Eben Adams is a struggling artist in Depression era New York who has never been able to find inspiration for a painting. One day, after he finally finds someone to buy a painting from him, a young girl named Jennie Appleton appears and strikes up an unusual friendship with Eben.
“The past and the future are together at our side forever.”
Romantic fantasies are often a tricky business. The best of these movies warm the heart and nourish the soul by touting love's ability to defy the boundaries of time and space. But presenting a plausible premise, coaxing the audience to take a leap of faith, sustaining the suspension of disbelief, and supplying a satisfying conclusion can confound even the most seasoned film veterans. Exhibit A: David O. Selznick. He produced the mammoth Gone With the Wind, but the comparatively minuscule Portrait of Jennie ended up costing more money (!), nearly drove him crazy, and forced him into semi-retirement. Yet his efforts weren’t in vain. Though dismissed as stodgy and pretentious at the time of its release, Portrait of Jennie has grown in stature over the years, and its poetic tone, uplifting spirit, and attractive stars make it one of Hollywood’s most romantic and intriguing ghost stories, a cozy classic that’s perfect to cuddle up with on a cold winter’s night.
Adapted from Robert Nathan's beloved novella, Portrait of Jennie deftly juxtaposes melancholy and longing with moments of unbridled joy. With simplicity, sensitivity, and lyrical grace, director William Dieterle captures the wispy yet powerful essence of love and how it shapes, molds, and impacts us. He also avoids many of the syrupy pitfalls that often sabotage such pictures. The story may creak a bit around the edges, but it still exudes a haunting resonance that only the most hardened cynics will be able to resist.
The film forgoes opening credits in favor of a preachy narrated prologue that quotes Euripides and Keats as it sets the story's mystical tone. Then we’re introduced to Eben Adams (Joseph Cotten), a lonely, somewhat depressed, and utterly discouraged young artist who morosely pounds the New York City pavement in the hope of someday piquing an art dealer’s interest in one of his paintings. His landscapes and still lifes lack passion, says Miss Spinney (Ethel Barrymore), a savvy, self-professed old maid who owns a gallery with her partner, Mr. Matthews (Cecil Kellaway). Despite her criticisms, Spinney sees potential in Eben’s work, and believes the right subject will unleash the full measure of his creativity and talent.
That subject soon appears during a winter’s stroll through Central Park. A 12-year-old girl building a snowman calls out to Eben and engages him in conversation. Naive and child-like yet wise beyond her years, Jennie Appleton (Jennifer Jones) seems to come from another time. She refers to buildings that have been torn down as if they were still standing and talks about Germany’s Kaiser Wilhelm as if he were still in power. (The movie takes place in 1934, 16 years after the end of World War I.) Jennie looks at a few of Eben’s pictures and suggests he might try his hand at painting portraits. Then she sings a strange song, makes an even stranger wish, and disappears almost as quickly as she arrived. Though they only share a few moments together, this ethereal girl makes an indelible impression upon Eben, who can’t shake the thought of her.
A week or two later, he runs into her again while ice skating in the park, but Jennie has gotten a bit older. She tells him she’s “hurrying,” trying to grow up faster than normal so she and Eben can “always be together.” Though their meetings are sporadic and fleeting over the course of several months, their bond continually strengthens as Jennie blossoms into a young woman. When she finally approaches Eben’s age, the two grow closer and fall in love. He endeavors to paint her portrait, even as mysteries continue to swirl about her. Is Jennie real or an illusion? Did she somehow cross a continuum of time to be with him? Will they defy fate or acquiesce to its demands?
Spiraling costs, long delays, script problems, and personnel issues plagued the production of Portrait of Jennie, which dragged on for a couple of years, but despite some syncing issues and occasional sloppy edits, it’s an impressive achievement. The location shooting in New York City and Massachusetts lends the tale an authenticity most Hollywood movies of the period lack, and some splashy visual and audio effects, including tinting, a splash of Technicolor, and multi-channel sound, transform the climax into a mini spectacle. (Just as some films today feature IMAX sequences, Portrait of Jennie employed a short-lived process called Magnascope - in which the screen enlarges vertically to accommodate a bigger image - for a pivotal storm scene. Unfortunately, only a couple of theaters in major cities could project the film in that fledgling format, so the wow factor was lost on most audiences, and Magnascope soon faded into oblivion.)
Still, the film’s intimate moments remain the most affecting, and the wonderful chemistry between Jones and Cotten fuels them. Many have claimed Portrait of Jennie was Selznick’s personal love letter to Jones, who he discovered, nurtured, and would soon marry, and he makes sure she’s gorgeously photographed here by Joseph H. August. Jennie is a difficult role because the character subtly yet quickly ages throughout the movie. Every scene requires a different look, a bit more maturity, and an increased stature, and Jones marvelously meets those challenges, crafting a delicate, luminous performance. Cotten easily could have portrayed Eben as a self-pitying sad sack, but he adds a great deal of dimension to the character, while Barrymore and Lillian Gish temper the mystical proceedings with some much needed gravitas.
The troubles Selznick endured - or brought on himself - while filming Portrait of Jennie were so debilitating, he never produced another movie. And that’s a shame, because as a swan song for the maker of Gone With the Wind, Portrait of Jennie is unsatisfactory. Yet this well-intentioned and often beautifully executed film stands on its own as a mysterious, magical, and spiritual romance that elevates love to a rarefied plane. And in this troubling and disturbing day and age, there's a lot to be said for that.
Vital Disc Stats: The Blu-ray
Portrait of Jennie arrives on Blu-ray packaged in a standard case with reversible cover art. Video codec is 1080p/AVC MPEG-4 and audio is listed as DTS-HD Master Audio 2.0 mono, but it played as 1.0 mono on my system. An alternative audio option provides a DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 surround mix during the climactic storm sequence. Once the disc is inserted into the player, the static menu with music immediately pops up; no previews or promos precede it.
There’s good news and bad news about Kino’s 1080p/AVC MPEG-4 transfer. On the plus side, the cinematography of Joseph H. August (who died shortly before the film was finished and received a posthumous Oscar nomination for his work) is often very nicely rendered, with good clarity, contrast, and gray scale variance supplying essential warmth and richness to this romantic tale. Some transitions are shot through a canvas to enhance the painter’s perspective, and the texture of the surface’s delicate weave is crisp and vibrant. Blacks are appropriately lush, whites are bright and well defined, and close-ups beautifully showcase Jones’ fresh-faced loveliness, Cotten’s thoughtful demeanor, and the aged radiance of Ethel Barrymore. Most notably, the green-tinted storm sequence, which infuses the climax with tumult and menace, remains intact, as does the sepia-toned scene that follows it (although the sepia looks a tad pinkish and anemic). The final money shot of Jennie’s portrait, which is filmed in glorious three-strip Technicolor, looks terrific and adds a striking punctuation mark on the picture.
Sadly, detracting from all these positives is a print that hasn’t received much tender loving care. While some stretches sport a clean, smooth finish, most of the movie is plagued by flurries of nicks and scratches that distract the eye and disrupt the story’s delicate, dream-like atmosphere. Grain levels wildly fluctuate, giving the impression the print was culled from various sources. Most scenes flaunt a lovely film-like feel, but several appear soft, murky, and grainy, with crush occurring occasionally. Portrait of Jennie has never looked great on home video, but despite its deficiencies, this transfer still outclasses its predecessors, and until a full restoration is performed, it honors the film well enough.
The audio fares much better. Kino offers two options - a DTS-HD Master Audio 2.0 track (although on my system, the sound only emanated from the center channel) and a DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 track, which duplicates the mono track for the bulk of the film, then kicks into multi-channel gear for the climactic storm sequence. Though there are no directional separations during the storm sequence (the sound coming out of all five speakers is identical), the effect is both impressive and intense, as it thrusts us into the thick of a violent hurricane replete with howling winds and monstrous surf.
The rest of the audio is clear, nuanced, and well modulated. Aside from its tumultuous climax, Portrait of Jennie is a relatively quiet film, and subtleties like footsteps are nicely rendered. All the dialogue is easy to comprehend (though some of the overdubbing does not sync well) and Dimitri Tiomkin’s variations on Claude Debussy’s themes sound rich and robust. A wide dynamic scale handles all the highs and lows without a hint of distortion, and no age-related hiss, pops, or crackles intrude. This is a quality track that conveys the movie’s mysticism and romantic nature quite well.
Just a couple of supplements are included on the disc.
Audio Commentary - Author Troy Howarth supplies a brand-new audio commentary that’s both informative and entertaining. Though he spends a bit too much time during the beginning of the film rehashing the plot, he soon settles into more involving topics. Howarth provides bios of myriad members of the cast and crew, cites the humanism that pervades the movie, addresses its ballooning budget and some of its disturbing and subversive themes, touches upon producer David O. Selznick’s obsession with actress Jennifer Jones (whom he would marry a year after the picture’s release), and compares Portrait of Jennie to other supernatural love stories. Perhaps the most interesting portion of Howarth’s discussion deals with the Magnascope process the movie employs during the climactic storm sequence, as well as attempts to develop and promote multi-channel audio. All in all, this is a solid track that fans of the film should definitely check out.
Trailer Gallery (HD, 10 minutes) - In addition to the original preview for Portrait of Jennie, four other trailers for Selznick films starring Jennifer Jones and/or Joseph Cotten are included on the disc. The two actors appear together in Duel in the Sun and Since You Went Away, while Cotten co-stars with Ginger Rogers in I’ll Be Seeing You and Jones teams with Rock Hudson in the 1957 remake of A Farewell to Arms.
One of the all-time great romantic fantasies, Portrait of Jennie still possesses the power to tug the heart strings as it tells the tender story of two lost souls separated by time who share fleeting moments of happiness. A radiant Jennifer Jones and sensitive Joseph Cotten portray the star-crossed lovers, and they receive excellent support from legendary actresses Ethel Barrymore and Lillian Gish. Supplements are a bit thin and the inconsistent source material would benefit from a full restoration, but tinted and Technicolor sequences, as well as a burst of multi-channel audio, enhance the appeal of this lush, lyrical film that deserves more recognition than it’s gotten over the years. Recommended.