Published on May 27th, 2020 | by Taylor Cuddihy0
Oldie of the Week – Portrait of Jennie (1948)
Taylor Cuddihy begins a new series on his favorite Classic Hollywood gems. First up, a supernatural romance with a beautifully shot backdrop of New York.
One of the joys of delving into classical Hollywood films is appreciating the gorgeous black and white cinematography that has all but vanished from mainstream movies since colour took hold in the mid 1960s. For many years, the Academy Awards had separate categories for black and white and colour cinematography, though the dominance of colour in recent decades has rendered this split unnecessary. This brings me to William Dieterle’s Portrait of Jennie, a romantic fantasy nominated in 1948 for it’s beautifully dreamy black and white evocation of a winter in New York City by cinematographer Joseph H. August, but which also features a striking use of expressive colour in the film’s stormy climax.
The film tells the story of Eban Adams (Joseph Cotten), a struggling painter in depression era New York who has been undergoing a crisis of artistic confidence. He’s barely scraping by financially (his landlady’s bathroom is full of pictures he’s offered her in lieu of rent) but he’s more concerned about his lack of artistic inspiration. Wondering if the hardships he’s enduring to find success in the art world are worthwhile, he questions whether his talent is enough to justify his ongoing struggles.
Adams receives a small boost of confidence in the form of a compliment from art dealer Miss Spinney (Ethel Barrymore). She purchases a drawing of a flower from him, explaining that while his drawings show talent, they feel impersonal; after she praises the way he draws flowers, he tells her he has a whole carload of them and she replies “I was afraid of that.” Miss Spinney encourages Adams to find something, anything, that genuinely inspires him, something that would allow him to imbue his paintings with the sense of passion and love that she thinks is lacking in his current work. His source of inspiration soon materializes in the form of a mysterious young girl named Jennie (Jennifer Jones).
A spirited and friendly young girl, Jennie meets Adams in Central Park one day and quickly opens up to him about her family and friends. Adams is charmed by Jennie, drawing a sketch of her that he sells to Miss Spinney, who praises the drawing. Adams is inspired to paint a portrait of Jennie, but it is apparent from the beginning that there is something unusual about her, who appears to Adams mysteriously in the park every so often, each timing having aged considerably. Jennie and Adams fall in love over the course of their intermittent meetings, with Adams believing that she is the key to his artistic inspiration.
In between their encounters, Adams attempts to unravel the mystey of this girl who seemingly exists out of time, eventually learning the tragic truth that Jennie, who lost both of her parents when she was young, had herself died years ago. Every time Jennie and Adams meet, she is at a different stage of her life, until finally she must relive the scene of her death in an accident at sea, despite Adams attempts to rescue her from her fate. Adams is unable to save Jennie, but before witnessing her death he completes his portrait of her, which becomes highly acclaimed and serves as Adams’ breakthrough into success in the world of high art.
Their relationship is thus one of grand, supernatural romance, but with some darker elements at play. At one point Jennie describes their relationship as one of two lonely people who belonged together but were separated because “time made an error.” Somehow, a lonely young woman with a tragic past attempts to correct this error by reaching out across time and finding love with a struggling painter, along the way inspiring him to artistic greatness, and herself becoming immortalized in his work. Of course, the more troubling side to their romance is that Jennie is a mere phantom, one whom Adams becomes increasingly obsessed with when he cannot see her, believing that he cannot accomplish anything without her. As for Jennie, she is forced to relive the events of her short life, unable to prevent her inevitable death from occurring just as it did before she met Adams, and she undergoes all of this merely so that she can be a vessel for Adams’s artistic ambitions and kickstart his career.
Early in the film Adams meets his friend Gus, who explains to Adams why he admires artists like him. Most people, Gus explains, think that there’s nothing more to life than getting through as easily and comfortably as possible, so to meet someone who doesn’t seem to worry about mere practical concerns is to make one think that they’re missing something, that there is something more to life than “eating, sleeping, and dying.” This attitude of Gus is reflected in the film, which finds a certain romance, as well as a sense of nobility and courage, in the artist’s struggle, in the search for inspiration, creativity, and beauty in the face of an indifferent world.
There is a spiritual dimension to this struggle too. Late in the film Miss Spinney tells Adams that it doens’t matter if Jennie was real or not because she was real to her, explaining that you believe in things that aren’t real more commonly when you get older. Elsewhere, during one of Adams and Jennie’s encounters she explains the peace she felt in the church of the convent she stayed at following her parents’ death, as if she was closer to the truth there.
This sense of something ineffable and mysterious that exists just beyond the physical the realm yet provides hope and inspiration to people hangs over the film, likening Adams’s journey to an attempt to achieve religious transcendence through art. Jennie becomes a symbol of this transcendence, a ghostly presence who brings out his artistic talents and who becomes a kind of idealized figure of beauty for Adams. As Miss Spinney tells Adams, whether Adams’s vision of her existed or not is beside the point, the point is that he believed in her and she inspired him; here the film comments on the individual struggle to find meaning, the way people must make sense of life and death in their own specific ways, according to their own particular beliefs and ideals.
The film’s many striking visual touches create a vivid sense of atmosphere and complement these themes of artistic and spiritual striving. The frequent use of heavy shadows combined with Adams’s downbeat poetic narration as he wanders the town in a desperate obsessive search for Jennie at times gives him the flavour of a noir protagonist. Elsewhere, the use of mist and fog and heavenly shafts of light give Central Park in winter a dreamy, ethereal feeling, and the use of silent film-styled green tinting in the climax takes this mystical aesthetic to even more expressionistic heights.
The film’s opening narration speaks grandiloquently of lofty questions: “What is time?” “What is space?” “What is death?” “Each human soul must find the secret in its own faith.” While this narration may be a bit pompous in its announcement of the major, timeless questions the film grapples with, it nevertheless speaks to the openhearted earnestness with which the film addresses these themes. Portrait of Jennie is a compelling tribute to the struggle of the artist and the individual struggle for meaning in general, a passionately romantic ghost story enlivened and enriched with stunning visual flourishes, excellent performances, and a strong undercurrent of melancholy.
Check out the full movie on Youtube in the link below.