PORTRAIT OF JENNIE takes the idea of ‘artists muse’ and turns it into a romantic fantasy drama. Produced by David O. Selznick as another vehicle for his adored wife Jennifer Jones to follow-up their giant hit Duel In The Sun. Though this wasn’t a massive period epic, only had a few characters and ran a mere 86 minutes, Selznick’s obsessive tinkering and insistence on location shooting instead of sound stages ended up costing a hefty $4,041,000, a huge amount at the time, especially for what was essentially slight novella material.
Starving artist Joseph Cotten convinces shrewd art gallery dealer Ethel Barrymore that he has latent skill to go with his isolated posture, especially after he meets the inspiring Jennifer Jones one strange winter night in the park. Interspersed meet-ups with the increasingly mysterious girl have her aging at each incident; the smitten Cotten becomes enraptured by her growing charm, his exist-for-ideals creative half accepting the spooky illogic, his sane side is determined to solve her riddle, which works as talisman for his success. But her life chronology doesn’t stack up with reality. Is he just losing it?
Initially intriguing, unabashedly sentimental, somewhat pretentious,ultimately collapsing into its plot conceit (five writers worked at it), it is carried by a great visual look, the effective playing of Cotten, Jones and Barrymore, and Dimitri Tiomkin’s finessing of classical pieces from Claude Debussy into the score (with contribution from Bernard Herrmann).
Lillian Gish has a throwaway cameo that amounts to jabber, and David Wayne’s put-on Irish accent doesn’t convince (the whole Irish-bar subplot is padding). Wayne’s Irish New York cabbie also plays the harp, in some unexplained left-field bit of character puff.
Filmed in a dream-mood tableaux of shadowy soft-noir black & white by Joseph H. August (finished by Lee Garmes when August passed away), often textured through gauze filters to to suggest the canvas painting milieu, the ending switches dramatically into levels of color. A whopper storm finale, with thundering waves pounding a lighthouse and the stranded lovers, brings the search to its illogical conclusion. The storm sequence and color shift took the Oscar for Special Effects and the Cinematography was nominated.
Indifferently received by reviewers in 1949, it flopped with the public, earning only $1,510,000 in rentals, even after a stung Selznick re-issued it as Tidal Wave. It has a fan following and is well-regarded today. Directed by William Dieterle, with Cecil Kellaway, Albert Sharpe, Henry Hull and Clem Bevans. A young Anne Francis is glimpsed at the finish, in company with likewise uncredited hopefuls Nancy Olson and Nancy Davis (Reagan), and somewhere among the ice-skating extras is a determined Brian Keith.