Portrait of Jennie (Blu-ray Review)16 Oct, 2017 By: Mike Clark
$19.95 DVD, $29.95 Blu-ray
Stars Jennifer Jones, Joseph Cotton, Ethel Barrymore, Cecil Kellaway, Lillian Gish.
David O. Selznick’s coffers-busting Portrait of Jennie is a favorite of many (including me, as well as — not to equate us — the long-late Luis Bunuel) despite more lumpy moments that you’d expect from a good movie that runs just 86 minutes. It’s an ethereal, supernatural romance that wouldn’t take too many stretches to qualify for inclusion in the time-travel genre — another favorite of mine, though I’ve never had much use for beloved-by-some Somewhere in Time, which is kind of a piker by comparison here. Jennie marked the final screen co-casting of four between real-life Selznick spouse Jennifer Jones and Joseph Cotten, who had few peers when it came to portraying complex sensitive males with an edge. That wasn’t all he could do (think of his California right-wing-reactionary gem in Richard Lester’s Petulia), but the Jennie role was really in his wheelhouse.
Jones’s initially teenaged title character encounters Cotten in New York’s Central Park, when the latter has been trying to carve out a pittance as a starving painter during the Depression. Maybe he’s light in the head due to lack of enough food — but is understandably thrown that she’s dressed in old-fashioned clothes, claims to having just lived through events that happened decades before and is carrying an old newspaper that gives credence to some of her gotta-be whoppers. Or are they? Periodically, he’ll meet up with her in what amount to the movie’s “chapters” — and each time, she’s a little bit older until she blooms into a beautiful grown-up woman. As film historian Troy Howarth notes in a stacked bonus commentary, there are mild elements of attraction to a minor and even possibly necrophilia if you want to look for them — but aside from helping explain Bunuel’s fandom and giving the picture extra subliminal kick, they can be ignored, which is likely what they were in 1948 and early ’49. BTW, I’ve never been able to pin down the exact release year because I don’t know if Jennie’s Dec. 25, 1948 L.A. world premiere segued into a week’s official engagement.
In between, there’s a lot of Irish overkill involving a Cotten pal played, in his first major screen role, by David Wayne — an actor I’ve liked since childhood and one whose tremendous contribution to Judy Garland’s much-praised first TV special (1955) is something I just watched again a couple weeks ago. Wayne was exercising his brogue a lot in those late-’40s days, having just won a Tony for playing Og the Leprechaun in Finian’s Rainbow. Even so, these passages are arguably the movie’s weakest, though I do love the supporting contributions from a pedigreed powerhouse of a supporting cast: Ethel Barrymore, Cecil Kellaway and Lillian Gish.
What’s more, the movie has it when it counts (the Jones-Cotten scenes), which is what one can also say of Kino’s print, which shows a lot of scratchy wear on what appear to be the beginnings and ends of reels (digital simonizing here appears rudimentary). At its Blu-ray best, though, there are shots in this final work by the great cinematographer Joseph August (finished by one or two others, Lee Garmes included, following his death during production) that make that the heart jump. None resonate more than the Technicolor exclamation point that caps what is otherwise a black-and-white production — though, in fact, the movie’s entire typhoon finale (at least in major-city showings at the time and thankfully, here) gets a major tint and then sepia rendering along with what was pumped-up sound for its day. This last, per Howarth, likely contributed to decent business in the few venues where this climactic goosing was employed — though, otherwise, typical Selznick cost overruns (times 10) made Jennie a costly catastrophe at the time before major cult-dom set in.
One of the great movie experiences I’ve ever had was seeing Jennie via a friend’s nitrate 35mm copy (one hand on the projector, his other on fire retardant). This isn’t that, but as they say in The Wild Bunch, “it’ll do.” Jones is clearly too old for the early scenes — a situation that would plague her again during her career — but later, as a full-bloomed woman or apparition, she does have the make-or-break magical quality that sells the picture.