Monday, October 23, 2017

Tonight's Movie: Portrait of Jennie (1948) - A Kino Lorber Blu-ray Review

The classic romantic fantasy PORTRAIT OF JENNIE (1948) is being released by Kino Lorber on Blu-ray and DVD on Tuesday, October 24th.

PORTRAIT OF JENNIE has a special place in my heart, having been one of the particularly memorable Los Angeles revival theater screenings I attended as a teenager in the late '70s or early '80s. I had the good fortune to see the movie then at the Tiffany Theater on Sunset Boulevard, complete with its special "widescreen" tinted storm sequence and the famous final shot in Technicolor. The film's mystical story combined with the unique aspects of the screening for an incredibly memorable viewing experience.

After all this time I'm not sure whether I'll ever have a similar opportunity to see the movie screened again in that fashion, but in the meantime I have Kino Lorber's new Blu-ray release to enjoy.

PORTRAIT OF JENNIE is the story of Eben Adams (Joseph Cotten), a struggling artist who paints nicely but without much heart. Encouraged to find subjects he cares about by a pair of kindly gallery owners (Ethel Barrymore and Cecil Kellaway), he meets his muse in Jennie (Jennifer Jones), a little girl in the park.

Eben is thrilled when he immediately sells a sketch of Jennie to the gallery. As time goes on he periodically meets her, yet he's puzzled by things she says, which seem to indicate she lived in an earlier time. What's more, each time they meet she is years older -- as she tells him, she's hurrying to grow up for him.

When Jennie is a young woman Eben paints a great portrait of her, the "Portrait of Jennie," but shortly afterwards he learns from a nun (Lillian Gish) that Jennie died...a number of years before. Will their love be able to continue jumping the boundaries of time?

PORTRAIT OF JENNIE is a haunting, magical film which to some extent defies explanation, just as is the case with Jennie's appearances to Eben. It's more a film one must experience...the story, along with the cinematography and Dimitri Tiomkin's arrangements of Debussy, wrap themselves around the viewer and don't let go for the next 86 minutes, until the final shot.

Speaking of the final shot, I feel the movie has two of the greatest shots in film history, and that's one of them, a profoundly moving moment. The other scene comes much earlier, when Eben returns to his loft to find Jennie has appeared. The radiance of Jennie the young woman, dressed all in white, is one of the most beautiful things I've ever seen. Actress and character merge, joining with the photographer in a perfect cinematic moment.

Jones may have been producer David O. Selznick's own muse or romantic obsession, but putting that well-known story aside, she was a supremely talented actress. As noted in my August review of DUEL IN THE SUN (1946), she had one Oscar win and four additional nominations -- and remarkably, this wasn't one of them! She delicately sketches Jennie in quite remarkable fashion, with subtle yet definite changes as she ages. In a word, she's ethereal.

Likewise, Cotten gradually transforms from a bemused uncle-type character, enjoying the company of a charming young girl, to falling more and more under Jennie's spell so that by the time she's an adult woman he's in love with her. In the wrong hands the story and characters could have been mucked up or tasteless, but here every element comes together with a perfect gossamer touch. I know I'm heaping on the superlatives, but for me this is a film which has only grown more magical with the passage of time.

Incidentally, years later Cotten was asked about his favorite costar and replied "I suppose it was Jennifer," mentioning their "happy days" working together.

PORTRAIT OF JENNIE was based on the novel by Robert Nathan. Paul Osborn and Peter Berneis are the credited scriptwriters, with Ben Hecht and Selznick tinkering behind the scenes.

PORTRAIT OF JENNIE was directed by William Dieterle. It was filmed by Joseph August, who died during production, and the uncredited Lee Garmes.

The supporting cast includes David Wayne, Felix Bressart, Albert Sharpe, Clem Bevans, Maude Simmons, and Florence Bates. Watch for a very young Anne Francis in the final scene.

The Kino Lorber disc is, admittedly, not one of the more consistent Blu-rays I've seen, with variable picture quality and periodic scratches, including during the opening credits. While some scenes are rough, others look very good indeed, and there are no distracting skips or jumps. In addition to the final Technicolor shot, this print includes the green-tinted storm sequence and the sepia scene which follows. The soundtrack is excellent.

The very knowledgeable Glenn Erickson explained in his own recent review that much of the print problem lies with the original source material rather than any lack of effort on Kino's part. It sounds from his summation as though this may be about as good as PORTRAIT OF JENNIE can look, especially with flaws blown up in high definition.

Viewers should be advised what to expect going in, but despite the imperfections I strongly recommend Kino's release of this favorite film. As must be clear from the above, I thoroughly enjoyed revisiting it.

Extras consist of a gallery of five Jones and Cotten film trailers, a commentary track by Troy Howarth, and reversible Blu-ray case cover art.

Thanks to Kino Lorber for providing a review copy of this Blu-ray.


Blogger Rick said...

More than any other film, I think PORTRAIT OF JENNIE is truly unique, in the strictest definition of that word. There simply is no other movie like it. It's very like a dream, for most of its length. Only the final reel or so, which was so painfully rejiggered in post-production, is less than wonderful.

Jones and Cotten are terrific, David Wayne and Cecil Kellaway are great, and this might be the best ever screen performance by the legendary Ethel Barrymore.

I first saw it on late night TV when I was very young. For years thereafter I'd think back on it and I'd wonder if maybe it actually had been a dream.

Looking forward to seeing on Blu-ray a movie which is very much a favorite of mine, too.

4:54 PM  
Blogger Laura said...

I really appreciated your description, Rick -- especially feeling later as though the movie was a dream. I used to sometimes watch movies late at night when I was young also, in those pre-VHS, pre-cable days -- so I can especially appreciate your comment.

I hope you'll enjoy the Blu-ray as much as I did.

Best wishes,

9:40 PM  

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