The first time I saw Portrait of Jennie, it reminded me of several things. It reminded me of The Ghost and Mrs. Muir (1947) because of the ghost part (as well as the haunting music of Claude Debussy), and Laura (1944) because of the portrait/obsession part. It also reminded me of one of my favorite books, Tom's Midnight Garden (©1958) by Philippa Pierce, a must read.
The movie stars Jennifer Jones, Joseph Cotten, and Ethel Barrymore. This is actually the first movie I have seen Ms. Barrymore in. You can see the resemblance between Lionel and her, especially in the eyes. Though she doesn't have much screen time, you certainly don't forget her performance. In Joseph Cotten's autobiography, Vanity Will Get You Somewhere, he recalls that after their final scene together, when Barrymore's character talks about the spirit of Jennie, he "looked into her wise, expressive eyes. We said nothing. Without words she told me that she believed in Jennie's existence" (82).
Release Date: April 22, 1949
Running Time: 86 min.
Director: William Dieterle
Synopsis: The movie opens in the winter of 1934. Eben Adams (Cotten) is a talented but struggling artist New York who has never been able to find inspiration for a painting. One day, after he finally finds someone to buy a painting from him, a pretty but odd young girl named Jennie Appleton (Jones) appears and strikes up an unusual friendship with Eben.
Jennie inspires Eben in a way that nothing has ever inspired him. He is able to sell a sketch of her.
Over the next few months Eben meets Jennie again and again, eventually uncovering evidence that he has been conversing and falling in love with the ghost of a girl who died years earlier.
They did a fantastic job of making Jennifer Jones "grow up" as the film progresses. You can watch the movie on YouTube.
No credits are shown at the beginning except for the studio logo, not even the title of the film. Instead, a narrator speaks the prologue and then announces, "And now, 'Portrait of Jennie'". The credits are saved for the end of the picture.
Bernard Herrmann was hired to write an original background score and did compose several themes but dropped out and was replaced by Dimitri Tiomkin who, at the insistence of Selznick, ended up using themes by Claude Debussy. All that remains of Herrmann's contribution is the haunting song sung by Jennie, "Where I Come From, Nobody Knows".
Based on a book of the same title by Robert Nathan (he also wrote The Bishop’s Wife).
UPDATE: The book was really good! Only slightly different from the movie. Mainly the ending. I copied several passages from it.
Although almost the entire film is in black and white, the tidal wave sequence towards the end is shown in green tint, and the final shot of the completed portrait of Jennie is in full Technicolor.
Jennie: How beautiful the world is Eben! The sun goes down in in the same lovely sky. Just as it did yesterday, and will tomorrow.
Eben: When is tomorrow, Jenny?
Jennie: Does it matter? It's always. This was tomorrow once.
Jennie: [singing] Where I come from nobody knows and where I am going everything goes. The wind blows, the sea flows, nobody knows. And where I am going, nobody knows.
Miss Spinney(Barrymore): [to Eben] As you get older, you'll come to believe in many things you don't see. Maybe you saw Jennie, or maybe you created her because you needed her, needed her to open up your talent."
Behind the scenes
This post is part of the Barrymore Trilogy Blogathon hosted by In the Good Old Days of Classic Hollywood. Be sure and check out all of the other posts on this talented family!
Vanity Will Get You Somewhere by Joseph Cotten