“Who knoweth if to die be but to live…and that called life by mortals be but death?”
Between 1936 and 1957, David O. Selznick produced a series of films through his own company — Selznick Releasing Organization — that has never received its just due in terms of home video release. Oh, all have been available on VHS and some on laserdisc, but for the most part the quality of the transfers has been lacking. Now Anchor Bay is in the process of making these titles available on DVD and finally, high quality video transfers are being made a priority. Portrait of Jennie is the latest of these films to appear.
The film is a very fine mood piece — a fantasy well acted and beautifully designed — that belies the script and shooting difficulties that characterized it.
Struggling painter Eben Adams has a tough time surviving in New York, for his work is technically good but lacks passion, thus resulting in few sales.
Late one afternoon, Adams meets a young girl playing alone in a park. The girl, who says her name is Jennie, mentions that she is alone because her parents are working at a nearby theatre. When she mentions the name of the theatre, Adams points out that the theatre has not existed for many years. The girl soon departs, leaving behind a small parcel that proves to be scarf wrapped in an old newspaper contemporary with when the theatre did still exist. Strangely drawn to the memory of the girl, Adams does a sketch of her that he is able to sell.
From time to time, the girl reappears in Adams’ life, but on each occasion she is several years older and she soon disappears again each time. Adams finds himself falling in love with her and when she finally appears as a young woman, he paints her portrait. Trying to unravel the mystery of whom the girl known as Jennie really is and her mysterious comings and goings, Adams finally learns that her parents had died and she herself had been drowned years ago in boating accident off Cape Cod.
Hoping to save her life across time, Adams rents a boat and heads for the spot near a lighthouse where Jennie had drowned, but a severe storm springs up.
Fantasy, it is so often said, is the most difficult of subject matter to film successfully. Producer David O. Selznick’s Portrait of Jennie was one of the more successful films in transferring the mystical qualities of its source material (a novella by Robert Nathan) to the screen, but it was not without considerable behind-the-screen hardship.
Selznick was drawn to the material from the time that he first read it, but he hesitated, being aware of the potential difficulties of filming the fantastic elements of the story. Only after MGM had first purchased the film rights and then allowed them to lapse, did Selznick finally secure the rights himself. This was in late 1944 and it cost him $15,000. By the time the completed film was released at the end of 1948, its costs had amounted to over $4 million due to extensive New York City location shooting and reshooting, numerous script revisions, extensive cast changes, and a decision to show the climactic storm sequence on an enlarged screen with multiple sound channels. This sum was extremely large for the late forties, and despite good reviews, Portrait of Jennie failed mightily at the box office (although it would later do better upon re-release). This failure, along with losses incurred by The Paradine Case — another Selznick production of the time — led Selznick to close down his Hollywood production facilities.
One of the things that drew Selznick to the material was the potential he saw in it as a part for Jennifer Jones, the young actress he had developed during the 40s and whom he would marry in Italy in mid-1949. In this, at least, Selznick’s instinct was correct. Jones’ work as Jennie is certainly one of the finest performances of her career, and strangely, often under-rated. She is entirely believable aging from a rather gawky and plain young girl to a beautiful woman, and she conveys the otherworldly nature of Jennie with a sincerity that is completely captivating. She is, of course, aided in this immeasurably by the production design and cinematography aspects that included textured overlays (for example, the early scenes of New York presented with the texture of an oil-on-canvas painting), filtered effects, and impressionistic lighting. (The film won an Academy Award for Best Special Effects.)
Starring with Jones was Joseph Cotten. Cotten actually was the second choice for the role on the basis of a survey that Selznick had had conducted. (Gregory Peck was first and Laurence Olivier was third.) He got the role when Peck was unavailable due to a previous commitment at Fox. The teaming of Joseph Cotten and Jennifer Jones was their fourth film together, the previous ones having been Duel in the Sun (1946, Selznick), Love Letters (1945, Par), and Since You Went Away (1944, Selznick). Throughout his career, Cotten never seemed to receive the attention that his abilities deserved and Portrait of Jennie is a case in point. Cotten has the largest role in the film and has to make us believe in his character’s enrapture with the elusive Jennie without making it seem either melodramatic or embarrassingly cloying. We connect with his struggling painter because Cotten always had an everyman quality to his work, yet one usually tinged with a degree of weariness. That combination was perfect for Portrait of Jennie.
One of the intriguing aspects of Portrait of Jennie was Selznick’s desire to enhance the impact of the climactic storm sequence. He wanted to see it built up on a scale that would make it comparable to the impact of the earthquake in San Francisco (1936, MGM) or the hurricane in The Hurricane (1937, Goldwyn). To that end, the New York and Los Angeles showings of the film featured a “cycloramic screen together with multi-sound” — essentially, once the storm began, the screen opened up to three times the normal size and multiple sound sources bombarded spectators. The effect was spectacular apparently, but probably ill advised in the sense that it overpowered the impact of what was otherwise a rather fragile mood-piece. More in keeping with the mood of the film was the use of colour during the final minutes: green tinting for the storm, sepia tone for the aftermath, and gorgeous Technicolor for the ending.
Anchor Bay’s DVD of Portrait of Jennie continues a fine record of DVD efforts on the films of David O. Selznick. The film is presented full frame in its OAR with 28 scene selections. The black and white image is crisp and clear with only occasional scratches and speckles. Blacks are deep and pure; whites are clean; and shadow detail is quite good. The overall effect is not quite up to the best B&W transfers, but is still quite pleasing. The widescreen version of the storm sequence is not part of the source material used, but the tint and colour sequences near the end are faithfully rendered. The sound is the original mono and quite pleasing with little evidence of age-related hiss.
We have the usual rather sparse Anchor Bay treatment of the Selznick titles once again. There is a theatrical trailer and some production notes, but that’s it. It’s really too bad that Anchor Bay doesn’t showcase its fine transfer efforts with some additional supplementary material. For example, it would really have been interesting to know what became of the widescreen, multi-sound storm sequences; if they exist, examples of what they looked like and how they sounded would have been great. The company has a nice set of titles here, but doesn’t seem interested in making the most of them. That’s a shame because the films merit the attention.
Portrait of Jennie is a well-acted fantasy that is worthy of your time and attention. It weaves a spell that completely grabs you and keeps you entranced for its brief 86 minutes. The DVD maintains that spell throughout by virtue of a fine video and audio transfer. Too bad more of an effort couldn’t have been made by Anchor Bay to include additional supplementary information that would have further enhanced the experience.