PORTRAIT OF JENNIE
Portrait of Jennie is a classic although not quite the classic it clearly thinks it is. It is certainly well spoken of, although has never attained the classic status that other fantasy films of the era such as The Wizard of Oz (1939), Its a Wonderful Life (1946) and Miracle on 34th Street (1947) have. Certainly, everything is laid at the films disposal in a determination to make it epic and momentous. The very opening narration stretches for grand reach: Since the beginning, man has looked into the awesome reaches of infinity and asked the eternal question What is time? What is space? What is life? What is death? The opening offers up quotes from both Euripedes and Keats, and announces before beginning: Now comes our story, the truth of which lies not on our screens but in your hearts.
Moreover, it succeeds. Without all the lavishness attached to it, Portrait of Jennie would be a fairly ordinary, maybe even quite good, weepie melodrama. Jennies time-travelling trick is not that well explained and other aspects like the heavy foreshadowing of her ominous feelings about the Cape Cod lighthouse painting give the game as to her tragic fate away well in advance.
It is, however, the sheer pictographic beauty that is lavished on the film that finally makes it succeed. There is a willingness upon director William Dieterles part to experiment with almost anything in the cinematographic arsenal and the results are quite extraordinary. At several points, the film employs a fascinating gauzed effect that makes it seem as though the film itself had become the canvas of an oil painting. During the storm climax (where the studio goes all out in the special effects department), the film moves into tinted colour green tint for the storm, sepia for the aftermath. And in the very final scene, the film bursts into a single colour shot for a vision of the painting with breathtaking effect. There are some exquisite images of Joseph Cottens face lit up, singled out amid the audience in a theatre; while, at times, the painting itself seems to give the faces looking at it a luminosity of their own. In a period when the majority of films were shot on soundstages, including the outdoor scenes, this is one of the few films that went outside on location. There is a beautifully palpable sense of the seasons passing, which lends a magical beauty to the film. There is one exquisite shot of the ice rink surrounded by New York skyscrapers with the sun shining down making the skyscrapers and everything below it seem ephemeral. It is a moment where the film seems to almost capture something of the essence of the British painter Joseph Turner in whose work light is a transcendental luminous perfection that is real and the rest of the world seems only to have a shadowy evanescence alongside in comparison.
Director William Dieterle was a German immigrant to the US. He made other genre works such as Six Hours to Live (1932), a thriller about a man resurrected from the dead; the excellent Shakespeare adaptation A Midsummer Nights Dream (1935); the classic Charles Laughton adaptation of The Hunchback of Notre Dame (1939); the classic All That Money Can Buy/The Devil and Daniel Webster (1941) about a lawyer arguing with The Devil for a farmers soul; and the German-made spy thriller/mad scientist film Mistress of the World (1959).
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