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.