What can we say about Portrait of Jennie? It premiered in Los Angeles on Christmas Day 1948 and had its proper release in April 1949. It came from a novel by Robert Nathan, with screenplay credits to Leonardo Bercovici, Paul Osborn and Peter Berneis. But as the picture got into its rewrites, it was added to by Ben Hecht, by its producer, David O. Selznick, and just about anyone else who might have been on the Selznick lot for half an hour.
The Jennie in Portrait of Jennie was Jennifer Jones, and in 1948 Selznick was madly in love with her, desperate to make her a great star, but wondering if he was actually going to have to marry her. He had left his wife, Irene, for her. He had made a monument to her alleged sexiness in Duel in the Sun. But Portrait of Jennie was the perfect material, because it is the story of a man who discovers an impossible love.
Selznick was not a man for half measures. So when he started to shoot the film (in February 1947), he was prepared to allow that the simple little love story, in black and white, might require as much as $1.5 million. That was a lot of money then: The Best Years of Our Lives, from 1946, at 172 minutes, had gone over $2 million on its budget.
But this simple film began in February 1947 and premiered in December 1948. That’s one reason why it ended up costing $4.1 million. The other reasons are the essence of Selznick and Jones: he was always changing his mind and rewriting the script; he would do retakes over a period of months; he kept his actors (Joseph Cotten, Ethel Barrymore, David Wayne, Lillian Gish) on hand doing nothing, waiting on his inspiration. And Jones was a very nervous, unsteady young woman who often couldn’t make it all the way to the set and was in agonies of indecision because she had left her husband Robert Walker and wasn’t sure whether she should marry Selznick.
The gradual swelling of this simple love story naturally attracted a lot of people to the Selznick studio just to see what was happening (and maybe to write a scene or two).
One key filmmaker was there to study this extraordinary display of infatuation and disaster—which had worldwide rentals of $1.5 million, helped destroy the Selznick empire and perhaps pushed those weary lovers into marriage. But it’s a film of astonishing beauty (like a film noir by Vermeer?), and a fantasy that drove the Surrealists mad with thwarted desire—the best kind, because if you get satisfaction it’s no longer desire.
Who might have been there and how did it influence him? Ask yourself who else was under contract to Selznick in those troubled years and then look at the film closely—there’s a man in love with a woman who is dead; he wants to bring her back to life and lo, she appears; there are nuns, there is a painting and there is even a strange green light. So come along and see this very special Telluride event. And wonder who might have been provoked by Portrait of Jennie.
Thomson’s biography appears on page 87.
PORTRAIT OF JENNIE
U.S., 1948, 86m | Director: William Dieterle
Starring: Joseph Cotten, Jennifer Jones, Ethel Barrymore, Lillian Gish