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One winter afternoon in 1932 a frustrated artist meets a mysterious young girl in Central Park and finds his life transformed by her haunting presence. A prestigious production from David O. Selznick, Portrait of Jennie (1948) is a Hollywood foray into romantic spirituality reminiscent of The Enchanted Cottage (1945) and The Ghost and Mrs. Muir (1947) as well as the 1990 supernatural tale Ghost. Selznick attempted to give Portrait of Jennie the sheen of high art by having noted screenwriter and playwright Ben Hecht (Notorious, 1946) write the foreword scroll to Jennie. This introductory text, which includes quotes from Euripides and Keats, was meant, Selznick told Hecht, to prepare the film's audience "for an entirely different kind of picture than they have ever seen."
A suitably earnest Joseph Cotten stars in this supernatural love story as Eben Adams, whose attempts to sell his landscape paintings are largely unsuccessful. But Adams' first portrait, of the bewitching Jennie Appleton (Jennifer Jones), whom he first encounters in the park, immediately sells to gallery owner Miss Spinney (Ethel Barrymore). Miss Spinney takes the young painter under her wing and proves just as intrigued by Adams' tales of the phantom-like Jennie, who comes and goes at will, as she is by Adams' stunning portraits of the sad-eyed girl.
At infrequent moments throughout the story, Jennie reappears to Adams, begging him to "wait until I grow up" so she can marry him. And each time she materializes she looks less like an adolescent and more like a young woman. Adams finds both his greatest muse and greatest mystery in Jennie and makes it his quest to find out more about the beguiling, beautiful girl. A visitation from another age, Jennie tells stories of a family trapeze act long since vanished and of a convent school education. D.W. Griffith star Lillian Gish makes an appearance in Portrait of Jennie as the school's mother superior, who tells Adams during a fact-finding visit, that Jennie died years ago.
More troubling still is the look of fear that comes into Jennie's eyes when she gazes at Adams' portrait of a roily New England sea or when she sings the lyrics to her signature, haunting refrain "Where I come from nobody knows/And where I'm going everything goes./The wind blows, the sea flows/And nobody knows" before disappearing yet again.
Adams eventually travels to New England in search of Jennie in an unexpected climax where her love-wracked suitor finally learns the truth about the lovely, elusive subject of his portraits.
Director William Dieterle enhances the eerie tone of Portrait of Jennie with stunning color sequences, like the raging New England hurricane at the film's conclusion -- whose storm clouds are a sickly green -- and in the final masterful portrait Adams paints of Jennie, unveiled in stunning Technicolor.
Producer David O. Selznick wrote in a memo about the climactic storm, "I hope to get a real D.W. Griffith effect out of this that will have tremendous dramatic power and enormous spectacular value, thereby adding a big showmanship element to the picture." Some of the film's other effects are equally beautiful and inspired, such as the rendering of scenes of Manhattan in the gauzy, dreamy terms of oil paintings.
Selznick was as haunted by the fetching real-life Jennie -- Jennifer Jones, that is -- as his on-screen proxy Eben Adams. After stealing the actress away from her husband Robert Walker (who reportedly suffered from extreme melancholy and carried a torch for Jones for the rest of his life), Selznick would dominate the actress both emotionally and professionally. Prone to jealousy, Selznick reportedly only chose leading men to appear alongside Jones who were in stable relationships and known for their fidelity like Gregory Peck and Joseph Cotten (at the time married to Lenore Kip), who had starred in four previous films with Jones and enjoyed a pleasant working relationship with the actress. The film's production, however, was not so ideal.
Shooting for Portrait of Jennie extended to a year and a half and proved to be a money-losing venture, requiring endless script revisions. Selznick recalled the film as "doomed to be one of the most awful experiences any studio ever had." The producer, overworked and exhausted by the endless demands of running an independent film production business, was especially galled by needless expenditures that bloated the film's budget. Selznick recoiled at expenses like $15,000 for "extras" in an ice skating scene featuring "skaters who for all practical purposes could have been the skaters that were in the park every day." Outfitted in thousands of dollars of wardrobe, these background skates appear as mere "specks in the distance" in the actual film.
Though the film's production was trouble plagued and emotionally fraught for Jones and Selznick, Portrait of Jennie was a boost to its stars' careers. Cotten was awarded a best actor award at the Venice Festival for his performance, and though Jones was not nominated for an Academy Award, she was nevertheless praised by critics for her performance as the troubled heroine in this haunting romantic thriller.
Producer: David O. Selznick
Director: William Dieterle
Screenplay: Paul Osborn, Peter Berneis and Leonardo Bercovici, based on the novel by Robert Nathan
Cinematography: Joseph August
Production Design: J. McMillan Johnson
Music: Dimitri Tiomkin
Principal Cast: Jennifer Jones (Jennie Appleton), Joseph Cotten (Eben Adams), Ethel Barrymore (Miss Spinney), Cecil Kellaway (Mr. Matthews), David Wayne (Gus O'Toole), Albert Sharpe (Mr. Moore), Florence Bates (Mrs. Jekes the Landlady), Lillian Gish (Mother Mary of Mercy).
BW-87m. Closed captioning.
by Felicia Feaster