THE HAUNTINGLY BEAUTIFUL PORTRAIT OF JENNIE ( 1948 )

“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.”

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Jennifer Jones was destined to become a star from the moment she arrived on Hollywood soil. Her surreal and enigmatic beauty immediately captivated the attention of her soon to be lover and husband, David O. Selznick, who took great pride in carving out her future by sending her on a journey that would lead to astronomical success.

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Jennifer Jones’ story is a fascinating tale of triumph and rejection. For most of her life, Jones was plagued with shyness and an extreme insecurity that fueled despondency and made her feel worthless, but underneath her meek exterior was a fierce determination that constantly forced her to try and achieve her dream of becoming a successful actress. This was realized when David O. Selznick developed a profound interest in Jennifer and hired her to play the coveted role of Bernadette Soubirous in The Song of Bernadette ( 1943 ).

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After enduring years of personal setbacks, Jennifer Jones was now living the dream. Not only did she receive an Academy Award for her performance, she was about to discover that a door to a world of opportunities was about to be opened. David O. Selznick knew that future acclaim was on the horizon, but with her considerable popularity came the worry that Jones would be lured into the arms of her co-stars. To prevent this, Selznick cast her in a series of successful films with legendary actor Joseph Cotten, who was happily married at the time and therefore would not be interested in pursuing a relationship with Jones.

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By now, David O. Selznick had become increasingly obsessed with finding Jones a film role that was unique and that would provide her with the opportunity to spawn magic whenever she appeared on screen. Although her previous films were financially successful, Selznick was in search of a vehicle that would place higher precedence on Jennifer Jones rather than the other characters.

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The answer to his search came as early as 1944. The film in question was Portrait of Jennie, a visually creative and poetic masterpiece that delves into the realms of the unknown. The novel of the same name by Robert Nathan, in which the film is based was an unusual fantasy tale that immediately sparked an interest in Selznick, who saw considerable promise in the story and wanted to bring it to life on screen with Jennifer Jones playing the central protagonist.

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On January 12th, 1944, David O. Selznick purchased the screen rights for Portrait of Jennie for $25,000 after several negotiations with his story editor Margaret McDonnell who supported his idea. Despite his enthusiasm, David decided to remain silent about his latest endeavor for a few months. The project was first announced on May 30th, 1944 when he stated that it was in preparation for Jennifer Jones. However, his plans were deconstructed. Somewhere along the way, Selznick scrapped the idea of casting Jones and offered the lead roles to both Vivien Leigh and Laurence Olivier in 1946, but when he discovered that both stars would likely decline, Selznick demanded that the casting aspects be forgotten. He was worried that his decision on casting Leigh and Olivier would send Jones into an outrage, though as it turns out, Joseph Cotten and Jennifer Jones had already secured the roles.

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Now that Jennifer Jones was back in the project, David O. Selznick wanted only the best people to work with her. The only director he felt could perfectly capture her ethereal beauty was William Dieterle, who had previously directed Jones and Cotten in Love Letters ( 1945 ) and had succeeded in augmenting her angelic face. Joseph August, whose work in Gunga Din and The Hunchback of Notre Dame greatly impressed David, was hired as the films cinematographer. Sadly, Joseph August passed away on September 25th, 1947, shortly after filming was completed.

PORTRAIT OF JENNIE, from left, Joseph Cotten, Ethel Barrymore, 1948

From the onset, Portrait of Jennie was steeped in chaos. David O. Selznick was constantly dissatisfied during filming. He disliked the early scenes and felt that the footage could be improved if a better location had been used. The wintry season created major obstacles when it came to shooting the scenes of Jennifer Jones as a young girl in Central Park. Selznick complained that the harsh winter light affected her appearance and made the whole film unrealistic. This made Selznick stop production until a better location was found. To further exacerbate matters, he was having trouble with his managing producer David Hempstead whose alcohol fueled lifestyle was an impediment to the picture. Selznick did everything in his power to try and patch up the complications caused by Hempstead, but the only thing he did to succeed was pay more attention to his producing duties at New York and the Boston Harbor locations.

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The filming of Portrait of Jennie created that much conflict, and after being embroiled in a series of misadventures that occurred while making the film, David O. Selznick often thought about abandoning the project. These problems never seemed to come to a halt. Everywhere he turned he would encounter more perplexing dilemmas. At one stage the script was at the root of his worries. He was constantly dissatisfied with the screenplay that he fired four different writers until he stumbled across Leonardo Bercovici whose new adaptation of the novel became the framework for Paul Osborn’s screenplay.

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“There is no life, my darling, until you love and have been loved. And then there is no death.”

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In addition to the problems that Selznick faced, most of the other cast members were agitated by Selznick’s meticulousness and his moments of irascibility. The ambiance on set was often described as tense. Nobody knew what mood Selznick was going to embrace from day to day, but the tumultuous filming schedule triggered his incensed anger. Beyond that, the production costs were sky high. Selznick wanted everything from a tinted color sequence at the films finale to real life filming locations, which drastically increased the price.

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In addition to the incessant complications, David O. Selznick was far from gratified with the final production. His main intent was to guide Jennifer Jones to critical acclaim and he was convinced that the film would give the world a glimpse into another window of her genius. However, the general public and critics viewed the film in a different light and felt that the story just didn’t work. Bosley Crowther from The New York Times described it as being “deficient and disappointing in the extreme.”, while Mae Tinee from the Chicago Daily Tribute wrote “There is nothing quite like the dull thud with which fantasy falls flat when it is handed gracelessly. What was intended as romantic becomes ridiculous, and nothing can save it.”. The films saving grace however, were the few positive reviews. Variety stated, “Portrait of Jennie is an unusual screen romance. The story of an ethereal romance between two generations is told with style, taste and dignity. William Dieterle has given the story sensitive direction and his guidance contributes considerably toward the top performances from the meticulously cast players. Jennifer Jones’ performance is standout. Her miming ability gives a quality to the four ages she portrays- from a small girl through the flowering woman. Ingenuity in makeup also figures importantly in sharpening the portrayal. Joseph Cotten endows the artist with a top performance, matching the compelling portrayal by Jones.”

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For David O. Selznick, making Portrait of Jennie turned out be a huge mistake. The failure of the film sent him on a financially troubled path that would lead to a brief exile in Europe. This decision also affected Jennifer Jones’ career, which seemed to falter after the picture was released. Although, Jones would continue to churn out successful films, she would only receive acclamation sporadically in the years that proceeded.

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In 1950, Portrait of Jennie was re-released as Tidal Wave, in the hopes that a new title would attract audiences and receive better recognition, but once again the attempts of furthering the film to greater heights proved erroneous.  The only praise that Portrait of Jennie received came in the form of Academy Awards for Best Effects and Special Effects. Joseph August was also recognized with an Oscar nomination for his masterful Black-and-White cinematography, but lost to William Daniels for The Naked City.

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At the time of the films release, Joseph Cotten was the only star that was lauded for Portrait of Jennie. The following year he received the International Prize for Best Actor for his portrayal of Eben Adams at the Venice International Film Festival. He would also go on to reprise his role in two radio adaptations as well as starring alongside Anne Baxter who played Jennie Appleton in a sixty minute dramatization for Lux Radio Theater on October 31st, 1949.

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In the years that followed, Portrait of Jennie has certainly survived the harsh criticism it attained on its release. As the years proceeded, the film has followed a long path that would ultimately lead to success, and would evoke considerable popularity with modern day audiences. Film historians consider it a classic of the fantasy genre and the performances by the lead players are held in high esteem.

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PROLOGUE

“Since time began man has looked into the awesome reaches of infinity and asked the eternal question: What is time? What is life? What is space? What is death? Through a hundred civilizations, philosophers and scientists have come together with answers, but the bewilderment remains… Science tells us that nothing ever dies but only changes, that time itself does not pass but curves around us, and that the past and the future are together at our side for ever. Out of the shadows of knowledge, and out of a painting that hung on a museum wall, comes our story, the truth of which lies not on our screen but in your hearts.”

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SYNOPSIS 

Portrait of Jennie transcends fantasy to another level. Masterfully directed by William Dieterle, and set in New York in 1934, the film tells the story of Eben Adams ( Joseph Cotten ), a struggling painter who triumphs over failure after meeting a mysterious young girl named Jennie Appleton ( Jennifer Jones ) in Central Park. Currently, Eben is working as a struggling artist whose dreams of prospering in his career seem to be a fanciful hope. His dreams are finally realized when Jenny enters his life. For once, he is struck with bouts of inspiration, and at long last, Eben has found his perfect painting subject, and that subject is Jennie.

“I wish that you would wait for me to grow up so that we could always be together.”

There is something captivating about Jennie that makes Eben believe he’s found what he’s looking for. Even the wise art-dealer, Miss Spinney ( Ethel Barrymore ) sees great potential in Eben and realizes that Jennie just might be his ticket to success. What they don’t know but what Eben soon discovers is that there is an air of mystery that surrounds Jennie. She is far different to any girl he’s ever encountered. Her clothes are archaic and she talks about events that happened in the past. Perhaps the most puzzling aspect though is the fact that she appears older every time he sees her. Eben just can’t wrap his head around these bizarre circumstances. Who is Jennie Appleton? or is Jennie just present in his dreams? Is Eben able to unleash the cobwebs of mystery? Watch the movie and find out.

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Portrait of Jennie epitomizes the fine art of movie making. The film is masterfully crafted and visually aesthetic. This is all due to the stunning cinematography by Joseph August, who deftly creates a ghostly and mysterious ambiance with his use of crisp black and white photography, which gives the film that magical and surreal feeling. It would not be a lie to say that August’s work in Portrait of Jennie is his greatest cinematic achievement. Not only is the film incredibly atmospheric, it is also unique in the way that sepia and Technicolor are applied at the finale. The reason for this is not exactly known, but the tinted hurricane and tidal-wave sequence was the brainchild of David O. Selznick. This decision would ultimately result in the film attaining the Academy Award for Best Special Effects.

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Joseph August may of committed all of his energy into making Portrait of Jennie a breathtakingly beautiful masterpiece, but its the characters who inhabit his ethereal world that propelled the film to new heights. The alluring presence along with the magnetic chemistry of Joseph Cotten and Jennifer Jones are a sight to behold. This was the last screen pairing of Cotten and Jones, but its definitely their most memorable. Jennifer Jones truly embodied the role of Jennie Appleton. Like Jennie, Jones possessed a special kind of beauty that was more angelic and celestial. She also carried around an air of mystery. It is because of these traits that Jones was able to superbly infuse all the right ingredients into her character.

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Portrait of Jennie also benefits from the talents of Ethel Barrymore, who plays Miss Spinney in the movie. Although her part is relatively small, her character is crucial to the story. Miss Spinney is the wise art dealer who first witnesses Eben’s capacity to succeed and encourages him to unleash his potential. She is sagacious enough to realize that Eben possesses the capabilities to develop his paintings into masterpieces, but all he needs is the inspiration. The answer to this is Jennie Appleton, and its because of Miss Spinney’s advice that Eben decides to transmit most of his energy into painting a portrait of Jennie. Miss Spinney has never seen Jennie, though instead of doubting his imagination, she believes in Jennie and continues to support Eben during his journey.

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“Don’t be soft, Matthews. I’m an old maid, and nobody knows more about love than an old maid.”

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According to some sources, Ethel Barrymore is supposedly the present day Jennie Appleton. This is really just a myth, as there is no actual evidence to support the claim. In many ways they closely mirror each other, but its merely impossible for Miss Spinney to be the reincarnation of Jennie. After all, Miss Spinney was living while Jennie was alive.

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Ethel Barrymore was fresh out of work on the 1948 film Moonrise when she was assigned the role of Miss Spinney. Ever since returning to motion pictures after a twelve year hiatus, Barrymore seemed to be working tirelessly. At this point in her career, she was churning out more than one film a year. Ethel always maintained that the stage was her preferred art form and it was where she truly felt she belonged, but when she discovered that movies were more rewarding than the theater, she was determined to make it her final destiny. That is exactly what Ethel Barrymore did.

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In addition to Ethel Barrymore, Portrait of Jennie boasts other familiar names. Acting veteran, Lillian Gish appears in a small cameo role as Mother Mary of Mercy, who works at the Convent School, where Jennie once attended. It’s a shame that somebody of Gish’ stature was given very little to do. It would have been nice if her character was more fleshed out. The films other main supporting role of Matthews was fulfilled by South African born, Cecil Kellaway. Here Kellaway plays Miss Spinney’s sidekick and fellow art dealer, who also realizes that Eben exudes many special qualities. During filming, Kellaway and Barrymore forged a friendship that touched more on professional terms. The two would share the screen for the last time in 1957 when they made Johnny Trouble, which is now known as the final film role of Ethel Barrymore.

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Portrait of Jennie is not a just a movie. This is a film that is woven together to create a visually spectacular story with a colorful array of characters, who are portrayed by the biggest stars Hollywood has ever produced. The script is dexterously constructed and the astute dialogue along with the masterful cinematography perfectly capture the essence of time and life. More than seventy years has passed since its initial release, but the hauntingly beautiful Portrait of Jennie will continue to be etched in the hearts of millions worldwide.

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TRIVIA

The portrait of Jennie supposedly painted by Joseph Cotten‘s character, Eben Adams, was in reality created by noted portrait artist Robert BrackmanJennifer Jones came in for more than a dozen sittings in Brackman’s Connecticut studio. Actually, Robert Brackmanwas obliged to paint, not only one, but two versions as the first one, described as “lush” and “opulent” by the artist, was scrapped after script changes necessitated a completely new and more simple one. A black-and-white photo of the first version can be seen in one of the books on Brackman. The painting was a prized possession of producer Selznick and hung in his home from 1946 until his death.

Portrait of Jennie marked the film debuts of both David Wayne and Nancy Olson.

In the original novella Jennie did not die in a tsunami, but was washed overboard from an ocean liner.

Portrait of Jennie was highly unusual for its time in that it had no opening credits as such, except for the Selznick Studio logo. All the other credits appear at the end. Before the film proper begins, the title is announced by the narrator (after delivering a spoken prologue, he says, “And now, ‘Portrait of Jennie'”).

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CAST

Jennifer Jones: Born, Phylis Lee Isley on March 2nd, 1919 in Tulsa, Oklahoma. Died: December 17th, 2009 in Malibu, California. Aged: 90.

Joseph Cotten: Born, Joseph Cheshire Cotten on May 15th, 1905 in Petersburg, Virginia. Died: February 6th, 1994 in Los Angeles, California. Aged: 88.

Ethel Barrymore: Born, Ethel Mae Blythe on August 15th, 1879 in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. Died: June 18th, 1959 in Los Angeles, California. Aged 79.

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This post was written for the Year After Year Blogathon, hosted by Steve at Movie Movie Blog Blog. To view the other entries being exhibited during this event, please click here.

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6 thoughts on “THE HAUNTINGLY BEAUTIFUL PORTRAIT OF JENNIE ( 1948 )

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  1. Great piece! There’s a great double biography of Jones and her first husband, Robert Walker, that has a lot of detail on her early life and career (“Star Crossed”, by Beverly Linet). Phylis and Robert had tried and failed to make it in Hollywood in 1938 (they were accompanied there by close friend Andy McBroom, who for a brief moment had better luck than they: The star machine renamed him David Bruce, but he is an obscure footnote today). She appeared in minor roles in a B-movie and serial. She met Selznick in New York when he was looking to cast a movie of “Sister Carrie”. By this time, her career had basically ceased before it began, but she had a (good) hunch about Selznick. Robert Walker was supporting them comfortably as a radio soap opera regular. Phylis moved to Hollywood first, with Walker and children trailing. Selznick successfully hid her early film roles and tried to hide her marriage, but that proved too hard (by then there were two small children). The story goes that Jones ditched Walker the day after she won her Oscar for “Song of Bernadette.” As usual, everything about the origin of movie star Jennifer Jones is a little grittier than the official version. Some things never change! I have also read that Simon owned the “Portrait of Jennie” picture long before he met the real Jennifer. Do you know if that’s true? If so, it’s also a little creepy, no?

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  2. Very interesting. I must confess, Jones was one of the actresses that had to grow on me. I found her earlier acting a bit too “stagy” for my taste. I actually saw her in a few roles from the 60’s and 70’s and started to like her much better then. Maybe at that point, she was way out from under of David O’Selznik’s thumb so her talent was more authentic to me.

    Tam May
    The Dream Book Blog
    https://thedreambookblog.wordpress.com

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  3. Wow, I never noticed Nancy Olson in that! But now that you mention it, I did my researches and now know she plays one of the girls who admire Jennie’s portrait at the end. This makes sense! And Anne Francis is also among them! 🙂
    Great article Crystal, I learned a lot!
    It IS a poetic masterpiece indeed. I love that film. I didn’t know the shooting was so complicated. But luckily, it doesn’t show in the final picture!
    Jennifer Jones was a lovely actress and the more I see her films, the more I like her. About her shyness, it’s interesting how many performer of the arts were actually very shy persons in real life. I’m a bit like that myself. I don’t really have problem speaking in front of an audience, but I’m a bit less comfortable in person to person conversations (but it’s not that bad really. I do have a fine social life and friends lol).

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks for reading Virginie. I’m glad that the film is visually creative and beautiful despite the problems that ensued during the filming process. A lot of stars were plagued with shyness. I’m also very shy , but I’m different if I’m on the stage. I think a lot to do with my shyness is my slight stutter. If I talk on stage my stutter completely goes away. It mostly happens because of nerves and on the phone. Otherwise, I’m alright.

      Liked by 1 person

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