Directed by William Dieterle
Starring Jennifer Jones, Joseph Cotten, Ethel Barrymore, Lillian Gish, Cecil Kellaway, David Wayne, Albert Sharpe, Henry Hull
Kino Lorber (Blu-ray & DVD) (US RA/R1 HD/NTSC), Anchor Bay, MGM (DVD) (US R1 NTSC)
An eerie, romantic oddity from producer David O. Selznick, Portrait of Jennie is much closer in spirit to his cycle of Hitchcock films like Rebecca than his famous grandiose epics like Gone with the Wind or Duel in the Sun, the latter starring his lover and eventual wife, Jennifer Jones. Selznick and Jones reteamed more respectably with this film, a delicate New York ghost story produced under conditions which would have defeated a film in lesser hands. Fortunately, director William Dieterle never loses his grip on the story's poetic edge, bringing it close to an American equivalent to the unearthly surrealism of Jean Cocteau.
Struggling artist Eben Adams (Cotten) passes his days in postwar New York by trying to sell his landscape paintings to anyone in sight. A local art dealer and curator, Miss Spinney (Barrymore), takes an interest in him, noting that his technically perfect work lacks passion but shows some promise for development. One day in the park Eben meets a strange young girl, Jennie Appleton (Jones), who prattles on about long past events and locations as if they were recent. Claiming to be the daughter of acrobats, she captures his imagination and sings a ghostly song about being alone before vanishing off into the woods. Adams goes about his routine and gets a job painting a mural of Michael Collins for a pub owner but finds himself distracted when he meets Jennie again while ice skating, though now she appears several years older. The two begin to fall in love, and Eben sketches out a possible portrait of the young woman. However, Eben investigates her story and learns that Jennie's story really happened many years earlier, with a few tragic surprises in store. In fact, the object of his love and artistic passion may not be entirely of this world. Nevertheless, Eben continues to meet Jennie, inspired at last to create a work of art worthy of his talents. However, his relationship with the elusive Jennie is far from over.
Though the storyline doesn't hold up at all under scrutiny (for example, can anyone explain exactly why that tidal wave happens to show up at the end?), Portrait of Jennie is an unusually effective, memorable ghost story, with Cotten's melancholy and intelligent presence anchoring material that could have been trite. The film went through many different rewrites and edits, and the cloying opening sequence (which features pretentious quotes from both Archimedes and Keats) shows just how much trouble studio execs had in trying to hammer this film into some kind of genre. Fortunately the breathtaking cinematography by Joseph August (who died immediately after filming) ties together the film's various moods, from romantic to menacing to spiritual, and glosses over some technical problems like Jones' awkward impersonation of a preteen girl and some sloppily looped dialogue (see Jennie's song and her dialogue with Eben during the climax, in which no one's lips actually move). Bernard Herrmann originally began the film, but due to scheduling problems (and a reported clashing of wills) he stepped aside to allow Dimitri Tiomkin to complete the music, with some judicious use of Debussy for good measure. The musical tapestry works very well, creating a subtle and wistful atmosphere without ever becoming sugary or obvious. (Herrmann still receives a brief nod in the end credits, however.) The film also features some novel cinematic devices, such as superimposing a canvas-like texture over establishing shots of the city and some of Jones' close-ups to recreate the "portrait" effect on film.
Originally announced on laserdisc by Fox but never released, Portrait of Jennie was surprisingly difficult to see over the years, with only a few brief VHS releases and cable screenings keeping it from obscurity. The first DVD from Anchor Bay in 2000 was a great improvement over prior versions, with crisp definition and only some moderate print damage and scratching visible during the last reel. Some TV and video prints concluded with a final Technicolor shot of the portrait (shades of The Picture of Dorian Gray), but the DVD goes one step better by restoring the original tinting: green during the climax, and a reddish sepia during the aftermath. The mono audio is very strong and clear for a film of this vintage, and the disc also includes the original theatrical trailer, which tries to sell the film as something far more sprawling and socially important than it actually is. The same package was ported over for an MGM reissue in 2004.
After several years out of circulation, Kino Lorber Studio Classics brought the film back into circulation with a refurbished HD scan that wrings quite a bit of additional detail out of the delicate, painterly imagery. The film hasn't undergone a full-blown restoration with damage in evidence at times (especially in a snowy scene where it apparently couldn't be cleaned up), but there's definitely no better way to make this film's acquaintance out there. The tinting and color footage are also here completely intact. Audio options include DTS-HD MA English mono and a 5.1 mix that opens the film's music score tastefully to the front and rear speakers.
The one substantial extra here is a new audio commentary by Troy Howarth in a rare classic Hollywood chat track, and he does a fine job of parsing out the film's sometimes tricky narrative implications (such as our main character's obsession with someone he meets as a little girl) while reeling out plenty of trivia about the participants involved like an uncredited Ben Hecht and, of course, the heavy control of Selznick. Also included are the original theatrical trailer and bonus ones (all connected to Jones, Cotten, Dieterle, and/or Selznick) for A Farewell to Arms, I'll Be Seeing You, Duel in the Sun, and Since You Went Away.
Updated review on October 2, 2017.