Archive | December, 2017

‘Vernal Falls, View From the Bridge’, Lots of Likes!

6 Dec
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‘Portrait of Jennie’

6 Dec

Robert Brackman’s painting of Jennifer Jones as ‘Jennie’

Recently, I chanced upon an old book containing the Robert Nathan novella, Portrait of Jennie. The William Dieterle-David O. Selznick movie based on it was one of my favorites while growing up. (It was often shown on the Sunday or Saturday Afternoon Movie on our local indy station.)

The plot of both book and movie involves a starving (literally starving!) New York artist named Eben who meets a strange little girl in Central Park named Jennie. Every time Eben sees Jennie, she’s a few years older, even though only months or weeks have passed since her last appearance.

Eventually, he paints a haunting portrait of her as a young adult (painted in real life by 20th Century portraitist Robert Brackman) that makes him famous, and, of course, falls in love with her as soon as it’s decently possible. Eben is played by Joseph Cotton (The Third Man) and Jennie is played by Jennifer Jones (Song of Bernadette), who shortly afterward became David Selznick’s wife. The Brackman portrait allegedly hung in the Selznick-Jones household, until, I presume, they divorced. (Jones later married the uber-rich industrialist Norton Simon, who gave us the wonderful Norton Simon art museum in Pasadena, California.) I’m not sure what happened to the portrait after that.

In the movie, Jennie is a ghost who died about ten years before the time of the story, in a tragic drowning accident off the coast of New England. The only person who can see or speak to her is Eben.

The original tale is more complex; in it, Jennie is not a ghost at all, but apparently, a time-traveler. Eben’s friends and landlady can see and speak to her when she makes her “apperances.” She still drowns at the end, but it happens in the fall of the same year that the story is set in. The exact nature of Jennie’s appearances is not spelled out directly in the book, so the reader has to supply their own deductive powers to make sense of it all.

My feeling is that in the original story, Jennie is time-traveling repeatedly during the five or six minutes before she dies in the freezing Atlantic. Some supernatural being–God or an angel–has granted her dying wishes, which is to relive important moments of her childhood and also have a great love affair before she dies. (The book has a fair amount of religious references.) When she dies, she can’t time-travel anymore, and must leave Eben behind forever. He’s bereft, but believes that they will be together some day in the afterlife.

The romance isn’t the whole point in the story; there’s a lot about Eben as an artist, and his struggles with feelings of worthlessness and artistic frustration that rings very true. I wish I had a friend like Gus, the salt-of-the-earth taxi driver who helps get Eben an important gig as a mural painter for a workingman’s pub.

Various editions of the book can be found on used book sites, although it’s out-of-print and fairly rare. It seems to have fallen out of copyright, as a Kindle version by an apparent self-publisher can be purchased for 99 cents on Amazon. It’s a good read, whether in print or digital form. There’s also a fairly good copy of the movie on YouTube, and it can be purchased in Blue-Ray for a reasonable amount of money; the conventional DVD is out-of-print and quite costly. It’s a lovely film, shot in black and white, with a German Expressionist aesthetic that’s quite affecting. Dieterle shot much of the establishing footage through a filter that looks like the texture of a canvas, and also used noir-ish shadows and compositions liberally.