Portrait of Jennie and the Wisdom of Ethel Barrymore

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The Barrymore. Ah, that legendary family of actors! Ethel, John and Lionel, the three siblings were children of Maurice Barrymore and Georgiana Emma Drew, themselves actors. Acting in the family kept going on as the years passed. John and his third wife, Dolores Costello, also an actress, had a son, John Drew Barrymore, who also became an actor, just like his daughter Diana he had from his previous marriage to Blanche Oelrichs. Drew Barrymore, today’s most well known Barrymore, is the daughter of John Drew Barrymore and the granddaughter of John Barrymore. Barrymore seems to be a synonym of talent.

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To honour this great family, Crystal from In the Good Old Days of Classic Hollywood is hosting, for the second time, the Barrymore Trilogy Blogathon. If you remember, last year I wrote about Drew Barrymore in Ever After. This time, I’ve decided to go back in the old days and explore one of my favourite Barrymore roles, the one of Miss Spiney, played by Ethel Barrymore, in Portrait of Jennie.

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Portrait of Jennie was directed by William Dieterle and released in 1948. This film reunited Joseph Cotten and Jennifer Jones for the fourth and last time. It also was their third film together under the direction of William Dietrele (the two other ones being Since you Went Away and Love Letters). The fourth one, Duel in the Sun (1946) was directed by King Vidor. Portrait of Jennie also stars Ethel Barrymore (of course!), Cecil Kellaway, David Wayne, Lillian Gish (another legend from the beginning of movies), Florence Bates, Henry Hull, Albert Sharpe, Anne Francis and Nancy Davis (also known as Nancy Reagan).

David O’Selzick, future husband of Jennifer Jones (they married in 1949), produced the film. The screenplay was written by Paul Osborn, Ben Hetch (uncredited) and Selznick (uncredited). It was based on the novel by Robert Nathan. The costumes were by Lucinda Ballard. William Morgan was the editor. Dimitri Tiomkin and Bernard Hermann (although this one wasn’t credited) composed the music. This one was based on Claude Debussy’s musical themes. And, finally, the beautiful cinematography was the work of Joseph August and Lee Garmes (uncredited).

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Portrait of Jennie is known as a fantastic movie, but not in the way we first think about it. It’s not a movie with monsters or things that seems completely impossible, it’s much more complicated than that. It’s more a movie about life and death, the past, the present and the future. It certainly is a movie that makes you think about the meaning of life in general.

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Well, if you haven’t seen it, you might wonder what the story is about. Eben Adams (Joseph Cotten) is an infamous painter, who like many other infamous painters, can’t sell his paintings and is broke. At the beginning of the film, he manages to send a painting to an art dealer, Miss Spinney (Ethel Barrymore). On his way back home, he meets a little girl in Central Park (oh yes, the story takes place in New-York). Her name is Jennie Appleton (Jennifer Jones). She is alone and wants to walk with him. Before she left him, she makes a wish: she wishes that he’ll wait for her to grow up so they’ll could always be together. This doesn’t make much sense for Eben as people can’t wait for other people to grow up. Then she mysteriously disappears. Eben thinks about how strange she was, wearing old fashion clothes and talking about things that happened a long time ago. He then decides to sketch her. Miss Spinney and her colleague Matthews (Cecil Kellaway) are amazed by the sketch and believe Eben might have found a successful painting subject. The painter coincidentally meets Jennie again on the ice rink in the park. Curiously, she seems to have grown up. Eben doesn’t understand it, but for Jennie, it’s obvious: her wish becomes real. Eben suggests her to paint her portrait and she’s delighted by the idea. Each time he sees her, she grows up and keeps talking about things of the past. This Jennie is a mystery to him. Who is she exactly? He’s he imagining her? He’ll do is own research to find the truth about the mysterious Jennie.

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I have to say that Portrait of Jennie is one of the most beautiful movies I ever saw. It’s a movie that has a kind of fluidity that makes it so easy to watch, even if it touches a complicated subject, which is the time. And this beauty is not only embodied by the story in general and the magical cinematography, but also by the characters and the personality the actors chose to give them.

Ethel Barrymore is the wise one in this film. You can picture her with her quiet smile and her doe eyes. She gives to her character a fairness that is amazing to watch. Miss Spinney is the one who believes in Eben Adams. She is like his the fairy godmother. She knows that he has found the perfect subject, a subject full of love (which is for her a most important thing). Yes, Jennie is the inspiration Eben have found, but Miss Spinney is his guide. I don’t think he would have gotten through it without her wise advises. Miss Spinney hasn’t seen Jennie, but for her, the most important is that she is real to Eben. She first seems to be someone quite down to Earth, but we discover she can sees over what is real and understand what is not, their meaning and their utility.

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It’s also interesting to see that, through the film, Miss Spinney sort of completes the idea of Jennie. Just like her, she knows how to make compromises with the world around her, she knows how to see its beauty. She is a friend and a confidant to Eben. If Jennie belongs to the past, Miss Spinney is somehow the present version of her.

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It’s funny, but I somehow thought Ethel Barrymore was nominated for an Oscar for her performance in this film. Well, I checked out to be sure and it seems that I was wrong. I probably believed that because she DID deserved a nomination. I mean, she sort of has the idealistic acting here. I’ll explain what it is to me the “idealistic acting”: it’s an actor who doesn’t exaggerate his emotions, who doesn’t overact. Who can transmit a ton of feelings to us and win our admiration by being subtle and thorough. Ethel Barrymore had all these skills in Portrait of Jennie. That only proves her immense talent and the fact that she knew perfectly how to make the difference between stage acting and movie acting, or silent movies acting and talkies acting. Because we know that silent actors had to be more theatrical, which was normal, because the power of the voice wasn’t already there.

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I also have to say a few words about the other actors of the film who, just like Ethel, all manage to have the idealistic acting.

Joseph Cotten and Jennifer Jones, we understood that, were meant to act in movies together. But it’s in Portrait of Jennie that they might have the best chemistry. They perfectly make us feel the love between their two characters. They are just magically beautiful together. Joseph Cotten seduces us with his well known low voice and his character he’s so full of sensibility so it completely makes us forgot Uncle Charlie from Shadow of a Doubt, This proves his great versatility as an actor. Jennifer Jones is lovely as ever and she knows perfectly how to switch from the attitude of a little girl to the one of a young woman. This is my favourite performance of hers.

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Cecil Kellaway plays a good man and makes a good team-work alongside Ethel Barrymore and Joseph Cotten. This actor always seems to be a very sympathetic fellow. He’s like the nice uncle everybody likes, isn’t he?

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David Wayne certainly had a great sense of comedy. He plays the friend of Eben and his presence is most appreciated.

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And I have to say, he’s kind of cute dressed like that ❤

Finally, Lillian Gish also embodies a certain wisdom, just like Ethel Barrymore, but this one is kind of different. I love Lillian Gish and it’s too bad that she only makes a very small appearance in the film. But she’s wonderful as always in her few minutes of glory.

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About its screenplay, Portrait of Jennie uses words and dialogues that makes us perfectly understand what this story is about and what it wants to make us see. Those make us think and seemed to have been chosen very carefully. Here are some of my favourites:

1- Jennie: I know we were meant to be together. The strands of our lives are woven together and neither the world nor time can tear them apart.

2- Jennie: There is no life, my darling, until you love and have been loved. And then there is no death.

3- Jennie : [singing] Where I come from nobody knows and where I am going everything goes. The wind blows, the sea flows, nobody knows. And where I am going, nobody knows.

4- Jennie: I wish that you would wait for me to grow up so that we could always be together.

5- Miss Spinney :  Don’t be soft, Matthews. I’m an old maid, and nobody knows more about love than an old maid.

6- Jennie : How beautiful the world is Eben! The sun goes down in in the same lovely sky. Just as it did yesterday, and will tomorrow.

Eben: When is tomorrow, Jenny?

Jennie: Does it matter? It’s always. This was tomorrow once.

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This is how the film is introduced to us

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Before leaving you, I have to talk more in details about the stunning cinematography by Joseph August and Lee Garmes. The funny thing is that, the majority of the film is in black and white, but during the crucial ending scene, there is a green and a sepia filter. What was the purpose? I’m not sure exactly. As for the closing shot, this one is in colour, and that was perfectly justified. But the beauty resides in the black and white cinematography, which illustrates perfectly the magic and the mystery of the film. There’s sort of something unreal in what we see on our screen. The whole thing seems almost like a long dream, not only for the characters in the movie, but also for us.  Joseph August knew perfectly how to use the light of the sun to make Manhattan looks like heaven. The night scenes are also wonderfully filmed and the city is presented to us as a real masterpiece, which certainly was appropriated for a movie about a painter. My favourite scene of the film is the one when Jennie and Eben are ice skating together. When Jennie arrives, that is for me, visually, the most memorable moment of the film.

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Jennie’s majestic’s entrance

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I often mentioned the word beauty in the article, but that’s because this film is a synonym of beauty. Ethel Barrymore’s performance is too. I haven’t seen many of her movies, but this one was the first one I saw. If you’re not too familiar with her, I believe it’s a good one to start with as she shows us her full potential as an actress. She’s just great you know. And I think she’s one of the main reasons why I’ll never be tired to watch this film.

I wanted to write about Portrait of Jennie since a long time and The Second Annual Barrymore Trilogy Blogathon was a perfect occasion for me. So, I want to thank Crystal very much for organizing this amazing event. Next time, I might talk about Lionel Barrymore, who is my favourite Barrymore among all the Barrymore ;).

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But wait, that’s not all! You can also read the other entries here:

The Second Annual Barrymore Trilogy Blogathon

See you, wherever we go.

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12 thoughts on “Portrait of Jennie and the Wisdom of Ethel Barrymore

  1. I love Joseph Cotten and Jennifer Jones together. Have you seen Love Letters? It’s my favorite of their pairings — super romantic, suspenseful, and beautiful, kind of like Portrait of Jennie. Great observations regarding Ethel Barrymore’s character! I’ll keep them in mind next time I watch the movie.

    Like

  2. Great article! The cinematography is indeed beautiful, and Ethel plays my favorite character in this movie. I, too, believe she should have been nominated for an Oscar. And I also wish Lillian Gish had more screen time!
    Kisses!

    Liked by 1 person

  3. The Portrait Of Jennie is another of my favorite films. One of the reasons I like it personally is for its masterful and atmospheric cinematography. As coincidence has it, it was also one of the first classic movies I ever saw. Great post on it, and I loved what you said about Ethel.

    I also invite you to check out my entry for the blogathon.

    https://crystalkalyana.wordpress.com/2016/08/20/the-secret-of-convict-lake-1951/

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Jennifer Jones had this other worldly quality about herself which made her performances stand out only she could portray a Saint in Song Of Bernadette 1943 for which she won the Academy Award or she could play a sinner in Duel In The Sun 1946 and make both performances perfect. Even her beauty was unconventional she was one of a kind. I think Portrait Of Jenny was ahead of its time people did not understand what the film was saying and also it has a kind of downbeat aura and postwar wanted more uplifting films. In Madame Bovary 1949 Jennifer got as close to Flaubert’s character that I have ever seen and in Carrie 1952 she hold her own against Lawrence Olivier which was no mean feat.

    Liked by 1 person

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