A long-forgotten gem, “Portrait of Jennie” is probably one of the most fascinating and unusual NYC films ever made, paying a haunting and elegiac tribute the great metropolis. While the idea of “New York becoming one of the characters” is often posited, it’s seldom even close to being as true as it is with this 1948 romantic drama. The city seems to have an almost supernatural presence, transcending time as it guides the fates of different characters from different eras.
The main protagonist is an impoverished painter named Eben Adams (Joseph Cotten) who meets a mysterious fey girl named Jennie (Jennifer Jones) in the park. Over the course of several weeks, the schoolgirl grows into a comely woman, and it becomes apparent that she is some sort of apparition from a different time, whose ethereal spirit inspires Eben to become the great artist he was meant to be.
Using real-life NYC locations, the film is grounded with a sense of realism, but many parts are shot in a whimsically artistic way, which transports us to a fantasy world that seems to only exist in the dreams of a creative soul. Most of the on-location shooting took place in Central Park with many of the establishing shots filmed with a fabric overlay to give it a painting-like quality. And with the majority of the story taking place in the dead of winter, much of the surroundings are starkly empty, creating an even more otherworldly atmosphere.
When it came to identifying the locations of this film, there weren’t many challenges involved, as almost all of them featured obvious landmarks. For example, in the first two establishing shots above, both had easily identifiable skyscrapers in them and it just became a matter of figuring out the proper vantage point so I could match the angles in the film.
It might be noted that that initial shot of Lower Manhattan which almost looks like a textured painting is a variation of what was known as pastelography — a technique perfected by director Eric Von Stroheim and cinematographer Ben Reynolds during the silent days. While Stroheim was tight-lipped at the time as to how he achieved this gauze effect, it was probably accomplished by using some sort of soft diffusion in front of the lens. However, I would guess that what they did for this film was simply superimpose a high-key image of a blank canvas on top of the normal footage.
As to the first shot featuring Joseph Cotten, it clearly took place in Central Park, and as I stated in the intro, the majority of the on-location footage for Portrait of Jennie was filmed there.
In order to figure out the exact spot, the standout clue was the large monument in the foreground. While I couldn’t read the name carved into the pedestal, the size and style of the sculpture looked like something that’d be at the park’s “Literary Walk.” Located at the southern section of the Mall, it’s named for all the statues of writers that were installed there during the 19th century.
After a little looking around, I was able to figure out that the statue was of Scottish poet Robert Burns (1759–1796), a pioneer of the Romantic movement, and widely regarded as the national poet of Scotland. He is probably best known for writing lyrics to an old Scottish folk song and adapting it to become the New Year’s Eve favorite, “Auld Lang Syne.”
Dedicated in 1880, the monument was created to be a counterpart to the bronze sculpture of Sir Walter Scott, which was unveiled eight years prior. Both statues were sculpted by the same artist, John Steell, who had produced numerous public and private art commissions in Scotland and the United States. When the Burns sculpture was unveiled on October 3, 1880, the ceremony was attended by over 5,000 people, many of whom were in full Highland dress.
By 1940, the statue’s pedestal had become unstable and had to be reconstructed. However, the pedestal that appears in this 1948 film is different from what’s there today, as it was rebuilt again in 1993 (at which time the statue’s marred surface was restored and a missing quill from Burns’ hand was replicated and installed).
I’m curious if when these later updates were made, whether the statue’s position had been shifted, because its relation to the buildings in the background seemed a little off when I took the modern picture in the spring of 2021. I just couldn’t get them to line up properly.
Regardless, I still ended up getting fairly close to where Joseph Cotten once sauntered by.
This location was easy to find since the Dairy, the historic wood and granite structure in the south end of Central Park, is a very distinct landmark.
Completed in 1871, the Dairy was designed by Calvert Vaux to resemble a Victorian country cottage and is located in the park near 65th Street, in an area that used to be known as the Children’s District. The Dairy is currently used as a visitor center and gift shop, but it originally served as a refreshment center where kids could get fresh milk — a commodity that wasn’t readily available in the late 19th century.
The building’s brightly painted arched porch with built-in benches was specifically designed to catch the cool breezes from the nearby pond in the summer and retain the warmth from the sun in the winter. This provided an especially relaxing setting for visitors to enjoy their refreshments as they had views of the rolling lawn out front where the children would often play (or in the case of this film, build snowmen).
This is yet another Central Park location, and using the orientation of the nearby buildings along 59th Street I was able to determine that the scene took place on the Pond.
When the park first opened, the Lake to the north was the only skating venue available, but as construction continued, other bodies of water such as the Conservatory Water and the Pond became popular skating areas as well. Of course these days, for safety reasons, any ice skating in Central Park is limited to either the Lasker or Wollman Rink
What’s interesting about this scene is its use of both real locations and re-creations done on a soundstage using a rear-projection system. The reason filmmakers tend to prefer a studio setting opposed to the real deal is because they can have better control of the quality of the scene, especially when it comes to recording dialogue. Also, with a contained soundstage, you don’t have to worry about the harsh elements of the outdoors, such as rain, wind or cold temperatures.
Generally speaking, whenever a filmmaker shoots a scene at a studio, the intention is to make it look as realistic as possible (as if it was actually shot on location). However, when it came to Portrait of Jennie, director William Dieterle didn’t seem to be too concerned with that. In fact, his use of rear-projection was undoubtedly done by deliberate design, in order to heighten the unworldly quality of the story.
The studio shots, filmed at RKO’s newly-constructed New York studios at 105 E 106th Street, are almost all extreme close-ups with erratic framing, and the characters keep dipping in and out of focus.
Interestingly, even several of the on-location shots were done in a way to make them appear a bit unnatural, using low angles and shooting right into the sun, creating extraordinary lighting effects. By making both the studio and location footage look strange and unusual, they mix together seamlessly.
Time Square Theater
What’s great about this Times Square location is that the story surrounding it in the film is (at least partially) historically accurate. The Rialto Theatre, which appears in the single on-location shot from this scene, was an old movie palace situated on the northwest corner of Seventh Avenue and W 42nd Street. And just like how it was described in the film, the movie theater occupied the former site of Hammerstein’s Victoria Theatre.
The Victoria was a prominent vaudevillian playhouse during the turn of the last century, created by theatre mogul Oscar Hammerstein. The grand building housed two indoor performance spaces on the street level and one semi-outdoor space on top called the Paradise Roof Garden, shared by the adjoining Belasco Theatre.
While the Victoria started as a legitimate theatre, it was changed over to vaudeville in 1904 by Hammerstein’s son, Willie. This change proved to be tremendously profitable, and Hammerstein’s became known as one of the city’s top vaudeville theaters, showcasing such high profile acts as the Three Keatons (featuring a young Buster Keaton).
In 1915, after Hammerstein sold the building to Samuel Roxy Rothafel, the name was changed to the Rialto and the inside was completely gutted and converted to a 1,960-seat movie theater. However, the Rialto that appears in this film is actually the second (and smaller) version to be on that site — the original was demolished in April of 1935, just days after premiering the horror movie, The Werewolf of London. Amazingly, its Art Deco replacement was constructed in a matter of months, opening its doors on Christmas of the same year.
By the 1970s, the theatre had fallen onto hard times and became an adult movie house. Then, in 1980, it briefly switched to the legitimate theater, before eventually becoming a multiplex, which lasted from 1987 to 1990. The building also contained a TV studio, where daytime talk shows, such as Geraldo and the Montel Williams Show, taped their programs.
The building was eventually torn down in 1998 and replaced with a high-rise office skyscraper.
A Loose Dog
Like most of the scenes from this film, the locations were pretty easy to identify, as Central Park’s Mall is quite iconic. However, the one part that temporarily stumped me was the isolated shot of the dog running past a rock (second image above).
After studying the area near the Mall and Bethesda Fountain, I became pretty certain that this insert shot of the dog was filmed at a different location in the park. Fortunately, I could make out several buildings in the background, and was eventually able to match them up with what’s on Fifth Avenue between E 76th and E 77th Streets.
Once I had figured out the general area of where this bit was filmed, it just came down to finding that large rock the dog ran past.
So, I went to the area of the park just northeast of the Mall and began my search for that rock, using the Fifth Avenue buildings as a guide, However, I had a little trouble getting my bearings at first. Thinking back, I must’ve looked a bit strange to the Sunday morning strollers as I kept stepping back and forth, intermediately staring down at my phone and up at the nearby buildings.
After circling around for about 15 minutes, I finally ended up in front of the Loeb Boathouse, located on the east side of the Lake. I quickly zeroed in on an outcropping of Manhattan Schist near the entrance which looked like a possible candidate. Even though none of the neighboring trees matched with what was in the film, the orientation of the Fifth Ave buildings seemed correct, and I figured most of the trees from 1948 would now be gone (especially if any landscaping work had been done over the years).
However, as I studied the exposed rock, I couldn’t find any marks or formations that seemed to match up with the film. Frustrated, I took a few quick pics and headed home. Once there, I texted my research partner, Blakeslee, and asked him his opinion of my rock candidate. Within minutes, he was able to find several curves in the rock outside the boathouse which matched the rock in the film. I was blown away that I was at the right location all along, but just couldn’t see it.
Turns out, you really have to be standing at the exact spot to get the proper effect. Just a couple feet to the left or right, and the rock’s shape starts to change, where the tiny rims and pockets along the surface take on new forms.
Of course, I knew the rest of this scene took place at the north end of the Mall, but since the benches have since been replaced and many of the trees are now gone, it was hard to get the exact spot. The only thing that helped me get to the general vicinity were the prominent dual-towered residential buildings in the background —The Majestic and the San Remo — both located along Central Park West.
In sharp contrast to the earlier ice skating scene, this scene at the Mall was shot completely on location (without any studio-filmed inserts) and has a much more straightforward quality to it. There’s almost a documentary approach to the scene, relying mostly on medium two-shots and avoiding any unusual framing or lighting effects.
This style reflects the contents of the scene, where Eben and Matthews discuss practical matters of the real world. This difference in style undoubtedly was a conscious effort by director William Dieterle to distinguish it from the scenes with Jennie which seem to take place somewhere outside of conventional reality.
Figuring out this location was similar to what I went through to figure out that earlier insert shot of the dog running. The skyscrapers in the background gave me a general idea of where this scene took place, and I hoped the large Manhattan schist outcrop would help me find the exact spot used.
After searching the area, I concluded the outcrop seen in the film was located at the southern end of what is now known as “Frisbee Hill” (although in 1948, it was still part of Sheep Meadow). However, when I went there in person, once again, the rock formation didn’t seem to match the film. And once again, when I showed pictures of the outcrops to Blakeslee, he was able to match some patterns along the rock’s surface.
However, to be fair, the main reason I had trouble matching up the rock is because a large pine tree now stands where there used to be open lawn, essentially blocking any views from the correct angle. But if you look closely in the first image above, you can see a few matching bumps and swirls peeking through the tree.
Looking For Jennie
With the 59th Street Bridge appearing in the far background, I deduced that this quick scene took place somewhere along the East River, probably about 20-30 blocks south of the bridge.
To help me home in on a more precise spot, I studied the shoreline that appeared across the river when the camera panned to the right, hoping to find some identifiable structure. I soon focused on a spire which appeared on the left side of the frame, and concluded it belonged to St. Mary Catholic Church in Long Island City, Queens.
From that, I determined that Eben was walking at or near East 36th Street along the East River.
Sadly, the church can no longer be seen from Manhattan at 36th Street, as several behemoth skyscrapers have since been erected in Long Island City, blocking the view. Incredibly, the church used to be one of the most prominent structures in that area as little back as 2016, but now it’s dwarfed by the slew of luxury apartment buildings that have been sprouting up at a rapid pace.
Of all the filming locations for Jennie, this one has gotten the most contemporary notice, probably because the Cloisters is such a unique place.
Perched atop Upper Manhattan’s steep, wooded hills in Fort Tryon Park, what looks like a medieval monastery transported stone by stone from Europe is really a fairly modern creation. Built in the 1930s, the Cloisters museum and gardens was the brainchild of business magnate and philanthropist, John D. Rockefeller. It was created as a place to informally display a collection of medieval European artworks he bought from George Grey Barnard, an American sculptor and avid art collector.
A few years after Rockefeller purchased the land in the park in 1930, the beautiful colonnaded complex with a soaring tower was built for the Metropolitan Museum of Art at a cost of over $2.5 million. While most of the limestone/granite structure was new, designer Charles Collens also incorporated architectural elements taken from four medieval French abbeys, dating back to the 12th century.
Once completed in 1938, the museum was furnished with thousands of artifacts, including stone and wood sculptures, tapestries, altarpieces, illuminated manuscripts and panel paintings.
In addition to the displayed artwork, one of the highlights of the museum is a set of enclosed gardens, each one filled with herbs and flowers that were common in the Middle Ages.
The largest garden is on the museum’s main level and is surrounded by the Cuxa cloisters, which originated from the Benedictine Abbey of Sant Miquel de Cuixà in northeast Spain. You can see these cloisters in this film in a later scene with screen legend, Lillian Gish. And they were most recently featured in Steven Spielberg’s 2021 remake of West Side Story, a production which I had the good fortune to work on for a couple days.
Exploring the City
Both of these locations were easy to identify, and like most the locations used in this film, they have hardly changed from when they were photographed in 1947. In fact, except for the Rialto in Times Square, all the locations have a timeless quality to them, surely chosen by the filmmakers to reflect Jennie Appleton’s own timelessness. And in a city that is constantly changing (more so now than ever), it’s amazing that all the real life locations used in this film are more or less the same today, with very few hints of the modern world.
There apparently was at least one other perennial location used in this sequence (that consequently got cut) at Riverside Park around W 119th Street. All that exists from this scene is a promotional photo and a brief clip in the theatrical trailer. In the photo, you can see several extant buildings in the background, the most prominent one being an apartment house at 425 Riverside Drive.
Even though the establishing shots from this sequence were filmed on location, the rest of it was filmed on soundstages at RKO-Pathé Studios, which in 1945, took over the former Manhattan Odd Fellows Temple at 105 E 106th Street, as well as two smaller neighboring buildings. In addition to soundstages, the New York RKO-Pathé Studio also had offices, storage rooms, and film laboratories, making it a completely self-contained film-production facility.
Unlike most old New York studios, the ten-story Romanesque building in East Harlem is still standing today and operates as an independent production house. You can read more about the facility in my House of Strangers article.
This scene’s location would’ve been difficult to find if it hadn’t been heavily publicized —both then and now— as taking place at Graves Light off the coast of Boston. If fact, it was said that one of the reasons the budget for Jennie was so high is because producer David O. Selznick insisted that they film on location in New England, and he made a point to let the media know about it. (This film was reportedly even more expensive than Selznick’s epic drama, Gone with the Wind)
In the spring of 1947, the movie crew landed nearly 1,000 pounds of equipment near Graves lighthouse in the Boston Harbor for filming of this climactic lighting storm sequence. The dark, isolated signal tower which sits upon a treacherous rock ledge about ten miles east of Boston is one of Massachusetts’ tallest lighthouses, measuring 113 feet tall, and was the perfect setting for the dramatic ending to this film.
It’s reported the crew spent ten days filming in New England, under many difficult conditions. However, when Selznick saw the footage back in Hollywood, he was unhappy with the results and was determined to make the sequence bigger and more thrilling. So, they pretty much scrapped everything they shot up at Boston, and redid the entire sequence on a giant set built at the studio.
The set, which included a large backdrop, tall, jagged rocks and a partial reproduction of Graves Light was around 80 feet tall. To re-create the tsunami-sized waves, the crew used huge “dump tanks” that could pour hundreds of gallons of water onto the two stars. In addition, they used giant fans and high-powered water hoses to create an indoor torrential storm.
For the wider shots, the filmmakers relied on miniatures, which ended up looking a little fake whenever one of the chunky tidal waves came crashing down, but it worked perfectly with the style of the film, selling the dreamlike atmosphere. And to make it even more surreal, this storm sequence was tinted green — a simple but impactful effect that dates back to the early days of silent films. (After watching the film for the first time, Blakeslee’s wife told me that her jaw dropped when the storm turned green.)
I believe one of the few images of the actual Boston Harbor that remained in the film was the wide shot of the lighthouse the next morning (which I used for the “before/after” image above). However,I’m unable to confirm whether it’s a completely authentic shot. Since Graves Light is private property (bought in 2013 for nearly one million dollars), you can’t visit it, and it’s hard to find a high-quality picture online that was taken at just the right angle. But I’d like to think that for all that time and money spent there, at least a few frames of the real Graves made it to the final cut.
Portrait of Jennie is certainly an odd film, and could be considered by some as an acquired taste, but you have to admire the sheer scope and creativity of what is basically a love story. Being able to add a fantasy element, without sacrificing the emotional connection between the two leads, is a fantastic achievement.
Cotten’s performance is engaging as always and Jones does a decent job of playing the titular character as she grows from a little schoolgirl to a mature young woman. In addition to the two main characters, Ethel Barrymore is absolutely magnificent as the “old maid” art dealer, Miss Spinney. Her relationship with Eben is both charming and heartbreaking, knowing that behind all her motherly kindness lies a heartfelt love for a man that she knows is pointless to express.
And the movie’s fondness of the art world is undeniably felt. While the heart of the story is a fantastical love story, the movie is bookended with images of the Metropolitan Museum of Art — emphasizing that everything that transpires in the story is leading towards the completion of Jennie’s portrait.
Naturally, with such importance laid upon a single painting, Selznick knew it needed to be a spellbinding piece of art, and hired noted artist Robert Brackman to do the honors. In order to get it just right, Jennifer Jones was required to spend fifteen sittings at Brackman’s studio in Noank, Connecticut. A series of actual-size photographs would be taken of Brackman’s work-in-progress, each to be used as the different stages of Eben’s painting in the story.
Once completed, the final portrait was kept in an air-conditioned vault in Hollywood until it was ready to be used in the film. (This painting was actually a second version done by Brackman, as the first version was considered too opulent for the story.)
After the film’s release, the painting remained in Selznick’s possession and was lovingly displayed at Tower Grove, his hillside home in Los Angeles, for the rest of his life.
As fascinating as this film is, 1948 audiences didn’t seem to appreciate what Dieter and Selznick were trying to accomplish, and Portrait of Jennie ended up being a box office and critical failure. It was actually part of string of failures for the once-powerful David O. Selznick, who had taken a personal and passionate interest in the film, willing to pump in extra money and delay its release to get it just right. I’m sure the fact he was having an affair with its star, Jennifer Jones, at the time had something to do with it. (The two would later marry in 1949.)
Nonetheless, despite its failure at the box office, according to his son Daniel, Portrait of Jennie still remained David O. Selznick’s favorite project of all time.
One thing is for sure, this is one of the earliest talking pictures to shoot a large portion of the action at real locations in New York, including extended dialogue scenes. Fortunately, because the filmmakers primarily chose locations that had a timeless quality to them, you can visit most of these places today, and almost feel like you’ve been transported to the early 1900s.
Who knows, perhaps you’ll even encounter a time-traveling Jennifer Jones in the dusky shadows.