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Tuesday, December 2, 2014

Bay of the Living Dead: A Ghost Story Worth Telling: "Portrait of Jennie"

Posted By on Tue, Dec 2, 2014 at 3:44 PM

click to enlarge portraitofjennie.jpg
Welcome to Bay of the Living Dead, a monthly column dedicated to horror films, books and television,
past and present.

"Where I Come From Nobody Knows,
  Where I'm Going Everything Goes
 The Wind Blows, The Sea Flows,
 But nobody knows......."

An Excerpt from Robert Nathan's Portrait of Jennie

Imagine if your soul mate died before the two of you met — would you ever be able to find love? 

This profound question was raised in Robert Nathan's 1940 novel Portrait of Jennie. Nathan's story is a ghostly romance about a starving artist in Depression era New York City, Eban Adams, who appears to have no feelings at all. 

All that changes when he meets a little girl in Central Park named Jennie. They meet periodically over the course of about a year, but every time they see each other, she's a few years older. She speaks of the distant past as though it were the present, and she appears to be reliving her life as she slips through time. 

As Jennie segues into adulthood, she and Eban fall deeply in love, and he undertakes the process of painting her portrait. 

When I was assigned to read Portrait of Jennie in the 8th grade, I wasn't a happy camper. As I opened the book, I was convinced that I was about to read the kind of  romance novels I'd seen housewives in the neighborhood reading. I was wrong.

Portrait of Jennie is a love story to be sure, but it's also a riveting ghost story. Robert Nathan weaved a dreamlike tale of lost souls reaching out to each other across time and space.

In 1948 producer David O. Selznick (Gone With the Wind) brought Portrait of Jennie to the big screen. The movie mogul cast his own wife, Oscar winner Jennifer Jones, in the title role. The film wasn't a big hit when it was released, but it has stood the test of time. Now holding a 91% "fresh" rating on Rotten Tomatoes, Portrait of Jennie stands as a cherished classic, one of the cinema's all time greatest love stories. It's an atmospheric masterpiece.

The stage is set as the story opens in a dark, wintry New York in 1934.It's cold outside, but not nearly as cold as the soul of Eban Adams (Joseph Cotten). An artist by trade, he can't pay his rent and is facing eviction. Miss Spinney (Ethel Barrymore), the kindly co-owner of an art gallery, takes Eban under her wing, and she tells him what his problem is: his work has no feeling. It's empty, like Eban himself.

Eban slowly comes to life after he meets Jennie. When we first see her, she's around seven years old. Jennifer Jones, then  28, does an amazing job of playing a character decades younger than herself. With nothing more than camera angles, facial expressions, vocal mannerisms, and costuming, Jones convinces viewers that she's a little girl. 

Jennie appears and disappears indiscriminately. Each time she returns she's about five years older. One night, she shows up on the night of her parents death — Eban finds out that Mr. and Mrs. Appleton have been dead for decades.

Jennie appears again as she prepares to leave for college, and it's been barely a year since she and Eban first met, yet she's now nearly 20 years old. Eban paints his portrait of Jennie, they walk the streets of Manhattan all night as though there were no one else in the whole city., it's as thought Jennie and Eban exist in their own universe.

When she disappears, Eban hears the wind calling out to him as the leaves rustle around his feet, and sets out to find her. At the convent where she said she had attended school, the Mother Superior tells him what he already knew: Jennie died years earlier.

On the night of her death, Eban slips through time. He journeys to Cape Cod as a terrible storm is about to commence so he can prevent the accident that took her life.

The storm sequence is magnificent. Eban finds Jennie — or did she find him? — in a storm-swept lighthouse. As the thunder and lightning roar, the waves rise above them, Jennie tells Eban that it will be alright.

Movies rarely get spookier, or more romantic, than Portrait of Jennie. But hey, don't take my word for it, watch the film and see how Eban and Jennie's strange, other worldly love helps him to find his soul. 
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