'Portrait of Jennie' remains the perfect romantic movie almost 60 years later
By Richard von Busack
ONLY IN horseshoes and hand grenades does "almost" count. And maybe in movies. Producer David O. Selznick's 1948 Portrait of Jennie is the hole where the money from Gone With the Wind disappeared. "A financial failure of awesome proportions," notes Selznick scholar Ronald Haver. The production was jinxed, stalled by reshoots and acts of Godcinematographer Joseph August's heart gave out while trying to engineer a tricky tracking shot. Bad luck, yes, but be sure to give Selznick's usual indecision its due. Selznick's famous memos flurried like snow around the winter location shoots. According to historian Rudy Behlmer, one telegram the producer sent out was 8 feet long.
A failure of nerve is evident everywhere in this otherwise almost perfect romantic movie. It is overnarrated, explaining a subject matter that would be better left enigmatic. On the bright side, Portrait of Jennie is gloriously overnarrated. During an gleaming vista of Manhattan crowned with rays of frosty light comes an intro of what even Selznick termed "pseudoscientific hokey pokey." Ben Hecht's prologue drops the names of Euripides, Keats and Browning before expanding: "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 forever. 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 heart." Hokey pokey perhaps; pseudoscientific, perhaps not. "This was tomorrow, once," Jennie says. The idea of a romance about relativity is more logical in 2005 than it was in 1948. Imagine Portrait of Jennie as an infinitely superior version of Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind.
As for the hokey pokey about the truth and the heart: only the truly heartless would fail to respond to Joseph Cotten's noble culpability. This gentle actor's crumbling dignity made him his era's William H. Macy. "Doin' what he's got to do, even if it's killin' him," says an observer. Cotten plays Eben Adams, a painter as unsuccessful at the brush as his Holly Martins from The Third Man was at the typewriter. Wandering into Central Park during the frozen horror of the Depression, he meets a young girl unstuck in timeJennie Appleton (the heart-achingly beautiful Jennifer Jones, who was as good at the spiritual purity of desire here as she was at earthy lust in Duel in the Sun).
Jennie serves as both his love and his muse; she ages at a much faster rate than he does. And while she gives him courage, she also leaks clues about her own past and future. Tracking down Jennie, Adams visits a convent where she stayed; Lillian Gish plays the nun who vets Jennie's goodness. Still, the fate of the girl is foretold in advance, despite Adams' desperate effort to save her.
Portrait of Jennie touches a nerve in a way that won't let logic block the sting. The care that went into the movie wins over all, in the snowscapes of Manhattan, in the surprise use of tinting and Technicolor and in a climactic tempest scene that successfully brings back the mood of D.W. Griffith, exactly as Selznick intended. As in the emotionally similar Vertigo, Portait of Jennie appeals to the part of the mind that never can accept death as something that is fair or natural.
Portrait of Jennie (1948) plays at 5:50 and 9:35pm with Heaven Can Wait (1943) at 7:30 (plus 3:45pm Sunday) Saturday-Sunday at the Stanford Theatre in Palo Alto.
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