The United States of America
As I sit in my room writing this review, the sun rises on one of the first frosts of the season. The grass is glazed with iced dust that crunches under your feet. The wind’s howling reaches through closed windows to chill early risers to the bone. It is the season of destitution, of naked trees, and breath that freezes in your lungs. Soon, snow will cover the land with a chilly blanket. I look out my window with my hand under my chin and sigh. I think, “This was just like how it started. This was just like the beginning of Portrait of Jennie.” I return my eyes to my monitor and struggle to force impotent hands to clack out words that in reality mean very little. There is so much I want to say about this film, and yet I possess so little ability to express it. It reminds me of John Lennon crooning away, “Half of what I say is meaningless…Still I say it just to reach you.” So I carry on, determined to finish this article and share with you just a modicum of the beauty that is William Dieterle’s unsung masterpiece Portrait of Jennie.
Now that I think of it, maybe it is appropriate that I am suffering from writer’s block. After all, our hero Eben Adams begins the film in a similar state. A struggling, impoverished painter living in the mid 1930s in New York City, Eben lives one penny at a time. He moves from art collector to art collector, trying in vain to sell one of his paintings. His paintings are decent, yet lack a certain je ne sais pas that prevent anyone from buying them. One old art dealer named Miss Spinney takes pity on him and buys one of his paintings, much to the chagrin of her partner. This puts enough money in Eben’s pocket for a decent meal. But it isn’t enough. Tomorrow, when the money is gone he will still be just another hack with an armful of worthless paintings.
And yet, one cold day in Central Park he stumbles across a young girl named Jennie Appleton. A perpetually cheerful young lady, Jennie provides a ray of light into Eben’s life as she describes her happy life. And yet, something about her is a bit off. After all, she is wearing clothes that nobody has worn for decades and she claims that her parents work at a theater that has been gone for years. But Eben doesn’t care. She is a delight to be with. They enjoy their walk when suddenly Jennie turns to him and says, “I wish that you would wait for me to grow up so that we could always be together.” And then…nothing. She disappears, leaving nothing but a scarf tucked into a newspaper from 1910.
Baffled, yet inspired by this event, he rushes to draw a sketch of Jennie from memory. He creates a piece unlike anything else he had ever created. Whatever creative spark he was missing has arrived like a tidal wave. The sketch captivates Miss Spinney and even gains the admiration of her assistant. Eben returns to the park looking for Jennie. He finds her but is shocked to find that she seems to have aged several years in a few days. When asked about her growth, she beams and says that she’s trying to grow very fast so that they can be together. And then she is gone, disappearing into the glare of the sun.
Inspired by his second encounter, Eben is swept into a whirlwind of inspiration. Soon, his work affords him new clothes, hearty meals, and a new sense of accomplishment. And yet, like the late autumn, early winter sky, he feels empty. To him, Jennie is more than a muse, she is life itself. He goes to the park trying in vain to find Jennie. Nobody seems to have seen her. In fact, nobody seems to have remembered seeing her at all.
He investigates the dated paper that contains Jennie’s scarf and discovers that twenty years ago, Jennie’s parents were a pair of famous trapeze artists. When he goes to investigate them, he is shocked to find that they have been dead for several years. He is even more shocked to discover that they did have a daughter named Jennie. When he inquires about her, he is told that she was sent to a convent by her aunt after her parents were killed in an onstage accident. Bewildered, he returns to the park only to rediscover a heartbroken Jennie crying her eyes out. When Eben asks why she is crying, she whimpers that her parents just died and that she has to go live in a convent. Eben is shocked, but manages to calm her down. Things are made even stranger by the fact that Jennie is no longer a young girl. She is now a young woman. Before she abruptly disappears, she reassures him that she is growing as fast as she can.
I pause now in my writing. I realize that I have spelled the first half of the movie out almost word for word. I should be writing a review, not a summary. And yet, I feel an intrinsic need to recreate every plot point so that you, the reader, will understand the heartbreaking power of Portrait of Jennie. What director William Dieterle managed to do was create a film that was simultaneously a powerful love story and a supernatural…thriller? No, thriller isn’t the right word. It’s more like a supernatural curiosity, like a more subdued episode of The Twilight Zone. There is something unnatural and unusual going on in Portrait of Jennie. And yet, the fantastical elements of the picture do not insist upon themselves. The story is about Eben and his quest to capture his muse who may or may not be a figment of his imagination. After all, only he can see her. He learns that the historical Jennie died years ago in a tragic boating accident. She couldn’t possibly really be there. And yet, such impossibilities are irrelevant. She is real to Eben, the man who needs her most in the world.
As Eben becomes a better and more successful painter, he realizes that he needs Jennie in order to create. During a long absence where she fails to appear for several months, he is unable to finish anything. When she returns again, she has grown into a fully realized woman. The waiting is over. At least, it was supposed to be. She disappears again, leaving Eben to realize that the anniversary of her death is swiftly approaching. He races to the cape where Jennie drowned and….
No. I’m going to stop there. I refuse to spoil it for you. Yes, there is a traditional Hollywood rescue scene where Eben desperately tries to save his beloved. But I’m not going to tell you what happens. All I will say is that while the set-up seems to be copy and pasted from a hundred other sappy love stories, the payoff is shockingly unique. All leads to a scene set in the present day where a group of schoolchildren attend a museum exhibit of Eben’s work. The centerpiece is completed portrait of Jennie. In a final sweep, the film briefly explodes into Technicolor glory, showing that in the end Eben was finally able to create a piece of art that transcended the natural world of the film to take on a life of its own.
While working on this article, I glanced at several other reviews of the film just to get an idea of what other people think of it. One review in particular caught my eye. It was an article written by Ed Gonzalez written for Slant Magazine, the link to which I have provided below. Gonzalez argues that Portrait of Jennie is a metaphor for the creative process. He states that the film details Eben as an artist coming to terms with his dependency on his muse. Gonzalez writes:
What is Jennie then but a metaphor for supreme creative (read: spiritual) enlightenment? A quick glance at Eben's portrait of Jennie shows that he has yet to finish drawing her left arm. The shot evokes a devastating foreshadowing that isn't lost on Eben. Indeed, he is very conscious of the fact that if he finishes the arm, Jennie will disappear soon after.
Gonzalez makes a fair point. After all, Eben wants to possess Jennie because she inspires him. And yet, he is terrified that once he has her, she will disappear.
And yet, I take issue with Gonzalez’s review. It is too cold, too sterile in its approach to this haunting film. It dissects it as if it were a medical patient. It doesn’t take any time to appreciate it for what it truly is: a love story. Yes, the film deals largely with one man’s artistic struggles. But at its core it is about a man who loves a woman. After all, Eben clearly wasn’t thinking about his work when he rowed out in the middle of a storm to rescue Jennie from drowning.
Portrait of Jennie is a haunting enigma of a film. A devastating love story and a fascinating otherworldly mystery, it is a difficult film to classify. Does it belong in the romance or fantasy section? Or, maybe, does it belong in its own?
You know, it’s funny. This hasn’t been a regular review. I've said almost nothing about its production or its technical capacity as a piece of filmmaking. I haven’t mentioned the pitch perfect performances of Joseph Cotten as Eben, Jennifer Jones as Jennie, and Ethel Barrymore as Miss Spinney. I haven’t mentioned how the film was a personal project for producer David O. Selznick who agonized over every step of its difficult production. I haven’t mentioned the beautiful cinematography by Joseph H. August who frequently shot the film through a canvas to make the picture appear to be a painting. I haven’t even said a word about its miserable reception upon its first release.
And yet, here I write. The sun has come up now. The frost has disappeared on its voyage to another icy morning. It will get colder soon. But for now, the sun is still bright. The sky is a reminder of the stark, desolate beauty that engulfs the world. Such is the beauty of an autumn morning. Such is the beauty of Portrait of Jennie, a consummate masterpiece, a consummate film.
Link to Ed Gonzalez’s Review (Contains Spoilers):