jennie Appleton, aging from a coy teenager to a ravishing young woman. And in each of her subsequent "appearances," there's a growing sadness and desperation as she tries to convince Eban to "Wait for me. There's no life until you're loved, and once you're loved, then there is no death." In 1944, Jones won the Best Actress Oscar for The Song of Bernadette, but I think the mystical and mystifying aspects she instills in Jennie make this her most memorable cinematic achievement.
Joseph Cotton portrays Eban Adams with the typical frustration of a struggling artist unable to sell his work, but with no self-pity whatsoever. That's why, as the film's central character, Eban is an inspiration to a friend like David Wayne's Gus, and to Barrymore's Miss Spinney, who sees his potential and nudges him in the right direction. In the role of her assistant, Mr. Matthews, Cecil Kellaway basically delivers the near-copyrighted performance he's perfected throughout his entire career; that of the kindly, soft-spoken gentleman with a knowledgeable and ever-present twinkle in his eye. Lillian Gish (Duel in the Sun) has an all-too-brief cameo as a Sister of Mercy who holds an important clue to Jennie's past.
MGM has apparently repackaged Anchor Bay's initial 2000 DVD release of the film while leaving out the scant extras. The stunning and imaginative cinematography by Joseph H. August (The Devil and Daniel Webster, Gunga Din) is more than slightly compromised by this transfer, and nothing has been done to enhance it.
I found this rather disappointing, especially when compared to MGM's DVD of He Walked by Night, released last year. MGM must have acquired an archival print of the latter, because it was a low-budget film noir, but the images on this disc are near pristine, with razor-sharp contrast and saturated blacks, finally doing justice to John Alton's camerawork. Portrait of Jennie, however, looks muddy, most notably in the Central Park scenes where bright skies, snow, and city backgrounds turn Jennie's face into a blurred shadow for too long a time. Considering Portrait of Jennie was a high-profile Selznick production, starring his protégé Jennifer Jones, I expect he would taken a Hitchcockian approach and personally guided the hand of every crewmember to perfectly capture the essence of this actress's beauty and allure in every scene. But too many of her ethereal elements have been lost in this transfer.
I've read several conflicting articles, reports, and reviews about the "widescreen process" Selznick employed for the climactic "hurricane sequence." I got the impression that it was on a par with Abel Gance's Napoléon (1927), so I contacted Martin Hart, Curator of the American Widescreen Museum, who is an expert on all films in the various 'Scopes and 'Visions. He explained that Gance "kicked in two extra projectors for the finale, widening the screen from the standard 1.37:1 ratio to 1.4:1." (Hey, folks, keep in mind: This concept predated Cinerama by almost two-and-a-half decades!)
Mr. Hart went on to note that Selznick's idea for "widescreen" was not as extravagant. "If I recall correctly, Selznick referred to his spectacular hurricane sequence as using a 'Cycloramic Screen'...and it entailed nothing more than the installation of a larger 1:37.1 screen, and a shorter projection lens to fill the bigger space. And to clarify things, the shape of the screen didn't change, only its dimensions."
As for bringing this effect to DVD, Mr. Hart concluded, "There is really no way to reproduce this effect on DVD other than making the bulk of the picture ridiculously small, and then letting it revert to normal size for the hurricane." Selznick also used Cyclophonic Sound, "a multi-channel sound effects track made up to play in synch with the last reel."
Unfortunately, only the bigger theater chains in the largest cities were able to accommodate these innovations. So most of what audiences saw and heard in 1948, is exactly the same way you will experience it on MGM's DVD.
To further enhance the effect, the hurricane sequence was tinted green, and the following scenes were all in sepia. The film ends, though, with a Technicolor close-up of the portrait of Jennie. The film is beautifully edited by William Morgan (Song of the South), and for several transition scenes, his dissolves employ a textured filter, giving the impression that the images are on canvas.
Portrait of Jennie was a box-office failure upon its initial release. A few years later, Selznick re-titled it Tidal Wave, attempting to target a different audience. Many found this bittersweet romantic fantasy a much too cloying melodrama or a downright pompous bore. If you can get past the heavy-handed, metaphysical opening narration -- with a God-like voice in the clouds intoning references to time, life, death, infinity and the shadows of knowledge -- I think you will find yourself entranced by Portrait of Jennie.
Not guilty! I'm still waiting for my "Jennie," but Miss Jones will do for the meantime.
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Scales of Justice
* Full Frame
* Dolby Digital 1.0 Mono (English)
Running Time: 86 Minutes
Release Year: 1948
MPAA Rating: Not Rated
* The American Widescreen Museum