Wednesday, August 12, 2015

Portrait of Jennie

The Barrymore Trilogy Blogathon is an event devoted to the legacy of the Barrymore clan, one of the most prolific acting families in film and theater, hosted by In the Good Old Days of Classic Hollywood. For a complete list of participating bloggers, visit the link at the host site.

Portrait of Jennie
YouTube viewing

Anyone with a passing familiarity with Greek mythology will know who the Muses were: nine goddesses who brought the gift of inspiration to artistic minds. Surprisingly, there wasn't one for visual art which, as a visual artist myself, I find to be kind of a rip-off. I mean, it's not like there weren't painters and sculptors in ancient Greece, so what gives?

Throughout my life as an artist, of both words and pictures, there have been plenty of occasions in which people I've known have inspired my work. I'd say it's unavoidable. My high school girlfriend was the basis for several class assignments, as well as a bunch of sketchbook drawings. Years later, I did a graphic novella about a girl I was infatuated with that received superlative reviews. The first draft of the novel I'm writing had a character based on someone I knew from summer camp years ago, but I had to cut her from the story (which I'm still sad about). 

I didn't think about any of that when I watched Portrait of Jennie, surprisingly. I went into it virtually blind; I had a bare-bones idea of the premise and that was all. I thought it started off pretty cheesy, with the bombastic voice-over introduction and not one, but two epigraphs. I ended up liking it more than I thought I would, but I couldn't put my finger on why, not at first. It's a very old-fashioned romance, which I didn't expect - not that I'm necessarily against them in principle. Still, it wasn't until thinking about the movie afterwards that I realized why it struck a chord with me.

Joseph Cotten is a starving artist in New York City during the winter, who encounters a mysterious young girl who takes a shine to him, asking him to "wait" for her to grow up so they can be together. Thing is, though, she gets dramatically older each time he sees her, as if she's moving through time at a much faster rate. His obsession with her puts a jump-start to his struggling art career, but he's determined to find out more about her - like for instance, why she talks about people and places from a time long before she could have been born. Jennifer Jones plays her from adolescent to adult.

I once wrote about a girl who I fell for hard. I loved her, but it wasn't to be... and I've never really gotten over her since. As a result, I've since drawn lots of pictures of her: pencil sketches, inked pieces, in my sketchbooks, on tracing paper, on Bristol paper, dressed, naked (yep), in black and white, in color, in a wide variety of poses... you get the idea. I know how this sounds, but you gotta understand: I loved her, and I believe she loved me as well. She didn't leave me so much as fade from my life. That frustrated and depressed me, because for a moment I thought we had something that could've lasted. She got deep under my skin and I still haven't purged her from my system. I don't know if I ever will. And since I can't see her anymore, I draw her instead.

Cotten doesn't end up with Jones in Portrait, either, but like a muse, she inspired him to create a work of art that we're led to believe will endure (we see it in Technicolor at the very end), and the implication is that this is what matters more. I don't know if that's true. I don't see why he couldn't have had both, especially considering the lengths he went to in order to keep her. There is something nobly sad and romantic, in the truest sense of the word, about having true love within one's grasp and then losing it, but I think that's just something movies like this, as good as they are, tend to perpetuate. The reality is quite different, I assure you.

Okay, a few quick words about Ethel Barrymore, since this is a Barrymore blogathon. She plays an art dealer who becomes Cotten's patron. I liked her. I thought she befriended him because she fancied him, since he paid her a compliment when they first met. Still possible, I suppose - by her own admission, she's an "old maid" (Zod forbid she be simply an old woman instead), so that could play into what could be an infatuation for Cotten. It's not really a factor in the story, though.

Ethel was the sister of John and Lionel Barrymore, the offspring of stage actors, and the three of them were legends of film and especially theater, from the early part of the 20th century. Ethel was originally going to be a pianist, but she took up acting as well, debuting on the New York stage in 1894 and adding movies to her resume beginning in 1914. A four-time Oscar nominee, she won in Supporting Actress in 1945 for the film None But the Lonely Heart. (She also accepted Judy Holliday's Best Actress Oscar for Born Yesterday.) The Ethel Barrymore Theater here in NYC was built for her, during her lifetime, in 1928, and yes, she performed there. Drew Barrymore is her great-niece.

Other Barrymore movies:
Pinky (Ethel)
Grand Hotel (John & Lionel)
Dinner at Eight (John & Lionel)
E.T. (Drew)
Scream (Drew)


  1. I haven't seen "Portrait of Jennie" since my teen years when the romance overwhelmed me with its noble beauty. I have grown more worldly with time and have been a little afraid to revisit the movie. Will I scoff and erase a sweet, harmless memory? Perhaps on one of my more sentimental days (I have them more often that I care to admit), I'll give it another shot.

    I would dearly love to time travel and see Ethel Barrymore in her early stage successes, especially in comedy. I like what I see of her later film work, but know it is only the tip of the iceberg.

  2. I imagine it's quite easy to be cynical about a movie like this. If it didn't strike a familiar chord with me, I'd probably be that way for sure.

  3. Lovely post, Rich, and so interesting about your own personal path to this movie. It's a film I've always loved, from a book I've always loved.

  4. I was saddened to read about your experience, but I can see how that experience would make this a more meaningful movie experience. Thanks for sharing all of this with us.

  5. It was one of those things where not mentioning it would've felt incomplete. Sometimes I'm okay with that. Other times I'm not.

  6. What a beautiful post! It was lovely!
    I liked this film very much, and was surprised at the end. It didn't affect me personally, as it did with you, but I was really moved. And, cool triva fact: one of the girls in the final scene is uncredited Jane Wyman!
    And, oh, if you are sad to have cut the girl from your novel, write a short story only about her ;)
    Don't forget to reaad my contribution to tthe blogathon!

  7. That's not a bad idea, actually. Might do that.

  8. I enjoyed reading your review Rich...and how personal you made it. The girl that got away. << Sigh! >> The imprint they leave is always there, but maybe covered over with time; not to disappear but you're always aware it's there. It can inform one's creativity. I like "PORTRAIT OF JENNIE" a lot. Such a gentle, romantic, loving movie. Jennifer Jones is a favorite of mine, and I'm a fairly new convert to the great Ethel Barrymore who somehow embodies something magical ( could it be Jennie as an older lady? ) I want to give a shout out to actress Maude Simmons as Clara Morgan, the lady who knew Jennie and her family back in the day that Eben goes to visit in Harlem. I enjoyed your very touching review of this film. Good luck to you as an artist.

  9. I also thought that Barrymore might have been an older version of Jennie! In fact, I kept expecting some sort of Twilight Zone-type twist but it never came.

  10. Thanks so much for participating in the blogathon. I've only just got around to reading the entries now. I highly enjoyed reading your article on "Portrait Of Jennie". I love this movie. One of my favorite ghost movies.

    I've also just announced a new blogathon if you are interested in participating. The link is below with more details

  11. Replies
    1. No worries. Did you get the link for my latest blogathon I'm holding? Let me know if you want to participate?

  12. I always really love reading about bloggers' personal stories/journeys to movies. Often it's the most throwaway ones that can leave a lasting impression if you watch them at the right time - I certainly have plenty like that. Not sure I'll watch this, but appreciate you sharing your thoughts!

  13. Thanks. That's the kind of thing I strive for here.

  14. Hi Rich. I just thought I would drop by to let you know I've just announced my Second Annual Barrymore Trilogy Blogathon for this year. I'm currently going through last years blogathon roster and contacting the folks who participated to let them know it's on. I would love to invite you to join in again. The link is below with more details.


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