Some films cast an enchanting spell over viewers, like PORTRAIT OF JENNIE. Producer David Selznick bought the rights to turn Robert Nathan’s 1940 novella into a motion picture after his protege Jennifer Jones earned an Oscar for SONG OF BERNADETTE. Like Bernadette, Jennie is another one of those delicate heroines imbued with a sense of mystery that Jones excelled at playing. It’s difficult to imagine anyone else in this role but her.
Selznick had Joseph Cotten under contract during these years, and the actor had already been Jones’ leading man in the 1945 hit LOVE LETTERS. In this film he plays a struggling painter named Eben Adams– a man who becomes charmed by young Jennie Appleton one wintry day in New York City. What’s interesting about the way the story begins is that we’re told it’s 1934, with Adams and the rest of the country in the throes of the Depression and great poverty. But Jennie is clearly not from the same time. Soon she begins to describe her life to the artist in a way that intrigues, captivates and even haunts him.
It is significant to note that Adams does not see Jennie until after he meets an elderly gallery owner named Miss Spinney (Ethel Barrymore). Spinney likes him right off and she becomes his benefactor. He likes her too, and because of her influence, he switches from doing landscapes to painting portraits. It is Miss Spinney who tells him that his work must have a drop of love in it. A short time later, when he meets Jennie, he begins to experience that love.
Jennie appears to Adams intermittently throughout the story. She seems to be changing in a way that occurs outside of real time, almost as if she is slipping through it. While the movie does not reveal what is behind this strange phenomena, it’s my impression that Jennie is really a part of Miss Spinney. And that Miss Spinney is probably losing track of time because of dementia. Miss Spinney’s love and her appreciation of his talent is what takes Adams to this other realm. There’s a scene around the 28-minute mark where Jennie is skating away from him at the park, and as she goes he turns and sees Miss Spinney alongside him.
Adding to the various interpretations that might be applied to this film is the nearly surreal way in which the movie is shot. The cinematographer filmed several of the outdoor scenes through a canvas; and Selznick made sure the exteriors were done on location, so that even though there are these fantastic elements, there also is a degree or realism. The portrait of Jennie that Adams paints in the story is depicted on screen in the form of a portrait of Jennifer Jones that was done by Robert Brackman. Though it is technically a movie prop, it seems to take on a life of its own in the final Technicolor sequence where we see the portrait up close. Eben Adams left behind a masterpiece. And so did David Selznick.
PORTRAIT OF JENNIE is directed by William Dieterle and can be seen on TCM on September 12th.