Portrait of Jennie (1948)

A review by Shlomoh Sherman
November 7, 2014

Portrait of Jennie (1948)
Plot: A mysterious girl inspires a struggling artist.
Director: William Dieterle
Writers: Robert Nathan (novel), Leonardo Bercovici (adaptation), Paul Osborn (screenplay), Peter Berneis (screenplay), David O. Selznick (uncredited), Ben Hecht(uncredited)
Stars: Jennifer Jones, Joseph Cotten, Ethel Barrymore
Tagline: ‘About Time´ and the Pleasures of the Time-Travel Romance
Plot Keywords: artist - film blanc - new york city - manhattan new york city - sketch
Genres: Drama - Romance - Fantasy - Mystery
Certificate: TV-PG
Country: USA
Language: English
Release Date: April 22, 1949 (USA)
Also Known As: Tidal Wave
Filming Locations: Graves Light, Boston Harbor, Boston, Massachusetts, USA, Central Park, Manhattan, New York City, New York, USA, The Cloisters Museum, West 193rd Street, Fort Tryon Park, Manhattan, New York City, New York, USA
Company Credits: Production Co: Vanguard Films, Selznick International Pictures
Runtime: 86 min
Sound Mix: 3 Channel Stereo (1956) (5.0) (L-R)
Color: Black and White (green and sepia tints for final reel, excluding last shot)- Color (Technicolor) (final shot)
Academy Awards, USA 1949:
Won: Oscar for Best Effects, Special Effects, Paul Eagler (visual),
J. McMillan Johnson (visual), Russell Shearman (visual), Clarence Slifer (visual), Charles L. Freeman (audible), James G. Stewart (audible)
Nominated: Oscar for Best Cinematography, Black-and-White, Joseph H. August
Venice Film Festival 1949
Won International Award for Best Actor, Joseph Cotten

I remember seeing this film when it came out. I was 11 years old and thought that Jennifer Jones was so beautiful. Of course, as I grew older and saw her mature as an actress, I was completely awed by her beauty. Perhaps LOVE IS A MANY SPLENDED THING was the highlight of my infatuation with Jennie. To tell the truth, I remembered practically nothing of the movie as I watched last week. All I remember is that Nat King Cole had a hit record titled PORTRAIT OF JENNIE.

The story is sweet, the atmosphere ethereal, the black and white tones are stark. The use of sepia, green, and technicolor at the film's ending dramatize the denoument.

Eben Adams, a struggling artist in 1930s New York, encounters a young girl, Jennie Appleton, during a walk in Central Park. Jennie is a very animated girl who is obviously attracted to Eben and who tells him that they are going to be close friends. But more, Jennie asks Eben to wait for her to grow up so that their relationship may be much closer than mere friendship. Naturally Eben is overawed at this precocious child's behavior but also entralled.

Eben has been unsuccessful at selling his paintings but after meeting Jennie his fortune chnages. He discovers an art gallery run by Mr. Mathhews and Miss Spinney who are willing to consider purchasing his work. Miss Spinney especially sees a great potential in this artist and is drawn to him in friendship.

Over the course of time, Jennie Appleton reappears to him and each time he sees her she has grown older. Her appearences and diasppearences are somewhat eerie but Eben does not question these things as each time he sees her he grows fonder and more passionate about their growing emotional attachment to each other.

Miss Spinney is the only person whom Eben can confide in about Jennie Appleton and the strange aura surrounding her personna. When he asks her if she believes him about the reality of Jennie, she responds that the only important thing about Jennie is that HE believes in her.

Finally Jennie appears to Eben as a mature woman and he is inspired to paint her portrait. When he shows the completed portrait to Matthews and Spinney, they are so amazed at the stark beauty and lifelikeness of the painting that they arrange to have it hung in the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

Jennie, although not a Roman Catholic, has been attending a convent college. She tells Eben that after her upcoming graduation, they can be together at last forever. But after some time, when Jennie fails to appear, Eben travels to the convent to speak to Mother Mary of Mercy, Jennie's mentor, to enquire about her whereabouts. Mother Mary informs him that Jennie perished years ago in a boating accident at a lighthouse on the New England coast. Eben is momentarily taken aback but he quickly recovers and tells the nun that he must go to the lighthouse where he believes he can overcome time itself to rescue his love.

Once Eben arrives in the New England town, the pace and emtional intensity of the movie increases dramatically. Eben hires a boat and races out to the lighthouse in the midst of a howling raging hurricane.

I will not disclose the film's ending but I am sure that the late 1940s audiences were cought up in the drama and deep emotion of the story. Unfortunately we 21st century movie goers have lost the innocence of of those post WWII years and many who see the film now will think the story and its denoument as a bit "hokey." I must say that I simply allowed myself to merge with the spirit of this wonderful fantasy the likes of which we may never see again. Yes, I am a nostalgic sucker for this type of movie and I am thankfull that the TURNER CLASSIC MOVIES channel gives us a chance to see them again.

Reviewer Ron'46 (rwb@starii.net) (Texas), in his own 1999 review of the film, A SURPRISINGLY SIMPLE AND WONDERFUL GIFT!, compared it to IT'S A WONDERFUL LIFE. He has this to say about it:

"Years ago, during Christmas season, "It's A Wonderful Life" (1946) made a huge difference in an otherwise humbug seasonal experience ...  Today, 'Portrait of Jennie' gave me the same renewal of spirit and belief in transcendant human values. Similar themes and techniques underlay both films. Hopelessness and a search for meaning and redemption is met in each by a mystical and transforming experience ... While there is a nod to traditional religion, the underlying theme of "I believe, if you believe" outweighs any mixed messages ... The film unfolds steadily and predictably, but ultimately gives the gifts of hope and joy to any viewer ... There must have been something in those post-war years when hope and optimism came rushing back filling the screen, replacing the fear and despair felt by so many ... give yourself a gift and watch this movie sometime "

To all of which, I say Amen!

Jennifer Jones and Producer David O. Selznick had bcome lovers before the making of the film. Each of them as married and each divorced their spouses so that they could become a couple. Eventually they married and their marriage lasted, unlike many Hollywood romances. Selznick was determined to make Jones the most successful actress in Hollywood, and her many successful films such as LOVE LETTERS and LOVE IS A MANY SLPENDID THING shows that he was successful in at least making her a very well loved actress. Her portrayal of Jennie Appleton is perfect.
Joseph Cotten is Eben Adams. Joseph is one of my favorite actors and how can he not be? His vast filmography includes Citizen Kane, The Third Man, Touch of Evil, The Magnificent Ambersons [all with Orson Wells], Love Letters [again with Jennifer Jones] Niagara [with the wonderful Marylin Monroe] Tora! Tora! Tora!, Soylent Green and Screamers. And I have only mentioned the ones that I have seen.
Ethel Barrymore plays Miss Spinney. This amazing actress and grand aunt of Drew Barrymore does not need my praise. Her talent and film presence speak enough praise for her in ANY film in which she has appeared. One of the great ladies of the 20th century show business families was a good choice to play the spinster, Spinney.
Lillian Gish plays Mother Mary of Mercy. This silent screen actress later appeared in many films during the Golden Age of Hollywood. Also a wonderful performer.
Cecil Kellaway is Matthews. Cecil was a delightful character actor who gave comic relief to many of the 1940s films.
David Wayne plays Gus O'Toole. I was surprised to see David in this film. I was not aware that his acting career began so early. I remember him in the Broadway show, FINIAN'S RAINBOW, and later in the remake of M, reprising Peter Lorre's role. Of course I have seen him in many more films.

One special note of interest. At a time when movies were still being shot on studio lots using constructed sets, this film was actually shot on location in many places, including Boston and New York City.

Producer David O. Selznick was very jealous concerning his lover Jennie, [Jones that is] and would only approve of a "safe" leading man. Joseph Cotton was known in Hollywood to be a devoted faithful married man.
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."
The portrait of Jennie supposedly painted by Joseph Cotten's character, Eben Adams, was in reality created by noted portrait artist Robert Brackman. Jennifer Jones came in for more than a dozen sittings in Brackman's Connecticut studio. Actually Robert Brackman was obliged to paint not only one but two Portraits of Jennie as the first one (a "lush, opulent" one as the artist told to this writer personally) was scrapped after script changes necessitated a completely new and more simple one (that appears in the film). A black-and-white photo of this version can be seen in one of the books on Brackman.
Bernard Herrmann was hired to write an original background score and did compose several themes but due to various production delays as well as the fact that Herrmann was tiring of David O. Selznick's demands, he dropped out and was replaced by Dimitri Tiomkin who, at the insistence of Selznick, ended up using themes by Claude Debussy. At the time Tiomkin was condemned by his colleagues for his adaptations. All that remains of Herrmann's contribution is the haunting song sung by Jennie entitled "Where I Come From, Nobody Knows".
This was cinematographer Joseph H. August's last film. He died in late 1947 from a heart attack before the long and tumultuous production was completed, and was posthumously nominated for an Academy Award for Best Black & White Cinematography in 1949. Lee Garmes finished shooting the film, uncredited.
"Screen Director's Playhouse" broadcast a 30 minute radio adaptation of the movie on March 10, 1950 with Joseph Cotten reprising his film role.
"Lux Radio Theater" broadcast a 60 minute radio adaptation of the movie on October 31, 1949 with Joseph Cotten reprising his film role.
David Wayne and Albert Sharpe, who both have supporting roles in this film, were the stars of the original stage production of "Finian's Rainbow". That play opened on Broadway the year before this film was released and was playing there at the same time this film was being made.
Featured, as her film debut was Nancy Reagan [first lady] as one of the teenagers in the Art Gallery (uncredited)

When Jennie sings a song when they first meet, the sound and her mouth don't match.
Although the movie opens in the winter of 1934, in the scene where Eben first meets Jennie in the park, several 1940s cars can be seen passing in the background.
During the scene where Eben first meets Jennie in the park, the snow on the front of her coat comes and goes.
During Eben's conversation with Pete, it becomes clear that Pete's moustache is fake when it starts to come away from his face.

Mrs. Jekes: I just can't understand a man fiddling away his time just painting things. Of course he did shovel some snow to pay part of last month's rent.
Mrs. Bunce: Painting things? Women? Women in the...
Mrs. Jekes: Mrs. Bunce, we agreed that he was a gentleman and gentleman just don't paint "women in the... "
Mrs. Bunce: [flustered] No, of course not.
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.
Jennie Appleton: [singing] Where I come from nobody knows and where I am going everything goes. The wind blows, the sea flows, nobody knows. And where I am going, nobody knows.
Jennie Appleton: I wish that you would wait for me to grow up so that we could always be together.
Eben Adams: I want you, not dreams of you!
Miss Spinney: Don't be soft, Matthews. I'm an old maid, and nobody knows more about love than an old maid.
Jennie Appleton: How beautiful the world is Eben! The sun goes down in in the same lovely sky. Just as it did yesterday, and will tomorrow.
Eben Adams: When is tomorrow, Jenny?
Jennie Appleton: Does it matter? It's always. This was tomorrow once.
Narrator in 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.

Credits: No credits at all are shown at the beginning except for the studio logo, not even the title of the film. Instead, we hear a narrator speaking the prologue, and then announcing, "And now, 'Portrait of Jennie'". The credits are saved for the end of the picture.

Arabesque No. 1 in E - Music by Claude Debussy - Heard as background music and during closing credits
The Girl With The Flaxen Hair - Music by Claude Debussy - Played often as background music
Nuages - Music by Claude Debussy - Heard over opening narration
Jennie's Song - (uncredited) - Music by Bernard Herrmann - Lyrics by Robert Nathan

Frequently Asked Questions
Q: How does the movie end?
Q: What is 'Portrait of Jennie' about?
Q: Is there really a portrait of Jennie hanging in the Metropolitan Museum of Art?

Message Boards:
Recent Posts:
I really enjoyed this movie, any suggestion? - antiquegirl12
I can't stop watching this movie. - fsilva
Reminds me of Vertigo - Hayes230

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Cast overview, first billed only:
Jennifer Jones ... Jennie Appleton
        Joseph Cotten ... Eben Adams
        Ethel Barrymore ... Miss Spinney
        Lillian Gish ... Mother Mary of Mercy
        Cecil Kellaway ... Matthews
        David Wayne      ... Gus O'Toole
        Albert Sharpe ... Moore (as Albert Sharp)
        Henry Hull      ... Eke
        Florence Bates ... Mrs. Jekes (landlady)
        Felix Bressart ... Pete
        Clem Bevans   ... Capt. Cobb
        Maude Simmons ... Clara Morgan

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