Portrait of Jennie (1948)
Directed by William Dieterle
Vanguard Films / The Selznick Studio
William Dieterle directed one of my favorite romances of the 1940s, I’ll Be Seeing You (1944), which starred Joseph Cotten and Ginger Rogers.
Cotten also starred for Dieterle in his film Love Letters (1945), and again in Portrait of Jennie, a romance with elements of magical realism.
Portrait of Jennie is based on Robert Nathan’s 1940 novel, and takes place in New York in 1934. Cotten plays an artist named Eben Adams who is cold, hungry, and poor. Worst of all, he is only painting competent but uninspired still lifes. He is desperate to paint something truly meaningful.
One wintry evening in Central Park, he meets a strange young girl named Jennie Appleton (Jennifer Jones). She wears old-fashioned clothes and speaks of things that happened decades ago as if they were current events.
Jennie inspires Eben to create a sketch of her. The sketch impresses an art dealer, Miss Spinney (Ethel Barrymore). Her partner, Matthews (Cecil Kellaway), tells her they won’t turn a profit at the price she paid Eben, and Miss Spinney informs him that she didn’t buy it for the gallery, she bought it for herself.
Eben investigates the mystery of Jennie Appleton while working on his portrait of her. She appears to him at various times, and is years older each time, even though only days or weeks have passed.
I liked Portrait of Jennie, especially the first half, which is one of the most darkly magical lensings of Central Park in winter that I’ve ever seen. Cinematographer Joseph H. August, who died shortly after completing work on the film, was nominated for an Academy Award for his black and white cinematography. The film was also nominated for an Oscar for best visual effects, which it won.
Cotten was 44 when he made this picture, which is a little old to be playing a “young artist,” as he’s described by Ethel Barrymore, but he’s a great actor, so I didn’t mind so much.
Eben’s portrait of Jennie Appleton, which appears in full Technicolor at the end of the film, was a commissioned piece by Ukrainian-American artist Robert Brackman. It became one of David O. Selznick’s most prized possessions, and hung in his home after he married Jennifer Jones in 1949. (They remained married until his death in 1965.)
In my recent review of Act of Violence (1948), I mentioned how rare films from the 1940s were that didn’t open with a full set of credits. Portrait of Jennie goes one step further by not even putting a title card at the beginning of the film, which contributes to its sense of dreamlike fantasy.
Easy to Wed is a remake of Jack Conway’s 1936 comedy Libeled Lady, which starred Jean Harlow, William Powell, Myrna Loy, and Spencer Tracy. No actors of that caliber appear in Edward Buzzell’s update, which is a lightweight affair from start to finish.
I haven’t seen Libeled Lady, but it was nominated for an Oscar for best picture, and is generally well-regarded in the pantheon of screwball comedies. Easy to Wed is generally regarded as a crummy piece of fluff, and that’s exactly what it is. Like the last MGM Technicolor extravaganza I saw, Ziegfeld Follies (1946), this movie is too long, is jam-packed with everything but a compelling plot and interesting characters, and its humor is mostly of the “painfully unfunny” variety.
The plot can be synopsized on the back of a cocktail napkin. Warren Haggerty (Keenan Wynn), the publisher of the Morning Star, is all set to marry his girl, Gladys Benton (Lucille Ball), but he and his paper are being sued for $2 million by J.B. Allenbury (Cecil Kellaway) after a story they published insinuated that Allenbury’s daughter, Connie (Esther Williams), is a nymphomaniac who goes after married men. The soundest plan Haggerty can come up with is to finagle his star reporter, Bill Chandler (Van Johnson), into a compromising position with Connie so they can produce photographic evidence that she is, indeed, a nympho who goes after married men. The only hitch is that Chandler is single, so Haggerty needs to hand off Gladys to him for a sham marriage for the duration of his assignment. Ridiculous? Sure.
At the time of the film’s release, one of its biggest draws was its leading man, Van Johnson. His appeal mystifies me. There’s nothing wrong with him, but I find his blandness overwhelming.
It’s not that I don’t like movies he’s been in — Thirty Seconds Over Tokyo (1944), in which he plays a heroic bomber pilot, was one of my favorite World War II movies made during the war — but I’d never go out of my way to see a movie just because he was in it, which makes me different from approximately every single woman living in America in the 1940s. I mean, check out that poster above. “Van! … Van! … Van!” What?
Intellectually, I can understand his appeal for the distaff post-war zeitgeist. The metal plate in his head may have kept him out of the war, but he was in enough war movies to give the impression of a returning hero. And unlike the haunted, shell-shocked, sweaty protagonists of countless noirs, Johnson projects nothing but good-natured cheer. He’s the young man you want your daughter to marry, or the even-tempered buddy you introduce to your sister.
The main selling point of Easy to Wed for me was Esther Williams. There are none of her signature water ballet numbers, but she does spend a lot of time in the water. (Her first kiss with Johnson even takes place underwater.) She is beautiful and sexy, and emerges from the water many times in the picture, sleek and dripping, her makeup still perfect. But she’s beautiful on land, too, and looks great in Technicolor, whether she’s playing a board game by the fire or fully decked-out, singing and dancing in one of the film’s several passable musical numbers.
Besides Williams, the only thing I really liked about Easy to Wed was the crazily outfitted Ethel Smith, who performs a wild musical number at the organ. It’s a scene that borders on the surreal, and I loved it.
The Postman Always Rings Twice (1946)
Directed by Tay Garnett
Tay Garnett’s The Postman Always Rings Twice, based on the 1934 novel by James M. Cain, opens on a lonely stretch of highway outside of Los Angeles, with a shot of a sign hanging outside a gas station that says “Man Wanted.” We’ll soon learn that the sign has a double meaning.
Itinerant drifter Frank Chambers (John Garfield) is hitchhiking from San Francisco, and has thumbed a ride with a nattily dressed man (Leon Ames) whom we’ll soon learn is the local district attorney. Nick Smith (Cecil Kellaway), the owner of the gas station/lunch counter, runs out and greets Frank, assuming he has come about the job.
It isn’t long before Frank meets Nick’s wife, Cora, (Lana Turner), in one of the best introductions of a sexpot in ’40s cinema. As he’s eating at Nick’s lunch counter, a tube of lipstick rolls across the floor, the camera focuses on it, then pans back along the floor until it comes to rest on Turner’s legs. Cut to Garfield, his breath quickening, then to a full shot of Turner, in a skimpy white two-piece playsuit that would still turn heads today (although her turban might stand out as being a little odd).
As soon as Cora appears, we know Frank will take the job working for Nick just to be close to her. In the book, Nick is a Greek, and described in detail as a physically repulsive character. In the film, he’s just a harmless old fuddy-duddy. Things play out the same, however. Cora leaves a “Dear Nick” letter and she and Frank run off together, but life on the open road, hitchhiking with a delighted-looking Frank, who has two suitcases under his arm, doesn’t agree with Cora or her white blouse, or her white peekaboo toe pumps.
So they return before Nick comes home and finds the note, and pick up again with their unhappy triangle. One murder attempt designed to look like an accident goes wrong, and after Nick announces that he is selling the business and taking Cora with him, Frank and Cora devise a simpler plan to just get Nick drunk and push him off a cliff in his car.
Technically The Postman Always Rings Twice is a film noir, but it occasionally borders on farce, especially after the murder, and is filmed in a professional and well-lighted but ultimately flat style. Too much of the film’s running time is taken up by courtroom machinations and the gamesmanship between Arthur Keats (Hume Cronyn), Frank and Cora’s lawyer, and district attorney Kyle Sackett (Ames). It’s all well-done and entertaining, but in a light and breezy way. There’s the threat of execution in the gas chamber for our two protagonists, but there’s no sense of impending doom during the courtroom proceedings, and with the focus on Ames and Cronyn, it borders on comedy. Things pick up in the noir department towards the end of the picture, but it takes too long to get there, and is undercut by a ridiculous, moralizing denouement. In some editions, Cain’s novel is barely more than 100 pages long, but this film is bloated and overlong at 113 minutes. More minutes in the film than there are pages in the original novel? There oughta be a law.
MGM wasn’t known for this kind of picture. In general, they didn’t even do crime pictures or thrillers. After the runaway success of Billy Wilder’s Double Indemnity in 1944, however, every big studio released at least one similar picture in an attempt to cash in on the craze, with all the attendant love triangles, murders, and doomed protagonists. What better choice for MGM than another novel by Cain? Especially the one most similar in its basic plot? Cain’s 1941 novel Mildred Pierce had already been done, and with a murder plot that was never in the novel, which was more of a straight kitchen sink drama. His 1937 novel Serenade was too weird. It featured a love triangle, but between a spicy Mexican prostitute, her opera-singing boyfriend who loses his voice when he’s tempted by homosexual desires, and the orchestra conductor whose magnetism threatens to draw him into a gay tryst. (Eventually Serenade was made into a film in 1956 starring tenor Mario Lanza and directed by Anthony Mann, but the gay theme was jettisoned.) And his 1942 novel Love’s Lovely Counterfeit, about a town full of gangsters and crooked politicians, seems as though it would have been a more appropriate vehicle for James Cagney or George Raft 10 or 15 years earlier.
So The Postman Always Rings Twice was a natural choice for MGM, a powerhouse of a studio that churned out high-quality product week in, week out. The film works as well as it does because of the presence of Lana Turner, who in 1946 may have been the sexiest woman in Hollywood. John Garfield turns in a credible performance, but he and Turner never quite click. So much of the film is spent setting up and knocking down plot points that their relationship seems almost like an afterthought.
A better adaptation of Cain’s novel is an unauthorized one, Luchino Visconti’s Ossessione (1943). (Cain’s publishers sued for copyright infringement, and kept the film off American movie screens until 1976.) Both the grimy working class milieu and desperate, sweaty love affair are better handled in Visconti’s film. The American version is just too sterile.