Friday, October 10, 2008

Portrait Snatcher

TCM are showing the underrated 1948 movie Portrait of Jennie tomorrow morning at 10:30 AM ET. It's not a very well-known movie, but that doesn't mean it's not a good movie.

Joseph Cotten plays the male lead as Eben Adams, a starving artist in 1934 New York City. He's trying to sell his paintings to a pair of gallery owners played by Cecil Kellaway and Ethel Barrymore, albeit with little success. All this changes when, one day in Central Park, he meets a strange young girl who goes by the name of Jennie.

Jennie is played by Jennifer Jones. Jones was in her late 20s when she made this movie, and at first it might seem odd that somebody so old is playing somebody so young. But Portrait of Jennie is not a straight-up romance, but a romantic fantasy. Eben only sees Jennie for a few fleeting minutes at a time, and in the few days between each meeting, Jennie ages by months or years. At first, Eben is intrigued because Jennie is talking about people and things that haven't existed for a quarter century or more; he then becomes even more intrigued by the girl's life story and trying to figure out whether or not she is (or was) a real person, and if so, what ever became of her. I won't give away any of the details, but suffice it to say that this love story poses problems for our poor artist.

The story isn't the greatest, although the acting is fine, especially amongst the supporting roles. In addition to Barrymore and Kellaway, watch for Lillian Gish as the head Mother at a Catholic school. What is, however, outstanding, are the technical aspects of the movie. Several sequences introducing Jennie have an old-fashioned look about them that isn't just the sepia tone of old photographs, but almost looks like a cross between an old photograph and a needlepoint of a picture. There's also a storm scene, which is depicted through a green filter. What might be the most memorable, however, is the haunting music that permeates the film. It's Claude Debussy's Arabesque No. 1, and you might have heard it elsewhere. That's because an electronica version of the arabesque has been used as the theme to Jack Horkheimer's PBS astronomy show, which many of you may have seen ending a PBS station's broadcast day back in the time when broadcast stations didn't necessarily broadcast 24 hours a day. It's only too bad they didn't have electronic music back in 1948 when Portrait of Jennie was made; the score than would be even more haunting.

I cannot give a strong enough recommendation to Portrait of Jennie. Watch it yourself, and be amazed.

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