When the sea captain (Rex Harrison) in The Ghost and Mrs. Muir leans over the bed of his sleeping soul mate (Gene Tierney) and tries to explain to her why they cannot be together, it is a scene that has haunted both my waking life as well as my dreams for years. There is something about this concept that shakes me in a way I can't explain in words. Not that I'm not willing to try. Here we have a dead man walking the earth as a ghost. He's in love with a real woman who also probably loves him, but we're not quite sure. Her real life husband (not the sea captain) is also dead. She's asleep. She doesn't even hear him talking to her, even if the living could actually hear the dead. He's explaining why they cannot live as man and wife, as if an explanation was necessary. He's telling her he is leaving so that she can find someone with flesh and blood to love, without him in the way. But she's asleep. She has no concept of what he is saying to her because she's in a kind of death herself as he says it. This is some sort of circular puzzle describing an impossible and yet indispensable relationship that I know is cosmic in its ramifications, and I can only say that I know this because of my own dreams and desires. To explain it in words any more than I've already tried would be pointless. I'm sure there are many others who know exactly what I mean, but I'm also sure that the ones who don't are perhaps lucky in a way I'll never be.
The Ghost and Mrs. Muir was made in 1947 and Portrait of Jennie was made in 1948. I guess it was one of those periods where ghost stories combined with love stories were a common theme. Perhaps it had something to do with what happened at 8:16 AM in Japan in 1945, giving all mankind a sense of some sort of communal culmination they hadn't quite imagined up until that point. Perhaps it was the total aggregate carnage of that protracted conflict.
Regardless of the correlation between these films or the origin of the theme, I just watched Portrait of Jennie this evening with my wife, who says she saw it 30 years ago and liked it then as well as now. I'd never seen it before. It's an enchanting little film with Joseph Cotten as the failing artist looking for some reason to go on. He's capable but has no passion in his work, which is leading him down a bad road. It's set in the 1930s when even folks with real jobs were having trouble putting food on the table. His life-saving inspiration comes from meeting a young girl in Central Park. In this case, it's the young girl, played by Jennifer Jones, and not the scruffy sea captain who is the apparition in this tale.
So, is it a better story? Perhaps the idea is worthy, but the execution is lacking. The first half of the film shows such promise that it's hard to imagine how it could fizzle out toward the end. And yet it does. Perhaps it's because the producer, David O. Selznick, was so in love with the starlet himself, in real life, that this caused a cascade of overachievement asides. Maybe it starts with the opening text-overs quoting Euripides and Keats. Selznick told one of his sidekicks that he wanted to prepare the audience for something like they'd never seen before. I guess he meant over-the-top pretentiousness.
I love the stories about Selznick and this brunette, Jennifer Jones. He stole the girl away from her husband, Robert Walker, and then practically had her in bondage thereafter. Poor old Walker was out there carrying a torch for the girl the rest of his life while Selznick took control of her both emotionally and professionally. He was so jealous that he'd only let her star next to leading men who were known not to be whorehopping Hollywood usuals and who were in stable marriages themselves. His favorites were folks like Cotten (married to Lenore Kip) and Gregory Peck. I think of Of Human Bondage when I think of this relationship.
Anyway, one could almost overlook the pretentious beginning as the story unfolds. My favorite screen trick in the film is used right off the bat and many times thereafter. This is a type of overlay on the print which renders scenes of Manhattan in the gauzy look and feel of an oil painting. This is a beautiful effect and I don't think I've seen it before or since, at least not as well done. This effect would have done wonders for Girl With a Pearl Earring which I saw last year. One has to credit the director, William Dieterle, for that technique. However, nothing good can be said about the end of the film where we jump from black and white to a muted green tint (for the "perfect storm" scenes) to a muted red tint (for the "recovery" scenes) to full blown Technicolor for the grand finale. The better idea would have been to skip the tints altogether and jump right into a Technicolor view of the painting. Trying to "work up" to a sea change like that is like trying to enhance the Disneyland adventure for a toddler by having a couple of jugglers on the side of the road as you drive in. Just wait and let his little eyes bug out when he sees the real thing, for chrissakes.
There are a couple of names you might recognize playing smaller parts in this film. Ethel Barrymore plays the gallery owner, Miss Spinney (a play on spinster that is neither very cute nor very original). She does yeomen's work in the effort, and I would have thought it a better twist in the story if somehow she had turned out to be the embodiment of Jennie Appleton (the Jennifer Jones role) and had to "wait on" the artist to reach old age in order for him to learn the flip side of his particular situation. Perhaps that would have been too complicated, but there was some sort of potential wasted here in this role as the patron spinster.
D.W. Griffith star Lillian Gish shows up as a Mother Superior at a Catholic school. There's no doubt that Selznick had a real admiration for Griffith, and (while we're name-dropping in this little piece) one might also note that Luis Buñuel was very fond of this film, most likely because of the dream-like quality to much of it. Unfortunately, that dream-like quality applies primarily to the first half and not the last. One can imagine that Buñuel would have liked it much more if the dream had just kept getting more and more bizarre as opposed to an attempt to bring it down to earth.
In terms of a marketing venture, the film lost money. Selznick was so enchanted (in his human bondage) that he did silly things like spending a small fortune hiring extras for ice skating scenes in Central Park when he could have just as easily used (for free) the folks who were there every day. It would not have made one bit of difference to the scene, which is dominated by Cotten and Jones anyway. In terms of acclaim, Cotten got the best actor award at the Venice Festival for his role and Jones got a lot of good publicity, but it was fairly quickly forgotten soon after issue.
What is the idea in The Ghost and Mrs. Muir and this film which draws me like a magnet? Perhaps it's the inescapable tragedy of these sorts of love affairs. The dead and the living cannot be together. Not for very long.
So, should you rent this newly released DVD of Portrait of Jennie? I think so, but make sure you've seen The Ghost and Mrs. Muir first. Just for comparison purposes. Oh, and in between the two, watch The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie just to see what a real dream-like movie is about. Sort of like how you'd read Borges before you really understood how to appreciate Barth.