Portrait of Jennie

Portrait of Jennie

5.0 4
Director: William Dieterle

Cast: Joseph Cotten, Jennifer Jones, Ethel Barrymore


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There aren't ten movies in the whole history of Hollywood that are as haunting, beguiling, and delicately textured as William Dieterle's Portrait of Jennie. Shot primarily in New York during 1947 and part of 1948, the 86-minute movie -- based on Robert Nathan's novel of the same name -- cost nearly as much to make as Gone With the Wind; it seemed pureSee more details below


There aren't ten movies in the whole history of Hollywood that are as haunting, beguiling, and delicately textured as William Dieterle's Portrait of Jennie. Shot primarily in New York during 1947 and part of 1948, the 86-minute movie -- based on Robert Nathan's novel of the same name -- cost nearly as much to make as Gone With the Wind; it seemed pure folly, except that it did solidify the romance between producer David O. Selznick and its star, Jennifer Jones, culminating in their marriage. And while not a success on its initial release, this romantic ghost story has aged beautifully, mostly by virtue of the performances by the entire cast and the gossamer-textured mood invoked by director Dieterle and cinematographer Joseph August, who captured New York City through a dreamlike mist by way of extraordinary location shots. Joseph Cotten plays a destitute artist in 1934, who finds his inspiration and the great love of his life in a series of encounters with Jennifer Jones, who appears to him in steadily older guises, from a little girl to a grown woman, and proves to be the ghost of a girl who died unloved decades earlier. Scored to the music of Claude Debussy (as adapted by Dimitri Tiomkin, the story takes on a hauntingly romantic, dreamlike quality, essentially a modern-day fable set in New York. The DVD is the first disc-format appearance of the movie -- a planned laserdisc in the late '80s was cancelled because the existing master materials were inadequate. No such problem exists on the Anchor Bay DVD. The master materials are a match for the best 35 mm theatrical print that this reviewer has ever seen (and he has seen many, including archival prints). The cinematography displays a beguiling chiaroscuro effect, as though one were watching a painting in motion in many of the most enchanting sequences, while shots of a more literal nature glow with the silvery sheen of a fine nitrate print perfectly transferred. The final 12 minutes of the movie are the first in any home-viewing format (including television broadcasts) to properly capture the tinting in the storm sequence, and the final shot -- the visual and emotional capstone to the entire picture -- never looked better. The audio quality is also superior to any video version of the film previously released, with the richness of Tiomkin's rescoring of Debussy's music coming through in all of its details. These technical virtues allow one to appreciate the vision that Selznick was striving to realize, as well as the beauty of Jennifer Jones and of the performances, especially the work of Ethel Barrymore in one of her very best roles. The disc is programmed to start without going to the menu, and the film is broken down into 28 well-selected chapters. The trailer is also fascinating as a demonstration of just how difficult this movie was to synopsize in a couple of minutes -- it emphasizes more comedy than the film actually had, while hinting at the strange and mysterious ghost story that it actually was.

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Editorial Reviews

All Movie Guide - Craig Butler
Romantic fantasies like Portrait of Jennie are remarkably hard to pull off. A children's fantasy, like The Wizard of Oz, is easier, because it's already one step removed from reality. But pictures like Jennie are grounded in the real world, and the tone has to be kept exactly right or else the project veers perilously off into whimsy or preciousness; even a slight detour can be fatal, and it is to Jennie's -- and director William Dieterle's -- credit that this never happens here. It's not that Jennie is perfect; the opening narration is ponderous and pretentious, and one does get a little tired of hearing the title character described as having such a mysterious, airy quality about her, to cite just two examples. But these flaws don't intrude on the reality/fantasy mix, and they're easy to forgive, especially given how on the mark the screenplay generally is. And Dieterle provides near perfect direction, full of beauty and sensitivity. Best of all, Jennie has Jennifer Jones and Joseph Cotten. Jones may have won her Oscar for The Song of Bernadette, but her work in Jennie is better and is arguably the finest of her career. She perfectly conveys the many different ages of the character, and though her appearances are sporadic and cover a range of time, she finds a through line for the character so that she creates a full portrait rather than bits and pieces. Cotten is sublime, capturing the moodiness and self-pity of his character, as well as the anger and bitterness underneath, but making him at all times likeable and someone whom we care for and about. The supporting cast is also strong, with Ethel Barrymore's lovely patroness, clearly in love with Cotten but aware that it's a no-win situation, especially noteworthy. Throw in cinematography and a score that are equals in atmosphere, and the result is a glorious romance.

Product Details

Release Date:
Original Release:
Starz / Anchor Bay
Region Code:
[B&W, Full Frame]
[Dolby Digital, monaural]

Special Features

Full-frame presentation; Theatrical trailer

Cast & Crew

Performance Credits
Joseph Cotten Eben Adams
Jennifer Jones Jennie Appleton
Ethel Barrymore Miss Spinney
David Wayne Gus O'Toole
Florence Bates Mrs. Jekes the Landlady
Lillian Gish Mother Mary of Mercy
Cecil Kellaway Mr. Matthews
Esther Somers Mrs. Bunce
Albert Sharpe Mr. Moore
John Farrell Policeman
Felix Bressart Pete
Maude Simmons Clara Morgan
Clem Bevans Capt. Cobb
Robert Dudley Old Mariner
Henry Hull Eke
Anne Francis Teenager
Brian Keith Ice-skating extra

Technical Credits
William Dieterle Director
Joseph H. August Cinematographer
Lucinda Ballard Costumes/Costume Designer
Leonardo Bercovici Screenwriter
Peter Berneis Screenwriter
Mel Berns Makeup
Mel Burns Makeup
Claude E. Carpenter Set Decoration/Design
Paul Eagler Special Effects
David Hempstead Associate Producer
Bernard Herrmann Score Composer,Songwriter
J. McMillan Johnson Production Designer,Special Effects
Anna Hill Johnstone Costumes/Costume Designer
William Morgan Editor
Paul Osborn Screenwriter
Joseph B. Platt Art Director
David O. Selznick Producer
Clarence Slifer Special Effects
Dimitri Tiomkin Score Composer,Musical Direction/Supervision
Gerard J. Wilson Editor

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Scene Index

Side #1
0. Chapter Selection
1. Opening Credits/Faith & Hope [2:03]
2. Struggling Artist [3:59]
3. Jennie [5:15]
4. Lasting Impression [2:17]
5. Old Newspaper [3:11]
6. Good Idea [3:52]
7. Selling A Sketch [3:14]
8. Together Again [4:20]
9. Police Assistance [1:31]
10. Old Pete [1:43]
11. Puzzling Picture [1:46]
12. Listening To Stars [3:52]
13. Deep Thoughts [3:06]
14. Preparing A Portrait [2:48]
15. Perfect Pose [3:12]
16. Spiritual Understanding [3:35]
17. Ageless Art [1:30]
18. True Happiness [3:31]
19. Disappointing Departure [5:32]
20. Sad Song [2:35]
21. Sister Mary [5:37]
22. Traveling Expenses [1:19]
23. Story Told [3:49]
24. Land's End Light [4:26]
25. Goodbye [2:48]
26. All That Matters [3:05]
27. Final Note [:45]
28. End Credits [1:13]

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