Portrait of Jennie (1948)


(director: William Dieterle; screenwriters: novel by Robert Nathan/Leonardo Bercovici/Peter Berneis/Paul Osborn; cinematographer: Joseph August; editor: William Morgan; music: Dimitri Tiomkin; cast: 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), Florence Bates (Mrs. Jekes, landlady), Albert Sharp (Moore), Henry Hull (Eke); Runtime: 86; MPAA Rating: NR; producer: David O. Selznick; Fox Video; 1948)
“Honest-to-goodness romantic ghost story.”

Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz

William Dieterle (“Juarez”/”The Hunchback of Notre Dame”) directs a skillfully told honest-to-goodness romantic ghost story based on the Robert Nathan novella, that’s a follow-up to his “Love Letters” which also starred Jennifer Jones and Joseph Cotten. The superb whimsical screenplay is by Leonardo Bercovici, Peter Berneis and Paul Osborn.

The film opens with a quote from ancient Greek dramatist Euripides and the following prologue is told in narration: “Since time began man has looked into the awesome reaches of infinity and asked the eternal questions: 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 our hearts.”

In the winter of 1934 struggling Manhattan artist Eben Adams (Joseph Cotten) tries to sell to the Matthews & Spinney art gallery his landscape paintings but is turned down by Mr. Matthews (Cecil Kellaway), but after complimenting the other partner, the kindly old maid Spinney (Ethel Barrymore), she recognizes his plight and buys one of his paintings. This gives Eben enough rent money to get his cheeky landlady off his back. While sitting on a bench in Central Park, experiencing some joy that he hasn’t for quite some time, he’s joined by a buoyant young girl named Jennie Appleton (Jennifer Jones) who tells him she’s playing alone because her parents are working at the theater as trapeze artists and goes on to tell him about her schoolgirl friend. He’s intrigued by her stories, cheerful nature and magical song she sings with the lyrics “Where I come from, nobody knows … And where I’m going, everything goes … The wind blows. The sea flows … And nobody knows.” After saying her goodbyes she seems to vanish into thin air, but leaves behind a scarf wrapped in a newspaper from 1910. Inspired by her innocent beauty and joy for life, he sketches her portrait and sells it to the gallery. Hoping to see her again, he runs into her in the park after a few months and she’s aged about three years. The ethereal mystery girl piques his curiosity and he investigates her stories, learning that her parents were killed in a trapeze accident and her aunt then sent her to a convent. Every subsequent time he meets her, she ages greatly. Eben grapples that he’s dealing with a ghost, as he learns from her favorite nun at the convent (Lillian Gish) the girl died recently from a sea storm by a lighthouse. Eben meets Jennie for the last time as a grown up as he goes to rescue her from the expected hurricane on Cape Cod to see if he can reverse what happened in real-life, but she perishes in a supernatural way. No one really believes she exists, but he’s humored for his belief and the silly story never seems as silly as it really is because of the first-class acting and storytelling.

The lonely disillusioned man loves Jennie and goes on to paint her grown up portrait, which turns out to be a masterpiece now hanging in a NYC museum. Jennie becomes his muse (a testament to the artist’s creative process and spiritual growth) and it no longer matters to him if what he sees is real as long as it seems real to him.

Joseph August’s splendid camerawork conjures up magical images and fully captures the gay spirit of this fairy tale about life and death and art. I’m more partial to this fantasy than other more popular ones like “Topper,” “Here Comes Mr Jordan,” “The Wizard of Oz,” and “It’s a Wonderful Life.” There’s something genuinely beguiling about this innocent love story, the well-meaning New Yorkers who empathize with Cotten’s artistic plight to be independent and not sell out to join the system, and there’s great fun in the quizzical nature in the encounters between artist and model. Luis Buñuel mentions this film as having a great influence on him.