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Daily film recommendation: 'Portrait of Jennie' (1948)

Joseph Cotton and Jennifer Jones in "Portrait of Jennie"
Joseph Cotton and Jennifer Jones in "Portrait of Jennie"
Vanguard Films

Airing on TCM August 29 at 8 PM EST

Portrait of Jennie” is one of the most underrated films of all time. Directed by William Dieterle, produced by David O. Selznick, and based on a book by Robert Nathan, the film is a fantasy/romance set in early 1930s New York. Joseph Cotton stars as Eben Adams, an artist who is technically very talented, but lacks the inspiration to create anything great.

Then one day while walking through Central Park Eben encounters Jennie, a strange little girl wearing old-fashioned clothing. Eben is charmed by her and inspired to sketch her portrait. Eben encounters her several more times, but each time she has aged significantly since he last saw her—much more rapidly than a human can. Eben falls in love with adult Jennie (Jennifer Jones), but begins to investigate her more thoroughly as he notices her continually referring to events that occurred in the past in the present tense.

“Portrait of Jennie” was a flop upon its release, so much so that it was released again in 1950 under as Tidal Wave” in the hope that the more dynamic title would attract a larger audience (it didn’t). Perhaps the film didn’t reach the audience Selznick hoped it would be it is such a moody, artsy piece. Nothing about it is typical of films released in its time. The most obvious aspect is the cinematography by Joseph H. August, who sadly passed away during filming (he did, however, receive a posthumous Academy Award nomination for this film). Much of the film is black-and-white; some of these sequences were shot through a canvas to achieve a more otherworldly, painterly effect. However, the climax was shot with a brilliant green tint, and the final scene in full Technicolor. Each stage of the plot is visually different, and represents the changes in Eben, who grows as an artist as a result of his relationship with Jennie.

“Portrait of Jennie” costars Ethel Barrymore as Miss Spinney, the art curator who sees the spark of talent in Eben, and Lillian Gish as Mother Mary. The film’s final scene features cameos by Anne Francis, and, in their film debuts, Nancy Olsen and Nancy Davis (the future wife of Ronald Reagan). The beautiful Jennifer Jones has a natural air of mystery about her that lends itself to the role. The only strange thing is how she physically doesn’t always appear to age much each time Eben encounters her, even though she is supposed to have. Those who have seen the recent film “Boyhood” will be interested to know that Selznick originally wanted to film this movie intermittently over the course of several years, showing Jennie—who would have been played by Shirley Temple—age naturally. However, this was deemed too difficult to accomplish at the time.

“Portrait of Jennie” is more than just a uniquely gorgeous film; it’s the journey of an artist who finds his muse, showing that inspiration can come from anyone at anytime, anyplace—real, or imagined.

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