Portrait of Jennie

Portrait of Jennie is a 1948 fantasy film based on the novella by Robert Nathan. The film was directed by William Dieterle and produced by David O. Selznick. It stars Jennifer Jones and Joseph Cotten. At the 21st Academy Awards, it won an Oscar for Best Special Effects (Paul Eagler, Joseph McMillan Johnson, Russell Shearman and Clarence Slifer; Special Audible Effects: Charles L. Freeman and James G. Stewart). Joseph H. August was also nominated for an Academy Award for Best Cinematography - Black and White.

Portrait of Jennie
Movie poster
Directed byWilliam Dieterle
Produced byDavid O. Selznick
David Hempstead
Screenplay byPaul Osborn
Peter Berneis
Leonardo Bercovici (adaptation)
Based onPortrait of Jennie 1940 novel
by Robert Nathan[1]
StarringJennifer Jones
Joseph Cotten
Ethel Barrymore
Narrated byJoseph Cotten
Music byClaude Debussy
Dimitri Tiomkin
CinematographyJoseph H. August
Edited byWilliam Morgan
Distributed bySelznick Releasing Organization
Release date
  • December 25, 1948 (1948-12-25)
Running time
86 min.
CountryUnited States
Box office$1,510,000 (rentals)[2]


In 1934, impoverished painter Eben Adams (Joseph Cotten) meets a fey little girl named Jennie Appleton (Jennifer Jones) in Central Park, Manhattan. She is wearing old-fashioned clothing. He makes a sketch of her from memory which involves him with art dealer Miss Spinney (Ethel Barrymore), who sees potential in him. This inspires him to paint a portrait of Jennie.

Eben encounters Jennie at intermittent intervals. Strangely, she appears to be growing up much more rapidly than is possible. He soon falls in love with her but is puzzled by the fact that she seems to be experiencing events that he discovers took place many years previously as if they had just happened. Eventually he learns the truth about Jennie and though inevitable tragedy ensues, she continues to be an inspiration to Eben's life and art, and his career makes a remarkable upturn, commencing with his portrait of Jennie.



The book on which the film was based first attracted the attention of David O. Selznick, who immediately purchased it as a vehicle for Academy Award winner Jennifer Jones. Filming began in early 1947 in New York City and Boston, Massachusetts, but Selznick was unhappy with the results and scheduled re-shoots as well as hiring and firing five different writers before the film was completed in October 1948. The New York shooting enabled Selznick to use Albert Sharpe and David Wayne who were both appearing on stage in Finian's Rainbow, giving an Irish flair to characters and the painting in the bar that was not in Nathan's novel.

As Portrait of Jennie was a fantasy, Selznick insisted on filming on actual Massachusetts (The Graves Light) and New York City locations (Central Park, The Cloisters, and The Metropolitan Museum of Art) as opposed to studio sets, which dramatically increased the film's production costs.[3] The film's major overhaul came when Selznick added a tinted color sequence for the final scenes. The final shot of the painting, appearing just before the credits, was presented in three-strip Technicolor.

Portrait of Jennie was highly unusual for its time in that it had no opening credits as such, except for the Selznick Studio logo. All the other credits appear at the end. Before the film proper begins, the title is announced by the narrator (after delivering a spoken prologue, he says, "And now, 'Portrait of Jennie'").

The portrait of Jennie (Jennifer Jones) was painted by artist Robert Brackman. The painting became one of Selznick's prized possessions, and it was displayed in his home after he married Jones in 1949.

The film is notable for Joseph H. August's atmospheric cinematography, capturing the lead character's obsession with Jennie, amongst the environs of a wintry New York. August shot many of the scenes through a canvas, making the scenes look like actual paintings. August, who used many lenses from silent film days,[4] died shortly after completing the film. He was posthumously nominated for an Academy Award for Best Cinematography.

Dimitri Tiomkin used themes by Claude Debussy, including Prélude à l'après-midi d'un faune (Prelude to the Afternoon of a Faun), the two Arabesques, "Nuages" and "Sirènes" from Nocturnes, and La fille aux cheveux de lin, with the addition of Bernard Herrmann's "Jennie's Theme" to a song featured in Nathan's book ("Where I came from, nobody knows, and where I am going everyone goes"), utilizing a theremin. Herrmann was assigned the original composing duties for the film but left during its extended shooting schedule.

A scene of Jennie and Eben having a picnic after witnessing the ceremony in the convent, features in the original screenplay. It was filmed but deleted when it looked as if Jennie's hair was blending into the tree next to her. The scene that featured Jennie doing a dance choreographed by Jerome Robbins took over ten days to film,[4] but was not used in the completed film.


When it was released in December 1948, it was not a success, but today it is considered a classic in the fantasy genre [5] with a 91% "fresh" rating on Rotten Tomatoes.[6] Upon its release, The New York Times reviewer Bosley Crowther called it "deficient and disappointing in the extreme;"[7] but the Variety reviewers found the story was "told with style, taste and dignity."[8] Most modern film critics have also given the film strong praise: for example, Leslie Halliwell noted that it was 'presented with superb persuasiveness by a first-class team of actors and technicians'. [9]

"Portrait of Jennie," the title song written by J. Russell Robinson, subsequently became a hit for Nat King Cole. An EmArcy Records (MG-36005) recording, Clifford Brown with Strings (recorded January 18, 19, 20, 1955) featured the late great, lyrical jazz trumpeter, Clifford Brown with his poignant readings of several standards and evergreens including "Portrait of Jenny." Although this instrumental version of the song was arranged by Neal Hefti for Mr. Brown's date, the melodic line is close to what Nat King Cole had recorded in 1948. However, for some unknown reason, the track listing appears on Mr. Brown's lp (long play vinyl) jacket cover with the spelling of the name, "Jenny" with a "y" instead of an "ie." In other words, despite the spelling difference of the song's name, the melody IS the same. It was even revisited in 1958 by pianist Red Garland on Manteca, and again in 1966 by jazz trumpeter Blue Mitchell on his Bring It Home to Me.

Joseph Cotten's performance as Eben Adams won the International Prize for Best Actor at the 1949 Venice International Film Festival.

The film is recognized by American Film Institute in these lists:


Portrait of Jennie was presented on the radio program Academy Award on December 4, 1946. Joan Fontaine starred in the adaptation.[12] Lux Radio Theatre presented an hour-long adaptation of the film on October 31, 1949, again starring Joseph Cotten, but this time with Anne Baxter in the role of Jennie.

See also


  1. Portrait of Jennie entry, Fantastic Fiction website. Accessed Feb. 7, 2014.
  2. Thomson, David. Showman: The Life of David O. Selznick (Abacus, 1993), p. 521.
  3. Cotton, Joseph. Vanity Will Get You Somewhere, iUniverse (2000).
  4. Thomson, David. Showman: The Life of David O. Selznik (Knopf, 1992).
  5. For example, it was one of the top fifty Fantasy Films nominated by the AFI in 2008 - "AFI's 10 Top 10 Nominees" (PDF). Archived from the original on 2011-07-16. Retrieved 2018-05-26.CS1 maint: BOT: original-url status unknown (link)
  6. Portrait of Jennie at Rotten Tomatoes
  7. Crowther, Bosley. "Selznick's 'Portrait of Jennie,' With Cotten and Jennifer Jones, Opens at Rivoli," New York Times (March 30, 1949).
  8. Variety Staff. "Portrait of Jennie is an unusual screen romance. The story of an ethereal romance between two generations is told with style, taste and dignity.," Variety (Dec. 31, 1947).
  9. Halliwell's Film and Video Guide 1999 (1999), ed. J.Walker, p.635.
  10. "AFI's 100 Years...100 Passions Nominees" (PDF). Retrieved 2016-08-19.
  11. "AFI's 10 Top 10 Nominees" (PDF). Archived from the original on 2011-07-16. Retrieved 2016-08-19.CS1 maint: BOT: original-url status unknown (link)
  12. "Joan Fontaine Heard Wednesday In "Oscar" Role". Harrisburg Telegraph. November 30, 1946. p. 17. Retrieved September 12, 2015 via Newspapers.com.

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