“Portrait of Jennie” (1948) has become a fantasy classic, but it did poorly at the box office in an era when more realistic films with grittier themes brought new style and energy to Hollywood filmmaking.
It is inevitably unfair to compare a movie with the novel on which it was based because films and novels are apples and oranges. They require different dynamics of storytelling. That being said, it is unfortunate that the depth and gentleness of author Robert Nathan’s prose was not captured in the screenplay for this film. It is also perhaps understandable why it could not.
The film has many attributes that recommend it, including an interesting use of color tinting at the climatic storm scene where with a sudden bolt of lightning, the night sky and the churning surf turn an eerie green and we are jolted from a black and white film to a surrealistic monochromatic color world. This loses some of its powerful effect when we see close-ups of Jennifer Jones and Joseph Cotten, their faces also tinted green, and the dramatic eeriness merely becomes grotesque and bizarre. At the very end of the film, we see the finished painting of Jennie in full Technicolor.
The location shooting in New York City with its many scenes set on city streets and in Central Park, and the overhead shots of Manhattan and the skyline are impressive, as well as the use of Graves End Light in Boston Harbor to stand in for the lighthouse where Eben and Jennie struggle against the tidal wave.
The cast of the film are superb, with the luminescent Jennifer Jones seemingly re-creating the unselfconscious innocence which won her the Academy Award in “Song of Bernadette” (1943) as she plays Jennie, who ages from a girl at the beginning of the film (with some costuming and trick photography), to a young woman by the end of the film. Joseph Cotten plays what is probably one of his last roles as a romantic lead, the down and out artist struggling to find his muse. The wonderful Ethel Barrymore has a pivotal role as Miss Spinney, the crusty art dealer who spurs Eben’s genius and changes his fortunes, and displays unaccustomed sympathy to a young artist who is clearly lost and heartsick.
Lillian Gish plays a small role as Jennie’s teacher, Mother Mary of Mercy with that famous silent movie expressive face. It is a shame that Miss Barrymore and Miss Gish have no scenes together. That would be something. It’s interesting that these two grand dames of theatre and the early days of film had so much history and experience behind them, and yet were nowhere near done with their working years. Miss Gish, in particular, kept working practically until she died at close to 100 years of age. It’s always great to see the very old partnered on screen with the very young.
David Wayne as Gus makes a strong film debut in this film, and at the very final scene we see three teenaged girls who all went on to careers in film, television, and the White House. They are Anne Francis, Nancy Olson, and Nancy Davis, who we last saw (see entry December 27, 2007) in “The Next Voice You Hear” (1950).
The film presents another rare example in Maude Simmons, playing an African-American character which is not stereotyped or demeaned. This was the second of only three film roles ever played by Miss Simmons, who is Clara, a former theatre wardrobe mistress who knew Jennie as a child, “She used to sit on my lap. I used to give her rock candy.” She helps Eben uncover clues about Jennie’s life. She is a stately, well-spoken, gentlewoman. Eben, and we ourselves, are led to her by former theatre backstage figure Pete played by Felix Bressart who directs Eben to Clara and remarks sympathetically, “Those colored people. Very wise people …They know what trouble is.” It is an unusual comment, out of context and having nothing to do with the story, and shows us, perhaps a bit self consciously, that Hollywood is starting to slide out of the era of ridiculous and insulting caricature.
The character of Gus, the taxi driver who befriends Eben and helps in his quest for Jennie, is however changed to a very stereotyped Irishman, with a brogue (who actually plays the harp in one scene) and a comic ethic chauvinism which gets Eben a job painting a mural in a local bar, of the Irish patriot Michael Collins. In the book, the mural is a pastoral scene enlivened by nude maidens in repose. Eben is urged by the skittish bar owner, and jokingly by Gus, to “keep it clean.”
Perhaps the shift to a fully clothed subject is for the benefit of film. However in the novel Gus is not Irish. He is Gus Meyer, a good natured working stiff who mentions his Jewish background, and with his own simple religious philosophizing, provides a springboard to Eben’s spiritual awakening. This spiritual awakening is where the film really differs from the novel.
As Eben considers how Jennie, who ages each time he meets her, could possibly be from another time and who is gradually catching up to him and his time, where she hopes they will eventually be the same age, he spends a great deal of effort rejecting, and then learning to accept the impossible. Author Robert Nathan writes lyrical passages on Eben’s stream-of-consciousness brooding on the unreality presented by Jennie’s existence in his life, and how time could possibly move not in a straight line, but in elliptical patterns. There is a great deal of ruminating on God’s place in this mystery of Jennie.
Mr. Nathan writes, “We think of God, we think of the mystery of the universe, but we do not think about it very much, and we do not really believe that it is a mystery, or that we could not understand it if it were explained to us. Perhaps that is because when all is said and done, we do not really believe in God. In our hearts, we are convinced that it is our world, not His.”
As Eben struggles with rationalizing Jennie’s existence in some sort of time warp, “One must sometimes believe what one cannot understand. That is the method of the scientist as well as the mystic; faced with a universe which must be endless and infinite, he accepts it, although he cannot really imagine it.”
And as Eben finally lets go of his doubt and simply believes for the sake of believing, he grows more confident in the frightening modern world around him and feels safer in it. “Once upon a time, not so very long ago, men thought that the earth was flat, and that where the earth and heaven met, the world ended. Yet when they finally set sail for that tremendous place, they sailed right through it, and found themselves back again where they had started from. It taught them only that the earth was round.
“It might have taught them more.”
Such passages made “Portrait of Jennie” an intriguing and beautifully written novel, and far more spiritual and philosophical than the film, but these are Eben’s thoughts and it is difficult to film first person narrative without clogging the story with a lot of voice over narration. A film cannot be passive; it must have action. This is where the film and the novel differ most. In the novel, Jennie is both Eben’s muse and a real person with whom he begins to fall in love, and she with him. In the movie, it is more of a mystery with Eben’s seeking to prove Jennie’s existence. Not how she could possibly come to him over the mists of time, but is she actually real, or just his imagination?
In the book, Gus actually meets Jennie, as does Eben’s unpleasant landlady, and Miss Spinney reads evidence of her existence from a newspaper report on her being a steamship passenger who was lost at sea. In the movie, nobody sees Jennie but Eben, and the other characters disbelieve him. In the book we also have the colorful character of Arne, Eben’s friend and fellow artist, but unfortunately he is not included in the film.
The great storm in the novel is likely inspired by the unusual Hurricane of 1938, which seemingly came out of nowhere and pummeled a New England unused to tropical storms. With no warning, it left several hundred dead. In the film, the storm is a fictional 1920s event that Eben tries to circumvent and prevent Jennie’s tragic death by putting himself at the place it happened on the date it happened. In the novel, the storm is not foreseen by anything other than a vague premonition by Jennie, because it is not yet part of history. At the end of the novel, both Jennie and Eben are finally together in the present.
This is too ethereal even for a fantasy film, so the film must have more action than the novel and becomes a last minute race to save Jennie and change the course of history.
The film gives us good performances, if a somewhat cumbersome production. Jennifer Jones’ actual portrait was painted for the film by artist Robert Brackman, and producer David O. Selznick, who was also Miss Jones' future husband, reportedly displayed the painting in his home afterwards. Jennifer Jones’ fey qualities and soft voice, and that slight speech impediment all helped to instill a childlike quality to her younger Jennie, who as she ages never loses that clean look of innocence. Mr. Matthews, Miss Spinney’s partner in the art dealership, comments that, “There ought to be something timeless about a woman.” There surely seems to be about Jennifer Jones.
“Portrait of Jennie” was her fourth and final pairing with Joseph Cotten. She was just about to enter her 30s and he was in his mid-40s, and time would not really stand still for either of them, nor their careers.