Friday, August 12, 2016

Art for heart's sake.

A friend of mine told me about Portrait of Jennie last year, I think. Maybe the year before. In any case I just got around to watching it. It's a strange film, when you get down to it. Enchanting while not being entirely trustworthy.

An artist with great skill, but one whose work (we're told) shows little passion, meets a girl. A girl from the past. He falls in love with her, and she with him, and she becomes his great work.

The fact that he meets her when she's a little girl and they already have chemistry is more than a little creepy when you think about it. But that part seems less severe given the movie's air of fever dream, fueled by the Debussy-via-Tiomkin score. But it's questionable whether this obsessive, consuming romance is actually healthy, regardless of whether Jennie is real or not. Fever dream, drug haze, all of that.

Joseph Cotten had a very fertile period in the late 1940s. Between this, Gaslight, The Third Man, and Hitchcock's Shadow of a Doubt he showed a lot of versatility. (Citizen Kane was his first, I think, but for obvious reasons he wasn't the lead in that.)

Also, I swear I wasn't looking for movies with Ellery Queen connections, but this turned out to be one. An amazingly young David Wayne plays Cotten's Irish friend, exhibiting much charm even if the screenwriters did go for ALL the stereotypes.


susan said...

Well, that was weird. Jer found this one on youtube so we watched it tonight. The strangest element by far was that the director decided to employ Jennifer Jones as Joseph Cotten's love interest for the entirety of the movie rather than finding a real child actress to portray Jennie as a little girl. It was so obvious she was a grown woman in a little girl dress that it was difficult to accept the premise from the get go and made the whole idea somewhat perverse.

Ethel Barrymore as Miss Spinney was very good in her role but part of me kept thinking that it would turn out she had been born as Jennie Appleton and had changed her name through adoption or something. When Eben said she had lovely eyes I thought he may have recognized a trace of the girl of his dreams. So much for that idea.

The other actors were okay. I didn't realize the nun was Lilian Gish until I looked up the cast on imdb. There were moments too when I feared the whole thing was edging toward being a musical.. David Wayne strumming the harp and singing? Yikes! We also noticed the old guy in the theater had the left side of his moustache detach while they were talking.

As the film edged towards its dramatic conclusion things just got sillier - like Eben saying he had only four days to get to Massachusetts from New York. What? Then he borrowed a boat from the same guy who had lost one to Jennie during the last big tidal wave. That sailor was simply not going to get his insurance to pay for another. Out of nowhere Joseph Cotten knew how to sail a boat. It appears movie goers were as credulous then as now.

The last straw for me was that the director ruined the story by not having him either save Jennie or die with her. That he went on to have a career without her was a copout. I'd thought that painting would be the only one he ever made that was good (even though it wasn't).

Ben said...

Hmm. I see what you're saying there. Of course while hiring a genuine little girl to play the young Jennie would have made it a little more credible, it also could add... an unsettling subtext let's say. Or just text. Not that it was entirely absent as is, but even more so.

Ethel Barrymore might have had the best role in the film. Mrs. Spinney seems like the kind of friend and benefactor that every artist should have. If only. The idea of her as an older Jennie would have changed a lot.

Lillian Gish made a pretty good nun. She was in Night of the Hunter a few years later, where she made quite an impression. The old black nurse was I think only in one or two other movies, although I liked her. I missed the guy with the detachable mustache. Oops!

I agree that letting him have a successful art career after painting the portrait was something of a copout. Maybe they wanted to prove that he'd become a great artist, although not all great artists had material success. (The name "Vincent Van Gogh" might ring a bell.) Or maybe they had focus groups back then, they just weren't publicized.