A review of Portrait of Jennie and films of love found and lost in the City
Is it every lonely, searching urban man’s fantasy, on turning some city street corner, to encounter, at long last, that mysterious beauty that has ever haunted his forlorn dreams? In Eben Adam’s (Joseph Cotton) case it is not a corner, but a snowy slope in New York’s Central Park; not a woman, but a fetching and friendly girl; and not a “real” encounter, but a fantasy even his dreams have not fully conjured. Adams comes upon Jennie Appleton (Jennifer Jones)—or she comes upon him?—when he is a dispirited and impoverished painter in Depression-bleaked New York City of 1934. Portrait of Jennie (1948) is the stuff of which cinematic epiphanic encounters are made (and maybe the occasional real encounter, too). This is Jennifer Jones at her ingénue best, tantalizingly poised between precocious girl and ripe womanhood, but at all stages in full cognizance of her desires and, more auspiciously, her fate. It is Jennie that provides the muse—and more— the love that has long eluded Eben. Yet, as is soon revealed, she is from another time, twenty-four years earlier in 1910; she is a phantom that his desire and need for her makes more “real” at each encounter in which she matures toward a woman who seems to need to love him in equal return. It is a possession that harkens Murnau’sSunrise in 1927.
Last night I watched loaded the DVD player again and watched Portrait of Jennie again. I am a moth to its flame. I know I have had a thing for Jennifer Jones since she first played Carrie Meeber. But I also know that I have a thing for the City, too; and this is a City movie.
Were it not for William Deiterle’s direction and (perhaps even more) Joseph Aughust’s atmospheric cinematography* of the city, Portrait of Jennie might have been remembered only as a tear-jerker romance novel put on screen. But the often ethereal visuals are complimented by a script gleaned from Robert Nathan’s novel that is laced with existential ponderings. A sketch of Jennie, and then her portrait, launch Eben’s renown but, as it happens, as prefigured in a landscape he painted earlier of a lighthouse off Cape Cod, Jennie has a divergent destiny. We know early on the foreboding what that picture represents, but we have to pull for the girl who ends up in a convent after her acrobat parents perish in a fall, and a struggling artist who has to tip-toe by his landlady’s door. And then there is that haunting portrait of Jennie. It is Nature, not the City that intervenes in this urban-spawned love affair. But then, eventually Nature always intervenes. The City, wintry, mysterious and melancholy in its black and whitechiaroscuro, seems an indifferent, primal universe for this misbegotten Adam and Eve.
Around Every Corner
But there is always another love story waiting in the wings, because the City randomly juxtaposes a cast of characters that comprise a rich and varied dramatis personae for potential romantic/sexual encounters.
Big cities have long been a magnet for the romantic ambitions small-towner, the Carrie Meeber (Carrie), or scheming Eve Harrington (Anne Baxter) in All About Eve,** or the Joe Buck (Midnight Cowboy), seeking encounters for ulterior purposes that end badly or with departure.
Sometimes city women have proved more formidable than the City itself. Take Phyllis Dietrichson (Barbara Stanwyck) in Double Indemnity (1944), the classic film noir femme fatale. Beautiful and conniving, she met her husband when she was nursing his late (perhaps by her hand) wife. She gets insurance salesman Walter Neff (Fred MacMurray) to write a $50 thousand policy on her husband and then kill him. It would have been perfect crime except for the dogged curiosity of insurance claims investigator Barton Keyes (Edward G. Robinson). Or there is ratings-obsessed television programmer Diana Christensen (Faye Dunaway) in Network(1976). Although the film is best known for Howard Beal’s (Peter Finch) madness and his ranting “I’m mad as hell and I’m not going to take this anymore!” its less satirical side relates how Diana will go to any length to advance her career. A ruthless people-user, she seduces her boss, Max Schumacher (William Holden), but in a “love” scene in which at the height of her sexual passion utters the name of a program she is promoting. He returns to his wife and to lamenting the surrendering of journalistic integrity to what screenwriter Paddy Chayefsky anticipated as the “infotainment” and “reality television” that dominates the contemporary battles for ratings.
Female roles were not always what social conservatives wanted to see promoted on the screen: ambitious, pushy and sometimes morally-compromised women who were anything but subservient to men. In Front Page Woman Ellen Garfield (Bette Davis) refuses to marry star reporter Curt Devlin (George Brent) until he admits that she is just as good a reporter as he is; in His Girl Friday (1940) reporter Hildy Johnson (Rosalind Russell) enjoys tormenting her ex-husband Chicago newspaper editor Walter Burns (Cary Grant); in Meet John Doe (1941) a reporter played by Barbara Stanwyck plays fast and loose with journalistic ethics and people’s lives in order to increase circulation and secure her job. These are not Harlequin romances.
Such blatant self-interest and exploitation might be expected in a Darwinian world run by men, but when women are placed in the equation such roles, in the “reel” or real world, seem out of place with prevailing notions of the more sensitive and nurturing traits of women. It is also possible that such behaviors may have more to do with power than with gender. The Cinema has been kinder to the “average” working girl in the City, perhaps because she is more likely to be the dreamer in the audience, but less cynically, because she is more often less the victim of her own ambitions rather than those of someone else, usually a male.
Both male and female lower-level workers are exploited in The Apartment (1960), which opens with a series of New York skyline views and establishing shots of office buildings and of a huge expanse of rows of desks. The cubicle had not been invented as of this date, so legions of clerical workers labored over bulky calculators and typewriters in full view of one another and their supervisors in surrounding offices with window views. C.C. Baxter (Jack Lemmon) is one of the wage slaves at these desks. He makes less than three figures each week, but it is enough to rent an apartment, which he only occasionally gets to use because his bosses have found out that he is a bachelor with a flat that is ideal for their extra-marital trysts. Baxter doesn’t even get to go there when he is sick, having surrendered his key to one boss or another because he would not want to offend them.
Baxter would like to ask out the comely elevator operator, Miss Kubilik (Shirley Maclaine), who he is unaware is being led to his own apartment to conduct an affair with Baxter’s boss, Mr. Sheldrake (Fred MacMurray). Sheldrake has given her the usual promises about leaving his wife, and like Baxter, she willingly accepts the exploitation by her superior, although for love rather than promotion. The Apartment was made not only before the desktop computer made its way into office work, but also before “sexual harassment” made its way into the lexicon of office workplace manners and mores. Miss Kubilik nearly succeeds in an attempted suicide but survives to share the apartment and newfound love with Baxter.
Nine to Five (1980) could be subtitled “Miss Kubilik’s revenge,” albeit two decades—and one Women’s Revolution—later. A fantasy-revenge-comedy in which three San Francisco women office mates played by Lili Tomlin, Jane Fonda and Dolly Parton, who have all been abused or harassed by their boss, Franklin Hart (Dabney Coleman), a “sexist, egotistical, lying, hypocritical bigot.” But the plot, which involves the women kidnapping their boss and making him see the errors of despicable ways, is too far-fetched to provide even vicarious revenge for victimized women viewers.
Slightly closer to reality is arrogant, abusive, self-indulgent corporate boss Kathleen Parker (Sigourney Weaver), who attempts to steal an idea from her Working Girl (1988) Tess McGill (Melanie Griffith). Tess has ambitions to be more than a working girl, a secretary, and when given the opportunity to work for Parker submits some of her ideas to her boss. When Parker breaks her leg skiing Tess discovers that her boss intends to claim authorship of her best idea. Rather than being a “big sister” Parker is a larcenous witch. It is not about sisterhood, it is about power and profit. Tess gets her revenge and success, including corporate arbitrager Jack Trainer (Harrison Ford) in the bargain, by outsmarting Parker, but she has to become a little like her nemesis to achieve it.
As city women continue to acquire economic power and social independence this theme is likely to continue to receive the dramatic attention that it provokes, not only in conflicts and tensions between women and men, but between woman and woman. Most recently, this is explored in the semi–biographical The Devil Wears Prada (2008) in which women’s magazine editor, Miranda Priestly (Meryl Streep) runs her corporate of women consisting mostly with a “satanic” cynicism and ruthlessness.
Free and Unmarried
The City, with is social heterogeneity, its vastness, and its anonymity, has long been a locus for self re-invention. Both style and life-style, sometimes melding into a unity, are prominent features if the presentation of self in an urban world in which the vast majority of fellow urbanites are strangers. For women, more traditionally bound to limited social roles, the City has been, as asserted above, an engine of liberation. For some women it has been a place to give rein to the spirit, to eccentricity, and to search for, or escape from, the essential self.
Holly Golightly (Audrey Hepburn), who likes to grab a Danish and have Breakfast at Tiffany’s(1961) is perhaps the quintessential urban free-spirited woman. She follows her own muse, whether it is engaging in pranks, skipping out on the rent or out-maneuvering some groping date she has “taken” for a dinner or bauble. She is, of course, un-moored from meaningful relationships, as they would certainly limit the freedom of her spirit.
It is in some sense a “boy meets girl” movie, albeit the first real meeting takes place as Holly is escaping from one of her own parties and ends up in city newcomer, and would-be writer, Paul Varjak’s (George Peppard) next-door apartment. So their friendship begins, but Holly is incapable of much attachment. Even her cat is names “Cat.” Paul is being kept by an older woman, and she keeps herself by being an escort, throwing all-night parties, and delivering “weather reports” to a mobster in prison.
But there is an undercurrent of sadness in Holly Golightly, not so much out of the dissoluteness of her life-style, as from a troubled past that brought her to it. Henry Mancini’s score and award winning “Moon River” has a mournful feel to it, but the score, played over the playfulness of the two budding lovers as they enjoy the city’s simple entertainments, promises something more substantial in the way of a relationship.
Although it is a romantic comedy there is the sense that Holly could easily end up in maimed or killed by an outraged suitor, or in a mental institution, and Paul could spend his days as a cute plaything for a rich woman. They end up together, but one wonder what two beautiful social leaches can do to survive. Like I said, these are not Harlequin romances.
Diane Keaton’s Annie Hall (1976) is a ditsy Midwestern girl who is a lighter free spirit than Holly Golightly. But she is the creation of the writer, directors and co-star of the film that bears her name. Alvy Singer is Woody Allen and vice-versa: neurotic, obsessed with sex and panicked by it, self-deprecating, pessimistic, and a satirical comedian. A neurotic woman who wears baggy pants, vests, ties and floppy men’s hats might seem like the perfect match. However, neither of them can handle much commitment; even moving in together involves compromises they seem to take reluctantly. Annie feels that Alvy thinks she is not intelligent enough for him; he is threatened by her being invited to Los Angeles by a record producer and liking the West Coast. Annie Hall is an immigrant to the big city, but she seems paradoxically more adaptable to it than native New York Alvy, cannot abide an unfamiliar environment. The relationship eventually fades for both of them, seemingly because they can’t figure out a compelling reason to remain together.
The breakup in An Unmarried Woman (1978) is not so amicable. Erica’s (Jill Clayburgh) husband, Martin (Michael Murphy) tearfully asks her for a divorce in the middle of a lower Manhattan street so he can marry a younger woman. While this is hardly an unusual occurrence in a big city, it is perhaps less devastating than in might be in a small town or rural area. Erica does rely upon traditional sources of support, particularly female friends, to see her through the rejection and readjustment, but the urban environment provides resources of employment and associations, as well as cushion of anonymity, that allow for her to choose to remain “unmarried.”
Unmarried status is rejected by Isabella (Amy Irving) in Crossing Delancey (1988), but apparently without much more compulsion than to fulfill the wishes of her grandmother and her matchmaker friend that she find a nice Jewish man to marry. Isabella works in an uptown New York bookstore where she gets to interact with a variety of interesting literati.” “Izzy” Grossman is city woman with a foot in the ethnic “village” world of downtown. She has a disappointing encounter with an egotistical gentile writer, but that doesn’t alone seem a sufficient reason for her to begin seeing Sam (Peter Reigert), a nice Jewish man who has a pickle shop, much less marrying him. In the end, her ethnic heritage, more than Sam, seems to win her over and she crosses Delancey Street.
Director Joan Micklin Silver also directed Hester Street (1975), but in that film her heroine is an immigrant to lower Manhattan from a Russia in the late 1890s who rejects her husband for his avoidance of her and his philandering, and marries a traditional man who studies Jewish scripture. But she also becomes a “city woman” in her own right. Both films are about women in the city making choices about their lifestyle. It may be less important which choices filmmakers “choose” for them than that the City is portrayed as a place where women have the power to make such choices.
Immigrants to the American city often brought their own communities with them establishing, as we have discussed in earlier chapters, their ethnic enclaves and, for a time at least, retaining their culture and marrying their “own kind” (Hester Street, Crosssing Delancey, Moonstruck). But these communities frequently edged up against other ethnic enclaves, communities of other races, and the general community, creating contacts and associations, as well as romantic entanglements across racial and ethnic lines (Jungle Fever, A Patch of Blue, West Side Story). These cultural differences, the resistance of older generations, religious conflicts, not to discount the general misogynistic resistance in American culture to interethnic and interracial blending,*** offer a rich array of dramatic scenarios.
The City also acted as matchmaker for needy, lonely, and wounded people seeking one another out for safety, comfort, and love, in the city that can be harsh and unforgiving to those without friends, families and connections. But there are less “instrumental” motives in the relationship that the City engenders between the lonely divorcee lawyer from the Midwest, Jerry Ryan (Robert Mitchum), and heading-over-the-hill Jewish hypochondriac dance instructor Gittel Mosca (Shirley MacLaine) in Two for the Seesaw (1962). When the city blurs the old rules of tradition and religion as the prime matchmakers the reel and real dramatic possibilities abound. In this film, true to its title, Jerry and Gittel, while meeting certain needs in one another, do not find romantic fulfillment easily achieved.
Love and irony are an equally popular theme, especially as the contemporary American city has become the denizen of “young professionals” of both sexes with separate and sometimes competing personal goals and other “baggage” that complicate romantic interests. The gamut ranges from romantic comedies such as Pillow Talk (1959), one of several predictable plots in which Rock Hudson and Doris Day squabble and make up; The 7-Year Itch (1955) and Boys Night Out (1962) in which older men nurse adulterous urges toward beautiful young women (Marilyn Monroe and Kim Novak, respectively); to young couples (played by Robert Redford and Jane Fonda) adjusting to urban as well as married life by going Barefoot in the Park (1971), or a conservative writer (Redford, again) and a pinkish political activist (Barbra Streisand) failing to adjust in The Way We Were (1973); to those round and round relationships from friendship to love as When Harry (Billy Crystal) Met Sally (Meg Ryan), 1989; or when an urban icon such as the Empire State Building serves as meeting place for a mournful Seattle widower (Tom Hanks), a romantic dreamer in New York (Meg Ryan, again), as well as an homage to an earlier “classic” romantic city movie (Sleepless in Seattle, 1993, and An Affair to Remember, 1957, respectively).
Whether the City plays Cupid or “adulterous” co-respondent in these dramas, or whether it is active or passive in its “role,” it is indisputable that these stories could be as interesting, if they could plausibly exist at all, were it not for their taking place in the City. Ya gotta wonder, what’s waiting around that next corner (maybe just a movie theater playing an urban love story).
© 2012, James A. Clapp (UrbisMedia Ltd. Pub. 8.18.2012)
* August was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Cinematography posthumously for his shooting in Boston and (mostly) New York. He shot many of the scenes through a canvas, creating scenes that looked like actual paintings. August, who used many lenses from silent film days died shortly after completing the film.
** 1950, 20th Century Fox. The picture won six academy awards. It may take something as thin on plot and upbeat as a musical to counter the theme of theme of the ruthless understudy. In 42nd Street (1933) small town girl Peggy Sawyer (Ruby Keeler) is actually the heroine, saving the Broadway show from having to close because of an injury to its star.
*** This resistance, with is consequent effects upon American films for many years, is not restricted to American culture. See, for example a discussion of it Asian movies in “Love With a Proper Gweilo,” in Luk, Thomas Y.T. and James P. Rice, Eds., Before and After Suzie: Hong Kong in Western Film and Literature, (Hong Kong: The Chinese University of Hong Kong, 2002), Pp. 31-45