MoviesA Romantic Retrospective: Portrait of Jennie (1948)

Dalin "Duckie" RowellFebruary 14, 2020

With the smell of chocolate in the air and heart-shaped things in every shop window, it seems only appropriate to discuss some bits of romantic cinema. But with so many options, what film would be the point of discussion? Well, with this series, we’ll take a look at some forgotten gems that need a mushy sort of revisit. From the movies that weren’t as admired in their time to ones that have only found their intended audience recently, we’ll examine the history and stories behind these of underappreciated cinematic love affairs, why they work, and perhaps why audiences didn’t love them as much as the decades have passed. So what film shall begin this romantic journey? Let’s take a look at 1948’s Portrait of Jennie, directed by William Dieterle and starring Joseph Cotton and Jennifer Jones.

The Premise

The film opens on several shots of clouds along with multiple quotes, all evoking a haunting bit of fairy tale whimsy. This leads up to meet our hero, a down-on-his-luck painter named Eben Adams (Cotton). He explains the emotional harshness of the winter season, proving to the audience that he (like many New Yorks in 1934) needs a bit of light in the midst of his cold Manhattan existence.

Yet, after an odd interaction with some art buyers (including one played by the immortal Ethel Barrymore), the shining spark Eben is searching for arrives in the form of Jennie Appleton (Jones.) At this point, she is a young girl – one who, though charming, seems to know only of things from the past – something that makes her a “funny kind of a kid” in Eben’s eyes.

This moment inspires Eben to paint (as you can guess from the title) a portrait of the title character. But when you begin to grow attached to someone you’ve only had spontaneous interactions with, and they keep aging right before your eyes, could such a bond ever result in a happy ending? Or just a relationship always clouded in mystery?

How It Was Made

Producer David O. Selznick was a man famous for bringing sweeping romances to the silver screen. Not only was he responsible for monumental masterpieces such as Gone with the Wind, but he also was behind the equally successful Alfred Hitchcock adaptation of Daphne du Maurier’s Rebecca. So a fantastical tale of love and mystery such as Portrait of Jennie was certainly in his deck of cinematic cards.

Flash forward to 1947 where production begins. Though everything seemed to be going fine throughout the course of the shoot, Selznick eventually became displeased with the footage, demanding extensive reshoots to take place. This resulted in not only going over budget (a Selznick specialty – since the movie was being filmed on location as opposed to sets), but there were also extensive shuffles on the writing team as well as the supporting cast.

But by the end of shooting, Portrait of Jennie became one of Selznick’s most cherished productions. Not only did it result in some absolutely stunning works of filmmaking (particularly the detailed cinematography by the late Joseph H. August), but it also led him to marry Jones. The painting of her as Jennie (created by Robert Brackman) was hung in their home after the two wed in 1949.

Yet, even with its artistic and personal achievements, Portrait of Jennie would be released to a mixture of critical responses and little box office success – giving the kind of reaction Selznick wasn’t expecting in the slightest.

Why It Wasn’t A Hit

Though it had a grand tale of romance at its center, with incredible stars at the helm, Portrait of Jennie didn’t receive the kind of admiration (or box office receipts) it so rightfully deserved. One review, written by Bosley Crowther of the New York Times referred to the film as “deficient and disappointing in the extreme…”, which if you ask any future fans of the film, they would say quite the opposite.

But what was the true issue that made Portrait of Jennie not gain the initial fan fair it should have received? Simply it has to do with the marketing campaign. If you look at the trailers for the film, they are attempting to cloak the film in too much mystery. There are just clips, non-contextual bits of dialog, that explain nothing of the movie – leaving you just as confused as the lead protagonist is about his love interest.

As history has often taught film fans, again and again, mysterious marketing techniques rarely work in favor of the movie’s box office results. Movies like Miracle on 34th Street met a similar fate when the trailers were only that of studio stars talking about how great the movie was without giving anything away. Sometimes risks pay off, but not in this case.

Why You Should Watch It

There’s nothing quite like being introduced to film as unique as Portrait of Jennie. Sure, there have been countless other fantasy romances of a similar variety from the classic film era and beyond (some which will be explored here in this series.) But truth be told, none of them are quite as romantic and beautiful as Jennie.

Dieterle directs the film with a focused yet whimsical mindset. It is a hardship to steer when producing a bit of melodramatic cinema. For if you don’t hold onto your actors and every other element with a tight grip, you could easily crash into the oceans of laughable romances past. But he guides the film towards the most surprising of results – showcasing the kind of dramatic maturity similar to that of his work on the 1939 version of The Hunchback of Notre Dame.

A similarly brilliant selling point is the performances of the film’s leads. Cotton is still remembered as one of the most celebrated Hollywood stars of his generation, and this role (which won him the Best Actor award at the 1949 Venice Film Festival) shows a range not often seen in his earlier projects – making him more than just the pretty boy that audiences had fallen for over his already stacked career.


Yet the true star (as Selznick had hoped) is Jones. In anyone else’s hands, this role could have easily headed towards a cheesy direction, but Jones convincingly does her best (pre-any sort of aging CGI techniques, mind you) to convince audiences of this character’s unique circumstances and the mystery surrounding her. To sell such an individual, you have to make viewers fall in love with Jennie just as much as Eben does, and Jones provides such magic with class and polish.

Though when all is said and done, the true magic of Portrait of Jennie is not the separate parts. Instead, it is when all of these incredible elements come together to produce one of the most haunting romances ever put to screen. From the fantastical (and somewhat experimental towards the finale) cinematography to the beautiful locations and equally stunning emotions on display, everything about the final product works from sketch to brush stroke.

You can follow my adventures on all social media platforms on @magicalamode.

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