Portrait of Jennie (1948)

A long-forgotten gem, “Portrait of Jennie” is probably one of the most fascinating (and least-seen) NYC films ever made. While the sentiment that “New York plays one of the characters” is often postulated, it’s seldom even close to being as true as it is with this 1948 drama. The city seems to have an almost supernatural presence, transcending time and guiding the fates of different characters from different eras. 

The main protagonist is an impoverished painter named Eben Adams (Joseph Cotten) who meets a fey little girl named Jennie (Jennifer Jones) in the park. Over the course of several weeks, it becomes apparent that she is some sort of apparition from a different time, but whose ethereal spirit inspires him to become the great artist he was meant to be.   

Using real-life NYC locations, the story is grounded with a sense of realism, but it’s shot in such a whimsically artistic way, that we’re transported 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 canvas overlay to give it a painting-like quality. And with the majority of the story taking place in the dead of winter, most of the surroundings are starkly empty, creating an even more dreamy atmosphere. 

 

Introduction

The film opens with several establishing shots of New York City, including the Chrysler Building in Midtown Manhattan.
A down-on-his-luck painter named Eben Adams roams the south end of the Mall in Central Park, passing a statue of Scottish poet Robert Burns.

 

Meeting Jennie

While walking through the Dairy Visitor Center in Central Park, Eben finds a small parcel on a bench.
He then realizes that it belongs to a girl who is playing in the snow.
The girl introduces herself as Jennie Appleton and walks with him through the Dairy Center, singing a tune from a bygone era.
Eben runs back to get Jennie’s parcel, but when he returns, he discovers that she has mysteriously disappeared.

 

Ice Skating

Days later, Eben goes to the frozen pond at the southend of Central Park in hopes he’ll run into Jennie again.
He slowly turns around, sensing that she is near.
Suddenly, like magic, Jennie appears on the ice, with the Pierre and the Sherry-Netherland towers looming in the background.
Eben is amazed on how much taller and older she has become in a matter of days.
He then promises Jennie that he’ll paint her portrait.

 

Time Square Theater

After Jennie disappears again, Eben tries to track down her parents, who she said performed at a theater on the northwest corner of Broadway and 42nd Street. But it turns out the theater was torn down years ago.

 

Central Park Mall

One of Eben’s art patrons, Mr. Matthews, walks his dog at the top of Bethesda Terrace in Central Park.
As the dog runs away, the geography jumps a little north to a large rock on the east side of the Central Park Boat House.
The action switches to the north end of the Mall where Matthews dashes west across the main path.
He retrieves his dog who has run to a troubled Eben sitting on a park bench.
The two men walk south on the path, as Eben tries to explain what’s troubling him. (Note the dual towers of the Majestic on the left side of the screen.)

 

Springtime

Finally, as spring arrives, sheep pass some rock outcroppings at the north end of Frisbee Hill in the park.

 

Looking For Jennie

Feeling worthless without Jennie, a dejected Eben walks along the East River near E 36th Street.

 

Convent

Knowing that Jennie used to go to St. Mary’s Convent, Eben travels there in hopes that she will appear again. He waits at what is really the Cloisters Museum in Manhattan’s Fort Tryon Park.
To his relief, Jennie arrives at the convent and the two of them eventually return to Eben’s studio where he is able to complete her portrait.

 

Exploring the City

Weeks later, Jennie has grown into a beautiful young woman, and she and Eben go on a romantic stroll, passing the south end of the 42nd Street Library.
They watch the sun rise from the Brooklyn Bridge, looking northeast towards the Manhattan Bridge.

 

Museum

Years later, a group of school girls gaze at the Portrait of Jennie on display at the Metropolitan Museum.

 

 

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