Struggling artist Eben Adams (Joseph Cotten) finds a patron in elderly art dealer Miss Spinney (Ethel Barrymore) who notes his work is certainly accomplished, but lacking in passion. While wandering New York’s Central Park, Eben encounters a strange young girl named Jennie (Jennifer Jones) who captivates him with tales of people and events from long ago and sings an eerily lovely song: “Where I come from nobody knows and where I am going, everyone goes…” Jennie becomes the subject of a portrait painted by Eben, which co-curator Mr. Matthews (Cecil Kellaway) observes has that spark of magic previously absent from his work. Once again, Jennie appears to the artist, only this time grown into a beautiful woman with whom Eben is soon deeply in love. Only later, as he delves further into Jennie’s tragic past does Eben come to suspect the object of his affection is not of this world.
Based on a supernatural romance by author Robert Nathan, Portrait of Jennie was among several cinematic love letters legendary producer David O. Selznick concocted for his wife Jennifer Jones. Although unsuccessful at the box office in its day, the film lingered fondly in the minds of many who caught occasional television screenings and has since been rehabilitated as a minor classic. The rather pompous narration that opens the movie, alongside quotes from Keats and Euripides, invites mockery but the film is haunting and beautiful enough to transcend such pretension. It shouldn’t work but it does, very well in fact, being intelligently scripted and full of warm, compelling characters.
As an allegory of artistic obsession, the film’s subject is nothing less than the mystery of life, although its conclusion that love is eternal and a vital component towards our spiritual wellbeing is perhaps more heartening than profound. It is the kind of film that invites the viewer to embrace ideas cynics may consider outdated, but romantics may keep secretly close to their hearts: that love transcends all boundaries, even death and that art is the conduit to universal truth. In that sense, the quote from Keats is apt since the film embodies his famous dictum: “beauty is truth and truth, beauty.”
True to form, Selznick could not resist tinkering with the film and had two supporting characters rewritten as Irish just so actors David Wayne and Albert Sharpe could add some of the scene-stealing blarney from their then-recent Broadway triumph in Finian’s Rainbow. Sharpe later headline a considerably scarier tale of the supernatural in Walt Disney’s Darby O’Gill and the Little People (1959). Some of Selznick’s more eccentric additions actually enhance the film, such as the terrifying, green-tinted thunderstorm that draws the last ten minutes into an entirely otherworldly realm.
In lesser hands, Portrait of Jennie could have been so ephemeral as to evaporate, but the solid directorial hand of William Dieterle increases its potency as a poetic fantasy. Dieterle was very adept at fantasy and gothic romance, from co-directing the endearing A Midsummer Night’s Dream (1935) to the superb The Hunchback of Notre Dame (1939), his early version of Kismet (1944) and perhaps most notably, The Devil and Daniel Webster (1941). Film fans should also see Adorable (1933), his charming precursor to Roman Holiday (1954). Dieterle was later blacklisted in Hollywood as one of the many unfortunate victims of the communist witch hunts, although he worked in Europe for a while. Working with cinematographer John H. August (who passed away shortly after the film was completed), Dieterle turn New York city into a vast, benevolent haunted house by way of such striking optical effects as superimposing a canvas like texture over certain sequences and having Jenny appear bathed in shafts of light from an enormous golden sun.
While Jennifer Jones was not quite able to shed her womanliness to convince as an adolescent, her skill as an actress in these scenes is still quite apparent. In every other manifestation as Jenny, she proves a genuinely magical presence. Often underestimated owing to her relationship with Selznick, Jones was actually a performer of great range. Five times nominated for an Academy Award, including a win for The Song of Bernadette (1943), her talents shone through Selnick’s star vehicles including the notorious Duel in the Sun (1946), Gone to Earth (1950) by Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger, and Indiscretions of an American Housewife (1953) by Vittorio De Sica, as well as an hilarious turn in John Huston’s cult comedy Beat the Devil (1953). Her portrayal of Jennie is an effervescent delight worthy of Eben’s loving brushstrokes. The portrait itself is eventually unveiled in a brilliant burst of Technicolor. Interestingly, Nat King Cole had a big hit with his song “A Portrait of Jennie” which was never actually featured in this film. Instead Dmitri Tiomkin supplies some elegantly reworked pieces by Debussy and Bernard Herrmann composed “Jennie’s Theme” making apt use of that most ghostly of musical instruments, the theremin.