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Selznick's Imperfect Storm

Nothing Quite Like Portrait Of Jennie (1948)

This notorious Selznick flop paid off for me in ways I'd expected of Vertigo when that Hitchcock classic was seen a first time on network TV --- both tendered in a first act as ghost stories, with only Jennie following through. Was anyone else disappointed when Kim Novak's Madeleine turned out not to be the reincarnation of long-dead Carlotta? It seemed to me (at sixteen) a cheat when Vertigo yanked that rug and made it all about a murder and setting up Stewart for the fall, but youth leans to fantasy topic, preferably when spooky. Portrait Of Jennie was never meant to chill, back-from-dead Jennifer Jones a vessel for romance to Joseph Cotten's lonely artist and only incidentally not of this world. It needs critical forbearance to enjoy Jennie, the pic fragile as the story being told. I've watched it three times for every once of other Selznicks, and with each view regard goes deeper.

There could be a heck of a movie about the troubled production alone, had it been made thirty years ago when  participants were still alive. As it is, there came multiple accounts off the battlefield, most informative by Ronald Haver and David Thomson about Selznick, and Paul MacNamara on crazed publicity for the film (he reports DOS wanting to utilize Winston Churchill (!) as publicity shill for Jennie). It all began as a gentle love story, the kind Selznick always wanted to do, but couldn't for rampant elephantitis. How did his bloated operation last so long as it did? There were hits --- Gone WithThe Wind, of course, Since You Went Away, Duel In The Sun, the latter brilliantly marketed (saturation style), but oh, the losers, a one-two of which sunk Selznick's independent dream (Jennie's dire predecessor was The Paradine Case). Historians since have asked how an 86 minute black-and-white movie in 1948 could cost four million dollars. Anyone writing Selznick checks during the fiasco could tell us, and fortunately for the record, some did.

Among nutty, but intriguing ideas, was someone's notion to let Shirley Temple be Jennie and shoot the movie over a seven or so year period so we see Jennie's growth from child-woman to woman-child. That was too long-term investment even for big spender Selznick, and besides, he didn't think ST could deliver. Could Vivien Leigh and Laurence Olivier have clicked in the Jennifer Jones/Joseph Cotten leads? We'll not know, but that possibility got serious thought. Modern psychiatry might divine what drove Selznick; was it simple OCD? (as if that could be called simple) A right prescription that would fix him today may have come at expense of great shows made then, despite excesses. I've regretted before the fact that Selznick's backlog got split off to disparate owners, some of it gone to PD tar pits (Little Lord Fauntleroy, Nothing Sacred, A Star Is Born). What a package the intact library would make for revival and HD broadcast/streaming. As it is, you'd have to go a half-dozen places to program the lot.

Where do I begin to extol Jennie's virtues? First, there's location filming in Gotham, a decided plus that came at dear expense, but what marvelous effect they got. Director William Dieterle might take largest credit for this, though insider Paul MacNamara wrote that Dieterle was replaced halfway through production, this a new one on me and not otherwise reported in histories. So who stepped in to finish Portrait Of Jennie? We know Selznick used directors like tissue paper. How many were involved here? There is ice skating in Central Park, breathtaking winter cityscapes, and yes, process work re-doing some of it to Selznick displeasure, but even that patchwork allures, just for insight it gives to tortured efforts finishing the show. We do need patience going in, there being no credits, but droning narration and post-it quotes from Keats and Euripides to assure us something important is about to happen. Such pretension drove movies then, at least ones with ambition as Portrait Of Jennie developed.

The story takes place in the 30's. We're told it actually happened, that made believable by a color epilogue where gallery-goers examine the finished Portrait. Joe Cotten is a hard-times artist who meets ten-year old Jennie in the snow, a feat pulled off by having J. Jones walk alongside him in a trench to convey height difference, a variant on device used with Alan Ladd and his leading ladies. Jennie as in Jennifer was a strapping 5' 7" and daunting match to diminutive partners she sometimes drew. The growing process is believable, Jones actress enough for a job few (any?) peers could have handled so well. That's a matter of opinion, of course. Some find JJ unbearably twitchy, especially in neurotic parts she'd do later, but considering traumas happening off-camera during Jennie, her perf seems all the more Academy-worthy.

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A fascinating aspect beyond Jennie's spectral presence is the spirit of departed vaudeville that pervades the film. Hammerstein's Victoria is locus of long-ago tragedy that claimed Jennie's high-wire parents, the site demolished years ago, says Cotten repeatedly, as though he were speaking of Revolutionary War incident. Fact is, Hammerstein's was leveled in 1915, less than two decades before Portrait Of Jennie takes place, but twenty years was a long time then, a third of many folks' life span, so who's to wonder at such passage of time being regarded an eternity? There's a wonderful scene where Cotten goes to see a vet stagehand at Hammerstein's successor house, the Rialto, self-same venue that would host many a monster during later 30's and 40's exploitation boom. Dialogue is spoke against background of a Mickey Mouse cartoon, the old man recalling vaude past in terms of ancient history. Here was show biz tradition admittedly on last legs as of the 30's, and all the more so by 1948, but did Hollywoodhave to be so eager to bury it?

Paul MacNamara tells a harrowing story of Jennie's premiere in New York, followed by Selznick's withdrawal of the film to re-do the finish. His idea was to create a storm at sea to rival disasters staged in silent days, "a real Griffithclimax." This was where Portrait Of Jennie truly went off rails; spending already beyond what could be got back was now headed toward a level that would break the studio. I'd have liked being at the re-premiere, with its expanding screen and "Cylophonic" sound. Wonder how much the storm added to negative costs. MacNamara says DOS couldn't be talked out of the folly, despite effort by all his staff. They had figured Portrait Of Jennie for a bust all along, and were right: it earned $1.5 million. Selznick wouldn't make another movie in America. Fall-out from Portrait Of Jennie, his mad takeover of its every aspect and ongoing affront to reason, was approximated by the Kirk Douglas character in 1952's The Bad and The Beautiful. Jonathon Shields, the film's fictitious mogul, ruins his last big project with constant interference and obsessive re-shooting. Parallels with Selznick could not have been missed by industry viewers or column readership who followed news of Jennie's folly.

This post first appeared on Greenbriar Picture Shows, please read the originial post: here

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Selznick's Imperfect Storm


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