October 13, 2011

Portrait of Jennie (1948)

"A mysterious girl inspires a struggling artist."

Just to prove that I don't hate all films from the 1940s, I rewatched "Portrait of Jennie" again to add a decent ghost story from that era to my "Hallowe'en Countdown". Although some people may argue that the story is more to do with time travel than ghosts, I'd say that it's possible to take this fantasy in just about any way you like.

The truth is, however, that if it is a ghost story then it isn't a scary one. It's a romance above all, but, unlike "The Uninvited" (1944), this doesn't go in for oodles of dated dialogue to create and solve a mystery that you don't even care about in the first place. You will care about the characters in this story and, probably, you'll have a ton of questions after watching it that there simply isn't any explanation for.

I first watched "Portrait of Jennie" one rainy Saturday afternoon when I was about 10 or 11 years old and BBC2 used to have such films showing as a matinee. Since I hated "World of Sport" and "Grandstand" with a passion, I used to switch over to BBC2 as soon as "Swap Shop" or "Saturday Superstore" ended (I never could stand the screaming and shouting on ITV's kids' shows either) and watch the movies until it was time for the wrestling to start back on ITV.

Back in those days of only three TV channels, I watched all sorts of films which entertained me but I considered quite throwaway such as Cary Grant comedies or horribly boring Bogart detective capers. For something to come along like "Portrait of Jennie" was quite a treat especially as it had enough ghost story elements to it to draw me in immediately. As you probably know, I was into anything supernatural at quite an early age and it didn't matter at all to me that "Portrait of Jennie" was a "girls' film" at all. Hell, I even used to read "Misty" which was a supernatural comic for girls along with my weekly "2000 A.D.".

But I digressed. What I liked (and still like) about "Portrait of Jennie" was that it was something completely different to the usual matinee films on offer. This beautifully shot film had class to it which even my as yet completely undiscerning mind could recognise.

I had no idea who Jennifer Jones or Joseph Cotton were and, to be honest, I still have very little knowledge about them now although I know that the latter was in a few horror genre films in the 1970s which weren't very good. In "Portrait of Jennie" you can't fault their acting even though both were really too old for their parts but, as it seemed to be the rule to pair an older actor with a younger actress in these things, I never even noticed until now just how ill-matched they actually were both to each other and their roles. Even then it's simply nit-picking for the sake of it as there's nothing wrong with their performances at all.

Joseph Cotton really looks his age in this but Jennifer Jones, through various pieces of trickery and an obvious height difference, actually appears to age a few years each time she appears which really is very clever indeed. She still doesn't quite reach an acceptable age where you could class Joseph Cotton's character as anything more than a dirty old man from a modern perspective but nobody thought like that in the 1940s especially as the war probably wiped out most eligible bachelors of the right age in real life. Society was different and age gaps of twenty years or so in relationships weren't considered as dubious as they are today. Even so, the fact that Jennie starts off as a schoolgirl is still a bit suspicious.

The story really is about how love can transcend time and space which apparently was a big thing in literary circles. "Portrait of Jennie" was based on a novella by Robert Nathan which I have never actually read but Wikipedia says is a "modern masterpiece of fantasy fiction".

Later on, "Somewhere in Time" (1980) used a similar plot and was probably the best thing that Christopher Reeve and Jane Seymour ever starred in. I like that film as well which is strange considering that I am a hardcore horror fan at heart.

I'm not going to give any plot spoilers about "Portrait of Jennie" as it's a movie which I recommend that you all watch as cold as possible. There are several technical surprises especially during the last ten minutes which I will just say won't surprise anyone who has seen "The Picture of Dorian Gray" (1945) but I'll leave it at that.

If you like movies such as "The Sixth Sense" (1999) then "Portrait of Jennie" is definitely a precursor to it while, at the same time, being actually really nothing like it at all.

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