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jd collins: Portrait of Jennie.: The Hidden Portrait

A Hidden Surprise

Keltic Dualism: complementary aspects of the same phenomenom.

Portrait of Jennie.

Director William Dieterle * Writers Robert Nathan (novel) Leonardo Bercovici (adaptation)

Synopsis: An enchanting girl bedazzles struggling artist.

Dramatis Personae

Jennifer Jones .... Jennie Appleton
Joseph Cotten .... Eben Adams
Ethel Barrymore .... Miss Spinney
Lillian Gish .... Mother Mary of Mercy
Cecil Kellaway .... Matthews
David Wayne .... Gus O'Toole
Nancy Davis (Mrs Nancy Reagan) .... Teenager in art gallery
John Farrell .... Policeman (uncredited)
Anne Francis .... Teenager in art gallery
Brian Keith .... Ice-skating extra (uncredited)

Portrait of Jennie is now available on DVD.
Portrait of Jennie., the tale of a struggling artist Eben Adams (Joseph Cotton) and his muse Jennie Appleton (Jennifer Jones)holds so many mysteries in its shadowy scenes of period local color from New York City of the 1940s, the boxy grey concrete skyline, the park. The film projects ethereal quality that is riveting. Drawn into the web of an haunting, other-worldly, timeless beauty, one like the artist may go through half the story before realizing that Jennie isn't real. She's a ghost, a part of a forgotten past struggling with the artist for some recognition.

However one of the reasons the many fans of this 1948 black and white movie never tire of watching it is the multidimensional character of the plot with its hidden passageways leading back and forward linking past and present. As time passes, I realize this films is even more "special" than I figured, and that its has many subtleties and "hidden" meanings.

I must have seen this movie dozens of times before I recognized the interesting facet of the parallel between the ghosts in life the ragamuffins in the Irish bar who feed the starving artist and the ghostly beauty Jenny. The artist in pursuit of beauty must still eat. Fortunately a patron from an unusual ruff-and-tumble quarter emerges for the man of high culture. The patron is or better are the habitues of a grimy working class Irish bar who agree to pay the bar tab on one condition: that the artist execute a portrait of their hero Michael Collins.

This is 1948! Who was Michael Collins?

Michael Collins: The Man Who Made Ireland
Michael Collins: The Man Who Made Ireland

The parallel between the two portraits that the artists executes, the portrait of long deceased Jennie and the mural he paints for the bar shows how well the author knew the ragamuffins in the tavern. Someone with a cursory knowledge of New York City of the 1940s and its population would never have come up with the congruence.

The two portraits are a doublet but the convergence is very rich such that a half a century later Portrait of Jennie. can still be recognized as a superior American film. The ragamuffins in the bar were in an exile from a war they won or better yet two wars they won: The Rising and The Irish Civil war. The picture painted was of Mick Collins, their leader who was a casualty in their Civil War. In 1948 Collin's former friend and opponent in the Irish Civil war was securely in power.

In 1947 Collins was an unperson, not spoken of, rarely mentioned in books. The Irish in New York said nothing of Collins especially to an outsider. In The James Cagney Movie SHAKE HANDS WITH THE DEVIL Collins is presented unnamed as a shadow behind a closed and guarded door. (Cagney's father had owned a bar like that depicted in the movie.)

Eamon de Valera: The Man Who Was Ireland
Eamon de Valera: The Man Who Was Ireland

For these ragamuffins to let the artist in on their secret showed how highly they regarded the artist. And for a poor, wretched, uneducated people in that era, the Irish did appreciate art and artists and held them in special esteem exempt from many social rules, here excused from paying the bar tab. The patrons and the barkeep know the artist didn't do a very good job on the painting they commissioned by picking up the artist's supper tab but they politely celebrated it anyway. The artist shrinks away in humiliation.

The ragamuffins in the bar are as much ghosts as Jennie. Their picture is of a dead hero; their cause is moribund, irrelevant. They themselves departed their own country and yet never made much of their new one. They're only a couple of feet from the dock they landed at, a quarter century earlier. They are ghosts-in-life.

Richard Harris: Sex, Death and the Movies - An Intimate Biography
Richard Harris: Sex, Death and the Movies - An Intimate Biography

The Irish are a hard people to figure as superficially open and friendly as they are, they tell you very little. It took me much ferreting to find out who Michael Collins was. That was long before the movie Michael Collins and the books which have come out in the last 25 years. The best I got from Irish lips was "that feller which got hissself kilt."

If by contrast you express, for example, the slightest interest or knowledge of Mexico to a Mexican- American, they'll fill you in on all the ins-and-outs of Mexican history from conquistadors forward.

The beauty of the movie was that the author was able to ferret out a hidden truth and show how these men in the bar were clinging to a dead past and from an American point of view had made ghosts of themselves.

James Cagney
James Cagney

Aside from excellent photography always hinting but never expressly stating a ghostly aura for Jennie, particularly the blurring of the graduation scene which uses a misty blurring around Jennie on a sunny day in contrast to the other graduates sharply dressed in white, there are excellent shots of post World War II era New York City. As the artist investigates Jennie he collects many asides and anecdotes about The City of an even earlier age. The camera captures that grey era (1940s-1950s)in New York City of solid concrete buildings with a glimpse at the prior red brick era (c 1900- 1919) that preceded it before the onset of the silver era (1960-pres) of steel skyscrapers and glass towers, like the one mourned so much. The grey era is nicely depicted in and complimented by the black and white photography and adds to that nebula in which different pasts of living and dead became fused and confused. Attaining near perfection in the tints of black and white the shades of grey that impart not only the feel of The City but also the fog in which the artist is lost, Jennie is one film that should never be colorized.

Jennie is a beautiful film packed with meaning such that there is much to see in it from many different perspectives. It is one instance where cinematography approaches a literary effort, without becoming somewhat ironically in the context of a film about an artist and a work of art, "arty."

The dominate message of Jennie if there is one in the film is let go of the past. Indeed that's what Jennie tells the artist at the end when she forces him to let her drift into the storm. Watch the movie again to see what past the artist himself is lost in.

jd collins is associate editor of FP.

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Portrait of Jennie.: The Hidden Portrait © 2004 by jd collins: ALL RIGHTS RESERVED