Further Thoughts on Portrait of Jennie (1948)
At the beginning of this film we hear a voice-over of artist Eben Adams (played by actor Joseph Cotten) reciting an overview of his present state of despair. Adams calls it "a winter of the mind," a time which author Robert Nathan describes (through Cotten's distinctive voice) as follows:
"There is a sort of desperation which takes hold of a man
after a while, a dreadful feeling of the world's indifference,
not only to his hunger or his pain, but to the very life
which is in him."
One senses the bleakness of the artist's predicament, having sold so few paintings and facing the consistent pressure of providing for rent, food and the basic necessities needed for survival. The film paints a somber portrait through the deserted scenes at Central Park, highlighting the artist's struggle to keep alive amidst a season of discouragement.
The Gallery Scene with Matthews and Miss Spinney
This is one of the most fascinating scenes in the entire film, with superlative performances by Ethel Barrymore as Miss Spinney and Cecil Kellaway as Matthews. When Eben Adams enters the gallery we almost immediately sense his rather desperate situation. He wonders if the gallery might be interested in buying some of his pictures. When Matthews offers to take a look at the artist's portfolio, he rather dismissively states, "Of course, we buy very little....almost nothing....and the times being what they are...." Cecil Kellaway perfectly demonstrates the noble, elegant demeanor of the professional gallery owner who is not overly impressed with a relatively unknown artist in the competitive field of Art sales. Matthews barely has the time or patience to deal with the forlorn Mr. Adams, brushing quickly aside the examples of "bridges....landscapes....flowers," for which there is apparently no contemporary market.
The Entrance of Miss Spinney into the Conversation
When Miss Spinney comes over to meet Mr. Adams, we sense that the artist is already retreating into his shell of protective obscurity, having been suitably discouraged by the professional gallery assistant (Matthews). She says that Adams "...needn't be defensive about" mentioning his name or simply introducing himself. As she looks through his uninspired collection of paintings and drawings, she finds one that she likes and decides to purchase it for $1.25, a first sale in ages for the grateful artist. The sale has an electric effect upon Adams, though Matthews says to Miss Spinney (after Adams leaves) that it's not worth the money. To which she replies, "No, but Mr. Adams is." This perspective offers profound insight into the art of encouragement.
Joseph H. August, Cinematographer (1890-1947)
Joseph August worked as cinematographer on quite a few memorable films, including Gunga Din (1939), The Hunchback of Notre Dame (1939), The Devil & Daniel Webster (1941), and Portrait of Jennie (1948). Gunga Din was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Cinematography at the time of its release, and Portrait of Jennie was nominated for Best B & W Cinematography in 1949, winning an Award for Best Visual Effects that year. Portrait of Jennie was August's last film, with Lee Garmes finishing the project at the untimely occurrence of August's death. Joseph Cotten, who played the part of main character Eben Adams in the film, spoke of August as "brilliant...incomparable...our master of ethereal light."
To Capture the Beauty of Central Park
Vintage equipment was used to capture the effect of warm, radiant light surrounding Jennie in the Central Park scenes. August paints a lovely portrait in vintage black & white, with those picturesque park benches, quaint antique lamp-posts, curving pathways, the distant atmosphere of the pond, the manifold hedges of trees and thousands of darkly mysterious branches. One imagines that these forests of branches might resemble the expanse and patterns of time, one set of shapes leading to another and expanding at new and different angles. The Winter scenes and the ice-skating scenes similarly strike resonant chords, with the awesome skyline of New York City towering over some of the backdrops like palatial castles and European chateaus.
A Vast Refuge in the Midst of Urban America
The history of Central Park is one that reaches back to its inception in the year 1857. In 1858 Frederick Law Olmsted and Calvert Vaux won a design competition to expand and improve the park. While the Park in 1857 encompassed 778 acres, today it encompasses 840 acres including a pond, a lake, a reservoir, numerous wooded areas, picnic groves and open fields for play or athletics.
A Document of A Rare Time & Place
One of the most beguiling pleasures of watching Portrait of Jennie is this remarkable canvas of light & shadow so eminently captured by the gifted cinematographer Joseph August. What the artist manages to preserve transcends decades of time, offering indelible scenes recorded for the impressionable viewer.
A Classic from the 1940's
One of the most atmospheric films I have ever seen is director William Dieterle's Portrait of Jennie (1948), a romantic fantasy starring Joseph Cotten as Eben Adams and Jennifer Jones as Jennie Appleton. This film takes place in Depression-era New York City and captures some marvelous shots of Central Park via cinematographer Joseph August's splendid black & white photography.
Initially composer Bernard Hermann was set to write the musical score for this film, but he parted company with producer David O. Selznick. Composer Dimitri Tiomkin was hired to complete the soundtrack, borrowing heavily from Classical composer Claude Debussy's distinctive impressionistic style. Claude Debussy's "Nuages" can be heard in the opening narrative sequence, with "The Girl with the Flaxen Hair" woven into some of the background music throughout the film, and "Arabesque No. 1 in E" also appearing in background musical sequences as well as the closing credits. I love how this music weaves back and forth amidst the action upon the screen, allowing passages to assume a sense of extraordinary texture throughout the evolving plot involving the full cast of characters. Here there is a sense of magnificent drama, mystery, and brooding temperament heightened by the fluctuations in the main character's broad range of human emotions.
A haunting song and some memorable spoken dialogue
The one original song composed by Bernard Hermann and still part of the soundtrack is "Jennie's Song," with Hermann's music matched to Robert Nathan's lyrics. The lines are intriguing with the words "Where I come from, nobody knows," leading to speculation as to Jennie's origin and the mysterious nature of her life. Then there are some richly evocative moments of dialogue spoken by Jennie as she shares with Eben, "I know we were meant to be together. The strands of our lives are woven together and neither the world nor time can tear them apart." Jennie speaks intimately to Eben the artist, "Eben....I want always to sit and watch you paint....I want you to paint all the beautiful things in the world." From an artistic viewpoint, this is the kind of fabulous inspiration and ultimate encouragement any artist would want to hear.
A superlative cast
Jennifer Jones is one of the most beautiful actresses I have ever seen, perfectly fit for this unusual role. She complements every scene she is in with the veteran actor Joseph Cotten, also superbly cast in his role as the struggling artist. Ethel Barrymore adds convincing demeanor as the gallery owner Miss Spinney, and Cecil Kellaway is perfectly suited to his supporting role as gallery curator & friend to Miss Spinney.