Portrait of Jennie (1948). 86 minutes. Directed by William Dieterle. Starring Jennifer Jones (as Jennie Appleton), Joseph Cotten (as Eben Adams), Ethel Barrymore (as Miss Spinney), Lillian Gish (as Mother Mary of Mercy), Cecil Kellaway (as Mr. Matthews), David Wayne (as Gus O’Toole), and Albert Sharpe (as Moore). Produced by David O. Selznick.
Portrait of Jennie is one of several films that paired actors Joseph Cotten and Jennifer Jones together in a romantic scenario, but what is particularly noteworthy about this venture is the extent to which it blends sentimentality with supernatural fantasy. The plot concerns a painter who draws inspiration from someone whom we gradually suspect is a ghost. Given this premise, you may discern already that the potential for it to veer into melodramatic terrain is great, and with producer David O. Selznick at the helm, the events depicted do, in fact, grow to be over the top; the emotional storyline erupts in a cataclysmic fever towards the end in the form of a green-hued supernatural tidal wave that threatens to separate the painter from his ghostly muse forever. But if you can get past its frequently unbelievable plot points, you might find it an enjoyable entry in the fantasy genre, especially because its ethereal story is supplemented by beautiful footage of New York shot on location—an unusual practice for a 1940s film.
Down-and-out painter Eben Adams has little luck peddling his work to New York galleries until he has a chance encounter with a charming girl in Central Park named Jennie. Eben does not realize until after she is gone that she was dressed in old-fashioned clothing. He sells a sketch of her to gallery owners Matthews and Spinney and appears to be back on his feet, but what he really wants is to paint her portrait. He meets with Jennie again in the park but continues to be bewildered by her habit of referring to events in the past as if they are current and also by the rapid way in which she seems to be growing up. He begins to paint her portrait, and they share a romantic visit to the convent where she is attending school.
Finally, she tells Eben that she must go away to Massachusetts for a time. Despondent, he travels back to the convent and asks for information about her, but the nun who meets with him tells him that Jennie died in Massachusetts years earlier in a tidal wave. Eben rushes to the location of her demise, prepared, it would seem, to reenact her death but this time to rescue her. When he finds her there, however, he cannot save her. He makes his peace with his romance, and his portrait of Jennie launches his career.
Portrait of Jennie is in particular an enjoyable story about New York City. The film was shot on location in parts at considerable expense and at a time when location shooting was not the norm. The result is that the movie has a distinct and authentic look and feel. A large part of the story takes place in Central Park, whose benches and structures we come to know well. We also see Eben and Jennie ice skating outside, and on one late night they pass by some of the great stone buildings of the city’s downtown. There are also beautiful scenes shot at a nearby convent and girls’ school that look fresh and lush in the springtime. Overall, the location details make Portrait of Jennie seem grounded and authentic, and this quality results in a strange tension: while the story offers us events that are otherworldly, the on-site aspect of the shooting pulls us in another direction, towards the realistic and the everyday.
Similarly, although Portrait of Jennie focuses on a man’s fantastic relationship with a ghost, its characterizations are actually rather humane and personable. The movie is keen to document the moods of its protagonist as he experiences longing and solitude. In early scenes, we see Eben wandering around the parks of Manhattan with his paintings under his arm, trying to sell his work and failing. As a person he comes across as despondent and lonely, and as an artist he seems frozen and incapable of creating things of beauty. Yet Eben is an expert at dealing with his own feelings of disappointment and frustration, and like so many other Joseph Cotten characters, he suffers with coolness, resignation, and introspection.
Eben’s love for Jennie is the primary reason that he is able to paint again and with success. Eben himself implicitly understands this, and so do his supporters, gallery owners Matthews and Spinney—played by the wonderful Cecil Kellaway and Ethel Barrymore, respectively. Barrymore is excellent as a deeply critical spinster who knows all about good and bad art and feels more than a little affection for Eben. But interestingly she as an expert relies on the peculiar notion that good painting is all about the artist’s muse—not study, discipline, skill, or hard work. That is to say, there are many fantasies in this movie, and one of those fantasies is that good art is born out of inspiration alone, produced by romantic surges of feelings.
The movie’s enthusiasm for its protagonist’s dramatic source of inspiration ties into a larger penchant for inflation. For example, we can see in the opening sequence that Portrait of Jennie is already establishing a spirit of exaggeration that will continue throughout the film. The first shots consist of scrolling footage of clouds and a god-like voiceover that makes generalized pronouncements about life and death. Then we see two epigraphs from great titans of Western literature, Euripides and Keats, which out of context sound like platitudes. By using the voiceover and the quotations, the movie strives in this opening to convince us that something weighty is being undertaken and grand statements about the human condition will be established over the ensuing hour and a half. This narrative strategy creates a sizable burden for the story to shoulder, but inflation and melodrama were also features of the other Selznick productions from this period, namely Gone with the Wind (1939) and Duel in the Sun (1946), the latter of which also featured Joseph Cotten and Jennifer Jones. It is fair to say that Selznick deliberately amplified his productions to create a sense of grandeur and profundity. It is also fair to say that this aspect of Portrait of Jennie has aged the least well.
Fortunately, the movie improves from its grandiose opening. As the supernatural plot unfolds, Portrait of Jennie surprisingly comes to resemble some of the better weirdo science fiction movies of the 1940s and 1950s, complete with eerie theramin music and creepy green tinting in the storm sequence at the end. I especially liked this movie when it resembled The Twilight Zone. In particular, Portrait of Jennie reminds me of the episode “Miniature” starring Robert Duvall, whose character falls in love with the apparition of a young woman that he observes living in a doll house in a museum. In the end he is transported by his love for her and becomes a miniature in the doll house with her. Likewise, in Portrait of Jennie a man who seems to understand he is experiencing ghostly visitations has to figure out what to do when he falls in love with the woman who haunts him. Thinking of “Miniature,” I was half expecting Eben in Portrait of Jennie to be transformed into something with Jennie as well—maybe, I thought, they will both manifest in the painting, where they could reside eternally, or perhaps they could live forever in the lighthouse on the island where Jennie dies. Early in the movie, I was captivated by the fantastic possibilities of a dream lover materializing just when needed in a public space, coming and going unexpectedly, always fading into the sun or emerging from it, confined strangely to Central Park but never explaining why she lingers there.
But Portrait of Jennie falls into the trap first of misleading us and then of making its supernatural elements seem regular and predictable. At first, Eben seems to understand that Jennie is not real. He believes her visitations are real, but he knows that the newspaper she leaves at their first encounter is from the early 1900s, that the theater her parents work at has disappeared from the New York landscape, that her parents died long ago (even though she says they died the same night of one of their visits), etc. He knows she is not real, or is a ghost, or is something other than a live human being. That much is clear, and we enjoy his acceptance of Jenny’s strange appearances, his cool resignation that he cannot control when she materializes, and his mature sorrow when he goes for long periods without her.
When he visits the nun at the convent, however, he is shocked to learn that Jennie is dead. We might wonder how this can be, given how the movie has been proceeding. That scene is the weakest in the film, for it involves Eben not only refusing to believe something that has been obvious to the rest of us for some time but also concocting a ridiculous plot to travel to the cape where she perished so he can intervene and save her on the anniversary of her death. The movie would be more nuanced if Eben accepted that Jennie is dead and calmly decided to make his peace with her. We would be spared the histrionic climax, the wild whipping and frenzied storm, the cataclysmic tidal wave.
By treating Jennie’s death scenario as something he can logically recreate and therefore save her from, Eben not only indulges in a far-fetched scheme but also makes Jennie’s predicament fairly banal and predictable. In this way, Portrait of Jennie suffers from the same fate of so many modern-day fantasy films that construct alternate worlds and insist on resolving their fantastic mystery with mechanical solutions. The modern fantasy film’s struggle to make everything logical is strangely at odds with the convoluted devices that its characters make use of to conquer evil, reveal truth, and rescue loved ones—schemes that require suspension of belief, superhuman strength, and interventions of divine magnitude. What makes the reliance on this pattern especially frustrating here is that Portrait of Jennie has the seeds of a good movie about the supernatural and the promise of a strange, other-worldly love story that could be handled delicately and quietly. It is especially frustrating because we see its potential to be something more profound.
Given those objections, I am still glad to have seen Portrait of Jennie, in part because Joseph Cotten as Eben is a pleasure to watch. With this performance, he joins the annals of other actors in 1940s cinema to depict painters in peculiar situations, alongside Edward G. Robinson in Scarlet Street (1945) and Humphrey Bogart in The Two Mrs. Carrolls (1947). All three movies push their sensitive creative types to the limit, but whereas Scarlet Street and The Two Mrs. Carrolls show their painters descending into psychological instability and crime, Cotten’s Eben is actually redeemed by his extravagant mental life in the end. Portrait of Jennie suggests that creativity can be liberating and the unknown can be a source of psychic nourishment. That it manages to convey these ideas effectively in spite of the weaknesses I have described is a testament to characters like Cotten’s Eben and Barrymore’s Spinney, whose stories demonstrate the curious ways that we can be affected both by art and other people, even at times when the rest of the movie seems to have forgotten the primacy of those themes.