Encyclopedia of Fantasy (1997)
Portrait of Jennie

(vt Jennie UK) US movie (1948). Selznick/Vanguard. Pr David O Selznick. Dir William Dieterle. Spfx Clarence Slifer. Screenplay Peter Berneis, Paul Osborn (introduction by Ben Hecht). Based on Portrait of Jennie (1940) by Robert Nathan. Starring Ethel Barrymore (Miss Spinney), Joseph Cotten (Eben Adams), Lillian Gish (Mother Mary of Mercy), Jennifer Jones (Jennie Appleton), Cecil Kellaway (Matthews), Maude Simmons (Clara Morgan). 86 mins. B/w plus tinted sequence and brief Technicolor sequence.

Penniless Manhattan artist Adams meets in Central Park a child, Jennie, dressed in old-fashioned clothing and talking of long-gone locations as if they still existed. While with him she makes a Wish that he will wait for her while she grows up; then vanishes, leaving behind a scarf wrapped in a 1910 newspaper. Adams draws a sketch from memory, and immediately sells it to art dealers Matthews & Spinney, whose Miss Spinney soon becomes his champion. Shortly afterwards Adams again meets Jennie, now already a young woman: she is growing up fast to "catch" him. She fails to turn up for their next "date"; investigating her, Adams discovers Jennie's parents died decades ago, and next encounters Jennie herself weeping over their loss. Rapidly falling in love, he visits with her a ceremony at her convent school; and at last she (now a beautiful woman) sits for him in her studio. When months pass without her, Adams goes to the convent where he discovers from Mother Mary that Jennie died some years earlier when a tidal wave struck Land's End Point, Connecticut. Travelling there, he endeavours to cheat the past by saving her; but she refuses to comply and is lost to the waves – although leaving behind her scarf.

POJ has some crudities of realization and many flaws, including a long and irrelevant subplot, but holds much of interest: notably, it shows us Jennie's own inability properly to come to terms with her somewhat convoluted timeline, alternately being fully conscious of and quite ignorant of her rapid growth to adulthood, forgetting and remembering details, etc.; also, it explores the hypothesis that Jennie is a construct of Adams's own mind, desperately seeking a subject that will draw out his nascent artistic ability (see Perception; Rationalized Fantasy). Its downbeat ending – very un-Hollywood – serves, because correct rather than glib, to render POJ a movie that abides in the memory – as does the reiterated theme of chill and winter. POJ is far more affecting than any of the early-1990s cycle of movies reprising the notion of love across the barrier of death – e.g., Dead Again (1991), Ghost (1990), Ghosts Can't Do It (1990) and Truly Madly Deeply (1990). [JG]

This entry is taken from the Encyclopedia of Fantasy (1997) edited by John Clute and John Grant. It is provided as a reference and resource for users of the SF Encyclopedia, but apart from possible small corrections has not been updated.