Portrait of Jennie (1948)

Directed by William Dieterle

If movies can be called odd, 1948’s Portrait of Jennie would be one of them. Not that odd is a bad thing. The movie’s peculiarity is one of its enduring charms.

The movie is a romantic fantasy of a struggling artist, Eben Adams (Joseph Cotten), whose work is lacking, though initially he is not aware of why.

It’s explained when a kindly art dealer buys one of his works and, examining it, tells him there is no love in his work. In other words, while he demonstrates skill he is lacking in passion.

Then he meets a young girl in a park, the young Jennie Appleton (Jennifer Jones).

She has an enthereal quality but more than this, she has something else, perhaps spirit (no intended pun) that captivates Eben. There is something in her character that draws him to her.

As the movie progresses, he meets her again and again and, each time he does, Jennie has aged a few more years.

Jennifer Jones as Jennie Appleton has her portrait painted by Joseph Cotten as Eben Adams in Portrait of Jennie.

Strange though this is, Eben accepts it, partly because of what Jennie has meant to his work but also because, the older she gets, the more he falls in love with her.

What we have, then, is a ghost story that is a love story – to this degree, it is somewhat like 1947’s The Ghost and Mrs. Muir, though the movies are different in tone and look. In both cases, though, the inevitable end is the same – but treated quite differently.

Inherent in such stories is the inescapeable tragedy of such a love: the dead and the living cannot be together, at least not for very long.

Unlike the somewhat muted, gentle ending of The Ghost and Mrs. Muir, in Portrait of Jennie we get a lavish, as well as experimental, finish with storm tossed seas and a good deal of sentimentality (this aspect isn’t excessively off-putting – it works ins ome ways).

Overall, the movie works quite well within the context of the kind of movie it is (romantic fantasy) and period (the late 1940’s). Hardbitten cynics may find it too much but the romantic out there certainly won’t.

Helping to make the film work are a great cast, beginning with Cotten and Jones, plus some great film work.

Jennifer Jones and Joseph Cotten in Portrait of Jennie (1948).

The cinematography is exceptional and the tight editing helps the movie to move briskly.

(This may be why the romantic sentimentality doesn’t seem excessive. The movie doesn’t linger and draw scenes out unnecessarily.)

My one qualm with the film has to do with some of its experimental attempts.

Late in the film, as the climax is reached, for effect the movie suddenly goes from its excellent black and white presentation to green and then sepia.

I find it quite jarring and ineffective.

On the other hand, I give the filmmakers credit for making an attempt at trying something new (for the time), particularly given that this was a Hollywood film.

Portrait of Jennie is a nice, engaging film and well worth a look. Of course, I have a soft spot of ghost stories and romantic fantasies so I may not be entirely objective.

Three stars out of four.

(Originally published in 2004.)

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