A Dreamlike Selznick Fantasia



The “O” in David O. Selznick may have not stood for anything beyond the initial, but the independent producer of Gone With The Wind (1939) spent his long career upholding that algebraic signifier as a mark of quality. And while middlebrow self-importance may sound like a criticism, the moviemaker whose noble aim was to bring high culture to mass audiences exercised a degree of authorial control over his productions only exceeded by his lack of expressive self-restraint. The manorial studio offices that prefaced each of his films, its stately white pillars resembling the antebellum plantation houses of his masterpiece, and portentously punctuated by a full orchestral flourish, announced a filmmaking vision that was as lofty as it was frequently over-the-top. “Overkill” as artistic imperative may yet offer a vital clue to the driven intentions of a film author whose career-long efforts both succeeded and failed, with equally spectacular panache, to realize subjects worthy of once having burned down Atlanta.

reversible cover image from Kino Lorber’s Blu-ray

reversible cover image from Kino Lorber’s Blu-ray

Beginning with not one but two introductory quotes, from Euripides and Keats, the misty establishing shots of New York City’s skyline, along with the dreamy philosophical narration, announces Portrait of Jennie as a romantic drama with a difference. Eben Adams (Joseph Cotten) is a penniless portrait artist during the Depression whose uninspired landscapes inspire the sympathies if not the admiration of a gallery owner (Cecil Kellaway) and art dealer (Ethel Barrymore). The latter encourages Adams’ unblossomed talents with a charitable $12.50, for a colorless floral arrangement, but his artistic enthusiasm is soon awakened by an encounter with a mysterious child named Jennie Appleton (Jennifer Jones) in Central Park. The inspired sketch of Jennie that Adams makes from memory of that brief meeting fetches his largest commission yet, and various encounters with a growing Jennie over the next weeks and months – in which she seems to rapidly advance in age while still remaining remote in time – finally result in the title painting, upon which the artist’s future reputation will itself grow.

Set to the strains of Debussy and featuring rare, for the period, on-location sequences set in Gotham-tinged New York City, along with an exciting climax off Boston Harbor, among its cluster of atmospheric lighthouse islands, Portrait of Jennie bears the mark of David O. Selznick quality with as much sublime overkill as the producer’s grand ambition could muster. Director William Dieterle and cinematographer Joseph August, who had previously collaborated on The Hunchback of Notre Dame (1939) and The Devil and Daniel Webster (1941), imbue the museums, galleries, streets, pathways, and – most memorably – a Central Park skating rink with an expansive grandeur curiously befitting the story’s intimate drama. A gauze-like lens-framing interwoven throughout the film, meant to suggest the texture of an oil canvas, undoubtedly calls attention to itself as a distinctly self-conscious stylistic device, but is nonetheless well in keeping with the film’s thematic subject matter regarding an artist and his muse.

And regarding the latter, it would be equally curious to discover in the film’s production notes that anyone but actress Jennifer Jones should have been considered for the title role of Jennie. The soon-to-be-wife of Selznick, until his death in 1965, Jones certainly embodies the ageless quality of her character to advantageous effect, the child she was and the older woman she will become easily read across her winsome features. A timeless quality shared by other characters in the cast, notably Ethel Barrymore and in a smaller though crucial role, connecting the present to the past, silent screen star Lillian Gish as a teaching nun at a convent where Jennie once attended school, the mystery of time’s passing finds notable expression in faces and figures that one might encounter in a dream. A veritable who’s who of great Hollywood character actors populate Joseph Cotten as Eben Adam’s twilight-like wanderings, including Florence Bates, David Wayne, Albert Sharpe, Clem Bevans, and Henry Hull, among many distinguished others. The names may not all be familiar, perhaps, but the faces present themselves on the screen with an immediacy and character reminiscent of a heightened filmmaking style recovered, possibly, from the days of silent movies.

Not only the faces here suggest Portrait of Jennie‘s affinity with silent movies, but also the heightened style of its emotional content, as reinforced by an almost otherworldly tone and unusual dramatic technique. And by the time the title portrait has been painted, and Adams has rushed to The Graves Light (a real location near Boston) to meet fate, love, and a screen-tinted storm howling against the lamp-lit shore; story, style, and spectacle converge in a manner not seen on screen, perhaps, since the waning days of silent film when scenes of realistic impossibility resonated with deep emotional truth. And like two films from 1927, the year sound first thrust itself on the medium, Portrait of Jennie is as mystically romantic and deliriously unearthly as the year’s twin masterpieces Seventh Heaven and Sunrise, achieving screen poetry precisely twenty years after The Crowd, The Docks of New York, and The Wind (all 1928) mute-sounded the silent medium’s final clarion call.

Resoundingly answering that call, Kino Lorber’s Blu-ray presentation of Portrait of Jennie preserves the screen texture and tinting of the film’s original, and as it turns out quite complicated, exhibition specifications, which included not only screen-tinting and in-camera lens effects, but also a big Technicolor finish where the title portrait is finally and spectacularly unveiled. An informed and informative feature-length commentary by film historian Troy Howarth also reveals Portrait of Jennie‘s final reel, the storm which climaxes the film, was originally projected in select theaters with a vertical magnification process called, appropriately, Magnascope. Belying the trickery of its multiple techniques, however, Portrait of Jennie remains a simple story magnificently told, and definitively lives up to the frankly quite overwhelming ambition of its producer.

All images from the film are credited to DVDBeaver and are captured directly from Kino Lorber’s Blu-ray release of Portrait of Jennie.