by John Grant
vt Tidal Wave
US / 87 minutes / bw with some tinting (green/sepia) and brief color / Vanguard, Selznick Dir: William Dieterle Pr: David O. Selznick Scr: Paul Osborn, Peter Berneis, Leonardo Bercovici Story: Portrait of Jennie (1940) by Robert Nathan Cine: Joseph August Cast: Jennifer Jones, Joseph Cotten, Ethel Barrymore, Lillian Gish, Cecil Kellaway, David Wayne, Albert Sharpe, Henry Hull, Florence Bates, Felix Bressart, Clem Bevans, Maude Simmons, Anne Francis, Nancy Olson, Nancy Davis.
The novel by Robert Nathan upon which this movie is based is often cited as a classic of fantasy fiction, even though today it seems really quite dated in many respects, notably its overt religiosity. (It’s also unfashionably short; you sometimes come across it described as a novella.) Aside from that religiosity, however, Nathan kept his tale pretty spare; he (obviously deliberately) made no attempt to rationalize or organize the supernatural heart of the story, leaving it as an account of some events the narrator has experienced that he neither can explain nor, really, wishes to explain. This verisimilitude is part of what makes the novel so affecting. (I made some notes on it here.)
For the movie it was obviously decided that the story needed to be fleshed out by the addition of fresh incidents and a bevy of character roles—while at the same time, for some reason, excising some of the incidents from the novel as well as one of its significant characters, the narrator’s scapegrace artist buddy Arne. Much (but far from all) of the religiosity was pared away too, to be replaced by scads of portentous narration, some remarkably pretentious dialogue, and an effort to make sense of the tale’s finale, an effort that shouldn’t have been made. There’s also some technical gimmickry that just seems baffling to us now (although the visual effects brought the movie its solitary Oscar): the onset of the climactic storm is for no apparent reason marked by a switch (from bw) to green tinting, while the aftermath of the storm is tinted sepia. The final moments, showing the finished portrait supposedly hanging in NYC’s Metropolitan Museum of Art, are done in Technicolor; by contrast with the tinting, this flourish is effective. Most effective of all, throughout the movie, is the occasional imposition on the screen of a canvas-like texturing, as if this were how the artist narrator was experiencing the city—as a series of potential paintings.
All in all, then, this seems like that rara avis, a movie that might have benefited from having had less money spent on it. I can’t exactly say that a hypothetical Monogram or PRC version of Portrait of Jennie would have been a better movie, but it would assuredly have trimmed away some of the excesses that reduced this version from potentially a classic to something that we watch—and that affects us and haunts our memory—almost despite itself, as if Nathan’s story was managing to make itself heard through the clutter of Selznick’s production. Portrait of Jennie has the very special quality of being a movie that’s better in the mind’s eye than it is in the flesh. Perhaps that makes it a classic after all.
The pseudo-intellectual portentousness is there from the outset, in a narrated opener that lasts a full two minutes and comes complete with quotations from Euripides and Keats (unusually for the time, there are no opening credits except the standard Selznick Studio montage):
Since the beginning, man has looked into the awesome reaches of infinity and asked the eternal question: “What is time? And what is space? What is life? What is . . . death?”
The Euripides quote (“Who knoweth if to die be but to live . . . and that called life by mortals be but death?”) is then splashed onscreen to make sure we realize this is a cultural event we’re witnessing, not just a movie.
Through a hundred civilizations, philosophers and scientists have come with answers, but the bewilderment remains. For each human soul must find the secret in its own faith. The tender and haunting legend of the portrait of Jennie is based on the two ingredients of faith: truth and hope.
There’s more, much more of this woffle—including the outrageous claim that both Jennie and the portrait genuinely existed, the latter having been shown at the Met—until we get to:
Out of the shadows of knowledge, and out of a painting that hung on a museum wall, comes our story, the truth of which lies not on our screen but in your heart.
By this point, many of us might have been tempted to make a bolt for the exits, but that would be a mistake because the movie does have a decided power to haunt, as mentioned above.
We first meet Eben Adams (Cotten) as a starving artist in New York City who would long ago have had to return to his native Maine were it not for his friendship with cabby Gus O’Toole (Wayne) and the strictly conditional mercy of his landlady, Mrs. Jekes (Bates). One wintery evening Eben tries his luck for the first time at the art dealership Matthews & Spinney. Mr. Matthews (Kellaway) and Miss Spinney (Barrymore) see nothing in his portfolio that’s of any value but Spinney sees promise in the artist, and gives him the ridiculous sum of $12.50 for a floral painting. She also tells him that he’ll never make the grade as an artist unless he learns to love his subject matter.
This theme of love as an essential component of life runs throughout the movie. Spinney is depicted as a spinster who knows about love but has never until now known love itself; the love she develops for Eben, which is certainly not maternal, is in its way as deeply romantic, albeit platonic, as the love story that’s the movie’s focus. In this sense, Eben is the saving of her. And at the movie’s end, as the lovers are being battered by the stormy seas, Jennie spells out the message, the moral of the tale: “There is no life, my darling, until you’ve loved and been loved. And then there is no death.”
After his successful visit to Matthews & Spinney, Eben ambles through Central Park, and it’s there that for the first time he encounters Jennie Appleton (Jones). She’s depicted as just a little girl at this stage, with Jones affecting a child’s mannerisms while perspective and props are used to give the impression that she’s far smaller than the actress actually was. For most of the time the trickery works quite well; sometimes, though, we have the disorienting sensation that the child has suddenly got a bit bigger or smaller.
It becomes immediately evident that Jennie has slipped out of her own time. She talks of her parents as being trapeze artists playing at the Hammerstein’s Victoria, which Eben knows was “torn down years ago when I was a boy.” She leaves behind her a colored scarf wrapped in a newspaper that Eben will notice the next day dates from 1910. (He never does quite succeed, despite several attempts, in returning the scarf to her.) She sings him a little song—”Where I come from, nobody knows. And where I am going everything goes”—instructs him to wait for her to grow up (an instruction reinforced by her turning three times widdershins while wishing it be so), and then vanishes.
In the days following, Eben realizes how profoundly he’s been affected by the encounter. Matthews and Spinney realize it too: the sketch that Eben does from memory of the little girl particularly captures Matthews’s fancy, and he buys it at once. It’s clear that Eben has finally discovered what was missing from his earlier paintings.
And then along comes a subplot that adds little to proceedings. In the book, Gus cleverly talks a diner-owner friend into feeding Eben for weeks in exchange for a mural to brighten up his diner. Here this is pulled very much to the foreground, Gus and especially the diner-owner, Moore (Sharpe), are made into comic Irishmen, and the mural becomes a portrayal of Michael Collins preparing to lead a detachment of the heroic Irish Republican Army against the hated English. I imagine this subplot will not have enhanced the success of the movie’s UK release. Later on, Gus is even given a song to sing by way of an unnecessary musical interlude.
Of course, Eben has several other encounters with Jennie, in each of which she’s markedly older than the time before. They go skating in Central Park together; as she leaves him, Miss Spinney just happens to be passing by (there are one or two other annoyingly implausible coincidences) and it’s clear that, while Eben can see the departing adolescent, Spinney can’t. Later, when Jennie fails to turn up for a promised rendezvous, he goes in search of the old Hammerstein’s Victoria and what might have happened to Jennie’s parents, Mary and Frank; this permits the introduction of character actors like Bressart as elderly stage doorman Pete and Simmons as the retired wardrobe mistress Clara Morgan. From the latter he discovers that the acrobats died in an accident and Jennie was adopted by an aunt, who put her in a convent.
Eben meets Jennie again the night her parents die; she’s reassured by the thought that they’re still alive in eternity. In another encounter they watch a ceremony at the convent where she now lives, and she tells him her favorite among the nuns is Mother Mary of Mercy (Gish). When she graduates from the convent she meets him to tell him she must go away for a few months with her aunt, but that they’ll be back together afterwards and won’t have to separate again. Partly from having her sit for him in his attic studio, and partly from memory, he has been painting her portrait.
Encouraged by Gus, Eben goes to the convent to ask Mother Mary of Mercy for more about Jennie. She tells him the girl died tragically in a storm that struck while she was out boating by the Land’s End Lighthouse on Cape Cod—years ago, on October 5. From time to time, on seeing his paintings of that very lighthouse, Jennie has expressed to Eben her nameless dread for it and the waters around it. He now decides that if he can be there on this October 5—just a few days away—he might be able to save her . . .
Of course, this doesn’t make any sense at all, as Mother Mary of Mercy points out to him. This is perhaps the biggest single instance of where the movie would have been better to have retained the original novel’s non-specificity. While the climactic storm sequence is impressively rendered, and there’s nothing wrong at all with the staging of the lovers’ final, doomed encounter, all the way through these proceedings we can hardly forget that the relevant underpinning—the supposed rationale that Eben knew she’d be here and came in search of her—is absurd. (It may seem odd to criticize a fantasy for logical implausibility, but fantasy has rules like any other genre. If you introduce a real-world rationale, that rationale has to be a bit more substantive than a waving of hands and a blustering.)
Dimitri Tiomkin’s score adapts various bits of Debussy. Bernard Herrmann—of Hitchcock fame—worked on the movie earlier, but departed for “creative reasons”; the rather dreary tune for Jennie’s little song is his. The title song was by the jazz composer J. Russel Robinson.
Portrait of Jennie flopped on release; the reviews were decidedly mixed. It was reissued as Tidal Wave and flopped again. Yet over the years it managed to carve out for itself its own small niche in cinema history. When we think about the movie we tend to recall the powerful visual imagery, the movingly impossible romance, and the compelling notion of the child/young woman permitted only intermittent encounters with the love of her life, who is otherwise screened off from her by the shroud of time. There are plenty of people (my wife, I discovered, was one!) for whom the movie has become such a part of our culture that they believe Eben Adams was a real artist and that his portrait of Jennie—in fact, painted for the movie by artist Robert Brackman—really does hang at the Met. It’s not every movie that prints itself as firmly on the public consciousness as that.