Portrait of Jennie


Rating *5*

Directed by William Dieterle

Written by Paul Osborn , Peter Berneis, Ben Hecht (uncredited) and David O Selznick (uncredited) – adaptation by Leonardro Bercovici from the novel by Robert Nathan

Starring Joseph Cotton (Eben Adams), Jennifer Jones (Jennie Appleton), Ethel Barrymore (Miss Spinney), Cecil Kellaway (Matthews), Lillian Gih (Mother Mary of Mercy), David Wayne (Gus O’Toole), Albert Sharpe (Moore), Florence Bates (Mrs Jekes), Henry Hull (Eke) and Clem Bevans (Captain Cobb)

Eben Adams is an unsuccessful and starving artist in New York City who manages to sell a sketch to art dealer Miss Spinney for $12, not because she is particularly impressed by his work, but because she sees a spark of something in him. Soon afterwards, he encounters Jennie, a rather strange but engaging girl, in Central Park and then soon after secures a commission to paint a mural depicting the Irish rebel Michael Collins in a local bar. He has more encounters with Jennie and becomes increasingly obsessed with painting her portrait, but on each occasion she is noticeably older than the last. As he falls more and more in love with her he realises that he is a witness to fragments of events from the past.


During the long production of ‘Portrait of Jennie’ Jennifer Jones, who had been married to Robert Walker, the troubled actor whose memorable final performance was in Alfred Hitchcock’s 1951 film ‘Strangers on a Train’, had a long relationship with producer David O Selznick, the legendary film producer responsible for ‘Gone With the Wind’ amongst many others. They married in 1949. Selznick was perpetually unhappy with results he saw during the production, commissioned numerous rewrites, some of which he undertook himself, and tinkered with the film for over a year before it finally received its theatrical release on Christmas Day 1948. It was not a success, but it is now considered to be a classic film of its time.

‘Portrait of Jennie’ is based on a 1940 novel by Robert Nathan, who also wrote ‘The Bishop’s Wife’. The film has an eerie dreamlike quality that perfectly suits the tale of a doomed young woman who calls across time to an artist who had once painted the scene of her death. Even the rather blatant republican propaganda of the mural of Michael Collins, the Commander-in-Chief of the Irish National Army who was killed during the Irish Civil War in 1922, has an certain value. Jennifer Jones and the always reliable Joseph Cotton (a long-time collaborator of Orson Welles and the star of the classic Alfred Hitchcock film ‘Shadow of a Doubt’) give good performances and there is excellent support from Cecil Kellaway and, in particular, Ethel Barrymore, the grand-aunt of Drew Barrymore and a formidable presence in American theatre.

The German director William Dieterle was a steady hand who had previously directed ‘The Story of Louis Pasteur’ and ‘The Life of Emile Zola’, both starring the now largely forgotten Paul Muni, who was once considered to be one of America’s greatest actors, winning one Oscar for Best Actor and receiving five other Academy Award nominations. He also directed ‘The Hunchback of Notre Dame’ starring Charles Laughton.

Jennifer Jones, who did at the age of 90 on 19 December 2009, having survived a suicide attempt in 1967 that left her in a coma, two years after the death of her husband David O Selznick, won an Academy Award for Best Actress in 1943 for her role in ‘The Song of Bernadette’. She was nominated on three subsequent occasions; for ‘Love Letters’ in 1945, ‘Duel in the Sun’ in 1946, in which she also co-starred opposite Joseph Cotton, and ‘Love is a Many-Splendored Thing’ in 1955. She received a Best Supporting Actress nomination for ‘Since You Want Away’ in 1944. ‘Duel in the Sun’, a controversial film at the time of its release in 1946, also featured Lillian Gish, who received a Best Supporting Actress nomination for her role. Gish, who plays Mother Mary of Mercy in ‘Portrait of Jennie’, had been a major film star during the silent era. When, in 1999, the American Film Institute announced a list of the 50 top stars of American cinema, 25 male and 25 female, Gish was included at No.17 in the list of “female legends”.

‘Portrait of Jennie is a film of ethereal beauty and fully deserves its reputation.

Review posted 2 January 2010


1 comment:

Anonymous said...

$12? I thought it was $.50 for the flower painting. Adams is given a dollar, but doesn't have change, so he gets the remainder of the money as an advance of sorts. I think he sells the actual portrait of Jennie (his masterpiece!) for a whopping $25.