PORTRAIT OF JENNIE (William Dieterle, 1948)

Labored fantasy and humorless whimsy, Portrait of Jennie is about a “mistake in time” that allows for the romance in Depression-era New York City between a starving painter, Eben Adams, and a strange girl who, Adams later learns, died some time ago. Based on a novel by Robert Nathan, the film benefits from William Dieterle’s sensitive direction (the spiral staircase of a lighthouse encapsulates the mystery of Time), gorgeous, at times otherworldly black-and-white cinematography by Joseph H. August, and beautiful acting by Ethel Barrymore as a sympathetic art dealer. Also to its credit is a haunting coda at the Metropolitan Museum of Art.
     But this is not a good film overall. David O. Selznick’s inflated production wars with the intimacy that Dieterle pursues, and the pseudo-mysticism is close to unbearable. Poetical is not the same thing as poetic, and the opening voiceover intoning about mysteries of time and space prepares one for the worst. The matter is sealed when the conclusion of Keats’s Ode on a Grecian Urn (the “Beauty is truth, truth beauty” lines) is shown onscreen absent the context of the entire poem.
     The film’s principal shortcoming, however, is the ridiculous performance by Jennifer Jones as Jennie Appleton. Fans of hers point out how Jones “ages” Jennie a bit more with each of Jennie’s appearances as Jennie “rushes” to grow up so that she and Adams can become lovers; but this is Acting 101 stuff. Uninflectedly ethereal, Jones is hopeless at imbuing Jennie with even the slightest degree of materiality and warm-blooded reality, without which Eben’s love for Jennie becomes groundless, consigning Jennie only to the category of artistic inspiration. Indeed, Miss Jones would play a suburban housewife in the same insubstantial manner in The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit (1956).

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