ETHEL BARRYMORE MONTH
PORTRAIT OF JENNIE ( 1948 )
To kick off Ethel Barrymore month, I’ve decided to start with “Portrait Of Jennie”, one of my favorite Ethel movies, and one of the films that most distinguish Ethel Barrymore as a film actress.
“Portrait Of Jennie” is a haunting timeless classic, starring Joseph Cotten, Jennifer Jones, Ethel Barrymore, and featuring Lillian Gish in a small cameo performance. Superbly directed by William Dieterle, and based on the Robert Nathan novella, which was first published in 1940. With a conglomeration of mystery, fantasy, romance, and delving into the medium known as supernatural, the book is considered to be the most successful of Nathan’s work, and to this day, the film is inaugurated as one of the greatest fantasy films in history.
The film takes you on a journey of mystery and fantasy to 1934’s New York, and the story of Eben Adams ( Joseph Cotten ), an indigent artist who has never been able to find inspiration in any of his paintings. One day during one of his daily strolls through Central Park he encounters a sweet little girl named Jennie Appleton ( Jennifer Jones ). The girl is unlike any other girl that Eben has met. She is bearing old fashioned clothes and has a mystique aura to her that leaves Eben fascinated by her presence, that he hits a galvanic current and makes a sketch of her from memory, and later presents the finished piece to art dealer, Miss Spinney ( Ethel Barrymore ) who sees potential in him, and encourages him to express his talent by painting a portrait of Jennie.
As time progresses, Eben unites with Jennie at intermittent intervals, each time witnessing Jennie’s strange transformations in appearance and growth. She seems to be aging faster than what is normal, and talks about events that he discovers happened many years previous than what Jennie is experiencing. Though he is perplexed by this esoteric young girl, a love affair slowly evolves, and before long Eben finds himself infatuated by Jennie, and is swept into the cobweb of mystery that is surrounding Jennie, until he discovers the enigma of the girl known as Jennie Appleton.
“The Portrait Of Jennie” is movie making to perfection. It is exquisitely crafted with great cinematography. The memorable tidal wave scene filmed in green tint, and the finale in full Technicolor is absolutely stunning, and really epitomizes the fine art of movie making. There is no other way to describe this movie other than: Beautiful, glorious, and haunting.
The film also spotlights the indelible talents of Ethel Barrymore, Cecil Kellaway, and Lillian Gish, which makes the film even more spectacular. Ethel delivered a commendable performance in the role as Miss Spinney, the amicable art museum owner. Though she has never seen Jennie, she realizes that Eben has discovered his inspiration and emboldens his confidence in his work. Jennifer Jones and Joseph Cotten are also well cast, and both delivered meritorious performances, but the actress I give the most credit to is Ethel Barrymore. She is absolutely excellent in everything she does, and never fails to impress.
Ethel Barrymore and Lillian Gish are both virtuosos in the entertainment industry. Ethel was a fully seasoned theatre actress, who also made her mark in silent pictures, and talkies, while Lillian was a notable silent film actress who remained eminent in her later career, appearing in films with a bodacious status. Being ardent supporters of both, I would have liked Ethel and Lillian to share a scene together. That would have been phenomenal.
Producer David O. Selznick initially considered filming this movie over a period of several years, casting a young actress in the role of Jennie and shooting portions of the film over time as the actress actually grew older in real life. (Shirley Temple, then under contract to Selznick, was reportedly intended for the role, had the movie been filmed that way.) In the end, however, Selznick abandoned the idea as too risky and difficult to film properly.
Special effects: Although almost the entire film is in black and white, the tidal wave sequence towards the end is shown in green tint, and the final shot of the completed portrait of Jennie is in full Technicolor. The original theatrical releases in Los Angeles (Carthay Circle Theatre), New York (Rivoli Theatre) and Boston (Esquire & Mayflower Theatres) presented the tidal wave sequence in Magnascope on the Cycloramic screen with Multi-Sound. The Cycloramic screen was claimed to be more reflective than regular screens with no distortion visible from any seat in the theatre, Multi-Sound was an early version of a Surround Sound-type speaker installation. Bosley Crowther, film critic for the New York Times, described it as “a howling hurricane that will blast you out of your seat.”
In the novella, all the characters can see Jennie; in the film only Eben can.
Jennie Appleton: I know we were meant to be together. The strands of our lives are woven together and neither the world nor time can tear them apart.
Jennie Appleton: There is no life, my darling, until you love and have been loved. And then there is no death.
Miss Spinney: Don’t be soft, Matthews. I’m an old maid, and nobody knows more about love than an old maid.
Ethel Barrymore: Born Ethel Mae Blythe on August 15th, 1879 in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. Died: June 18th, 1959, in Los Angeles, California. Aged 79.
Joseph Cotten: Born Joseph Cheshire Cotten, Jr. on May 15th, 1905 in Petersburg, Virginia. Died: February 6th, 1994 in Los Angeles, California. Aged 88.
Jennifer Jones: Born Phylis Lee Isley on March 2nd, 1919 in Tulsa, Oklahoma. Died: December 17th, 2009 in Malibu, California. Aged 90.