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November 28, 2017

Portrait of Jennie

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William Dieterle - 1948
KL Studio Classics BD Region A

A struggling artist, trying to make a living at a time of great instability, finds his fortunes change when he encounters a beautiful woman with long, black hair. The woman in question is revealed to be a ghost. I finally got around to seeing Portrait of Jennie about six years ago. And I started to re-title the film "Jennie Monogatari", after noting some similarities with Kenji Mizoguchi's Ugetsu Monogatari. As it turned out, I've not been alone in noting those similarities.

The film begins with lofty quotes from Euripides and Keats on life and death, truth and beauty, essentially setting up the premise of a love that transcends human limitations and understand. And this is a beautiful film, gorgeously photographed and emotionally stirring. But what is really transcended here is any bit of logic. The film takes place in depression era New York City of 1934. Artist Eben Abner is alone in Central Park when he first encounters Jennie, dressed as a young girl of maybe ten years old from 1910. Why does this girl, not even a teenager, zero in on a guy who's old enough to be her father? More curiously, while Jennie reappears, seemingly at random, a little bit older, with the goal of being of marriageable age for Abner, why is she fuzzy about memories of her own life? And how does one make sense of Jennie being sent to a convent school where most of her classmates become nuns, when the dialogue points out that Jennie isn't Catholic? And while I'm at it, as it is established that Abner lives in a garret apartment, it didn't strike anyone as odd that Abner's Irish pal, Gus O'Toole would haul a full size harp to accompany himself on a song.

Keep in mind that Portrait of Jennie took over a year to produce, with re-writes and re-shoots mandated by producer David O. Selznick for a final cost of about four million dollars. This was slightly greater than the budget for Gone with the Wind, for a film that is essentially an intimate love story. I'm going to have to guess that the assumption was that if the viewer could accept the idea of a love story between a mortal man and a beautiful female ghost, than all the plot holes and inconsistencies will disappear as easily as easily as Jennifer Jones whenever Joseph Cotten glances away from her.

Troy Howarth seems like an unlikely choice for the commentary track, given that he is best known for his writings on Italian horror films. Howarth does provide a plethora of details on the production, giving credit where due, especially as Selznick productions are often known for having several uncredited hands in the final work. The commentary is probably of greatest benefit for younger viewers with less familiarity with the actors, including brief biographies of the supporting players. Howarth also discusses how the final, tinted reels of Portrait of Jennie were shown in the process known as Magnascope in a handful of theaters. Reportedly, it was at these theaters that Portrait of Jennie did well commercially. Having been to the theater where Jennie played in New York City, the Rivoli, I can almost imagine how overwhelming the experience would have been.

Perhaps why Portrait of Jennie works in spite of itself, and why I like this film in spite of its illogic, is because it is a blend of classic Hollywood filmmaking alternating with scenes taking place on location in New York City. Some of this is probably due to the jolt of neorealism that appeared in films only a couple years earlier. And it's probably what inspired Selznick to work, albeit not successfully, with Vittorio De Sica in 1953, with Jones starring in Terminal Station. There are a couple of longish tracking shots of Jones and Cotten walking through Central Park, a location much used in the film. New York City also appears as a ghost town with the pair seen on the streets in a scene that appears to have been filmed early in the morning. In retrospect, Eben Abner sailing through a hurricane to reunite with a ghost names Jennie is dwarfed by the ambitions of David O. Selznick to provide the ultimate showcase for the woman who was about to be his wife.

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Posted by Peter Nellhaus at November 28, 2017 07:08 AM