Portrait of Jennie – A Cinema Static Classic Movie Reflection

by on September 26, 2010

in Entertainment, movie reviews

Portrait of Jennie (1948) starring Jennifer Jones and Joseph Cotton

Today’s Cinema Static Classic Movie Reflections film that we’re taking a peek at is the 1948 production of Portrait of Jennie.

While not regarded as a science fiction story, I’ve filed it amongst my science fiction movie collection for several reasons. The decade this was made in was not very productive in terms of quality science fiction movies.  The early 40s were filled with serials, (Flash Gordon, etc.), sequels to movies from the 30s (like The Invisible Man’s Revenge) and spy movies (for the war effort).  Many might be surprised to know that the first movie versions of Batman and Superman were made in the 40s, but the production quality and stories were unremarkable which could be why these movies are rarely seen or heard about today.  While Portrait of Jennie is not sci fi, it is fantasy and good quality fantasy at that.

Taken from the book by Robert Nathan, a writer and poet, the book (or novella) was published in 1940.  Producer extraordinaire, David O. Selznick (Gone with the Wind, The Third Man, King Kong) bought the rights soon afterward as a vehicle for actress Jennifer Jones.  (They were involved in an affair that would culminate in divorce from her husband Robert Walker in 1944.)  The filming began in 1947 but Selznick was unhappy with the script and as many as five different writers worked on it but the ones who got credit were Robert Osborn, Peter Berneis and Leonardo Bercovici.

Filmed on location in New York City and Boston by acclaimed cinematographer Joseph August, the film projects a haunting atmosphere complimented by a score by Dimitri Tiomkin using themes from French composer Claude Debussy.  Unfortunately August died before the filming was completed but he was nominated for an Oscar anyway.

This movie is filled with great supporting actors, many of which had prestigious stage careers before coming to Hollywood, including Ethel Barrymore (great aunt of Drew), David Wayne (Mad Hatter in the Batman TV show), Lillian Gish, silent movie star, and Cecil Kellaway (Harvey).  If their names are unfamiliar to you, their faces will not be as each has been in numerous movies and TV shows.  As for the stars, Selznick cast Jennifer Jones as “Jennie” and the great Joseph Cotten as “Eben Adams,” the painter who tells the story.  In the role of Jennie, Jones had to go from a very young girl to a grown woman and although she was 28 at the time of filming, she does a wonderful job.  Joseph Cotten is superb as the painter, he brings a natural look and feel to his character that makes him entirely believable.  (Jones and Cotten teamed up to make 4 movies together.)

Portrait of Jennie Outline

New York City in Portrait of Jennie

The movie starts out with down and out painter Eben Adams (Joseph Cotton) making the rounds of the art galleries to try and sell his paintings against the bleak winter of New York City in the ‘30s.  He stops in a gallery run by Miss Spinney (Barrymore) and Mr. Mathews (Kellaway).  Miss Spinney buys a painting and gives him advice about how he needs to love his work more.  Elated, he walks home through Central Park where he meets a little girl oddly dressed in old fashion clothing talking about things that happened long ago.  Intrigued he tries his hand at sketching her later on while in his attic apartment.  He goes back to the same gallery to show his sketch and to his surprise both owners show interest in the sketch of Jennie and tell him he should try painting her portrait.

Portrait of Jennie with Jennifer Jones and Joseph Cotten

Eben runs into Jennie again in Central Park only this time she’s older.  They ice skate and he tells her he would like to paint her.  She’s excited by this prospect and agrees to sit for him.  But later on, she mysteriously disappears.

Following some of the clues Jennie left in her conversations with him, Eben decides to try and find her, and runs into more mystery and confusion.

The movie has no violence and limited special effects.  It’s not really big budget although the production values are very high (Selznick was a perfectionist).  What it does have is a stellar cast, haunting music, brilliant cinematography, top notch acting and ethereal beauty.  Like the portrait in the film (painted by noted portrait artist Robert Brackman), it’s a work of art, and you can tell the artists loved their work.

[Photos via IMDb, Great Films Pre 1961, Film Noir Photos.]

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