After his back-to-back Best Picture victories, super-producer David O. Selznick spent the remainder of his career chasing after those two lightning in a bottle films. Several of them garnered box office results, critical acclaim, and went on to vaulted status in cinema history, and several of them imploded under their own weight. Then there’s the strange case of Portrait of Jennie, a film that spent an inordinate amount of time in post-production but emerges from its production hell woes as a stone-cold classic that’s still somehow undervalued and under-seen.
Portrait of Jennie manages to forgo the bruising running times, the needlessly meandering plot threads, and zeroes in on specific, tactile emotional senses and narrative threads and plays with them in a charming romantic fantasy. Jennie tells the story of a struggling artist (Joseph Cotten), who meets a strange little girl (Jones) that ends up both growing up incredibly fast, being his artistic muse, and providing something of a central mystery and romantic figure for the plot to orbit around. It’s a stunner that bombed in its era, but time has been incredibly kind and supportive to its abundant charms.
Much of its charm can be pinpointed to Jennie’s complete refusal to tie itself to reality or a corporeal world. Jennie is a manic pixie dead girl, and the film never tries to explain away her ghostly appearances nor judges Cotten’s artist for being the only person who can see and interact with her. As Ethel Barrymore’s supportive art dealer argues, it doesn’t matter whether we believe that he’s really seeing and interacting with Jennie, he believes it and that’s all that matters.
Barrymore lays out Cotten’s artistic problems early on in the film; he’s all impressive technical skill with no depth of feeling in his work. There’s no “love” as she puts it, and he desperately needs a little bit of it to bump him over the edge. Whether by mere coincidence or perhaps a subconscious manifestation of his desire to reach greatness, Cotten eventually meets Jones in Central Park, and this relationship will provide the missing “oomph” in his work.
Jones’ Jennie is first introduced as a young girl who makes oblique references to things long past and things yet to come in the future, including a request that Cotten wait for her to grow up. Each time she reappears, again whether by luck or conjuring, she’s gotten older, but no less ephemeral or strange in her musings and haunted memories. What’s deeply refreshing about her spirit is how quickly it is accepted as fact and we don’t spend unnecessary amounts of time waiting for Cotten to come around to the reality that his reality is touched by the supernatural.
The strength of Jones’ performance is how effortless she makes a nearly unplayable character appear. She’s bright and breathless as a little girl and a certain spark of that is kept throughout the performance even Jones essays her maturation. When she’s gone from the film, the haunted qualities already endemic to the work are enriched as she’s so compulsively watchable when she appears. Jones has a quality that was unknowable as an actress, a ability to disappear into her roles and leave us wondering who the real person was beneath the actress, and that quality finds a perfect harmony with this fey spirit.
Even better is Cotten as he’s tasked with playing a romantic lead and not an oily villain, and he’s marvelous here. We must believe that he truly finds a romantic spark with this ghost; he nails that, and that he’s also found creative inspiration in her, he nails this too. Out of the four pairings of Cotten/Jones, Portrait of Jennie is probably the best of the four (although, Duel in the Sun is a personal favorite). This would prove to be the last of their films together, and what an elegiac way to wrap up their pairing.
William Dieterle makes this man’s artistic and spiritual crisis look as haunted and dreamy as he did Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream. He balances a lot of tones and moments so lacking in subtlety they threaten to burst the dreamy atmosphere entirely (Lillian Gish’s nun all but giving Cotten a narrative road map with a gigantic X on it springs to mind), but its strengths overpower its weaknesses. The terror and majesty of love, obsession, and the creative process have rarely been as engrossing and tender as they are in Portrait of Jennie.