Before the time-crossed lovers of “Somewhere in Time” (1980) and “The Time Traveler’s Wife” (2009), there was “Portrait of Jennie” (1948), a romantic fantasy produced by David O. Selznick and directed by William Dieterle. Like the more recent films, “Portrait of Jennie” tells the story of a couple who are both separated and brought together due to the irregular workings of time; the film also delves into questions about the nature of fate and artistic inspiration, but it is primarily a love story, more melodrama than science fiction. With a noteworthy cast of supporting players and reasonably successful performances from its two leads, “Portrait of Jennie” is a good picture if not a great one, although its chief attraction might be the visual creativity with which the story is told.
Joseph Cotten stars as Eben Adams, a struggling painter in New York City who seems to lack real inspiration for his art. One day he meets a strange young girl (Jennifer Jones); she introduces herself as Jennie Appleton, but her stories all involve people and places from years ago. Each time Adams meets her again, it seems as if years have passed, and Jennie says that she is “hurrying” to grow up so that he will fall in love with her. Of course he eventually does just that, but Jennie’s fate may already be sealed by events that unfolded long before.
“Portrait of Jennie” won an Oscar for its special effects and was nominated for its cinematography, and those aspects of the picture remain its chief attractions. The violent storm that dominates the film’s climax is particularly memorable, but beautiful set pieces throughout the film highlight its artistic themes. The imagery, however, is ultimately more exciting than the performances of Jones and Cotten, although they do have some good moments, particularly toward the end of the film. The supporting players, including Ethel Barrymore, Cecil Kellaway, and Lillian Gish, prove more interesting, but each plays a relatively small role, and other pictures showcase their talents more fully. Once the movie ends, its images will stay in the mind long after the characters’ actions fade, leaving one with a sense of having seen a series of lovely paintings more so than a motion picture. The impression it makes is agreeable if not particularly strong, although viewers who enjoy old-fashioned romances will probably find much to love. Certainly art lovers ought to appreciate Dieterle’s cinematic vision and Cotten’s portrayal of an artist in search of his muse.
Director William Dieterle earned his only Oscar nomination for directing with “The Life of Emile Zola” (1937), but he is also remembered today for his work on films like “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” (1935) and “The Devil and Daniel Webster” (1941). You’ll find Joseph Cotten in great films like “Citizen Kane” (1941), “Shadow of a Doubt” (1943), and “The Third Man” (1949). Jennifer Jones won a Best Actress Oscar for her performance in “The Song of Bernadette” (1943), but she also had memorable roles in “Duel in the Sun” (1946), “Madame Bovary” (1949), and “Carrie” (1952). For more romantic fantasy, try “Beauty and the Beast” (1946) and “The Ghost and Mrs. Muir” (1947).
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