Sunday 21 January 2007

Portrait of Jennie (1948) William Dieterle

Kicking off with a speech about the eternal questions and accompanied by a quotation from Euripedes and another from Keats, this really ought to be a deep and meaningful work of art. However while it's certainly full of substance, it's far more approachable than it would at first seem.

Joseph Cotten is his usual hardboiled self, but this time round he's a struggling New York painter called Eben Adams. He's not bad, it seems, but he can't sell much of his work. He does sell one to wonderfully crisp gallery owner Ethel Barrymore but she's more interested in him than his paintings. She sees something in him that he doesn't even see himself. One thing he sees that nobody else does is Jennie, a young schoolgirl played by Jennifer Jones who he meets in the park. She's also a ghost. As you'd expect from the title, he draws her portrait and it's the one piece of work that changes everything for him. After all what could be more timeless than the face of a ghost?

There's some glory here and not just in the main focus of the film. Maybe that's partly due to Joseph Cotten, who like William Holden, has a marvellous habit of seeping into his films like dye. Both of them are integral parts of all of their movies but they never seem to be the focus. They just provide the canvas for others to dance life onto. Here it's Jennifer Jones, who is a delight, so delightful it seems that producer David O Selznick fell in love with her. He married her a year after this film and they remained married until his death in 1965. She ages here notably but superbly, better than most such instances I've seen from this era, making the Oscar the film won for special effects justified.

It's not just her though. It's also Ethel Barrymore, one of the greatest stage actors to make her mark on the film industry too. She was such a great actor that very few others could ever hold a candle to her work, but she must have been on top form in Portrait of Jennie because she knew that one of those few was here too: Lillian Gish, who has stunned me more than any other actor, male or female, since I started exploring the history of cinema. Every time I've seen her I've been literally humbled by her talent and here was no exception: it's a small part and she seems to do so little yet I was immensely touched by it. I admired every movement Ethel Barrymore made but I was touched by every movement Lillian Gish didn't. Just looking at her eyes made me almost want to cry.

There are other odd merits, such as the great scene of blarney between two Irishmen, one finding a way to persuade the other into what he wants. It's magic writing and magic performing, that's for sure. Much of the rest of the script is a little talky and overly poetic but it fits the great sweep of things. It's a strange romance but then the strangest ones are usually the most intriguing.

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