Monday, September 22, 2008


Turner Classic Movies had two old black and white undderrated movies on tonight, both of which were knockouts, for different reasons.

When I was twenty, I picked up a used paperback copy of the novel PORTRAIT OF JENNY, originally published in hardback in 1939. It was a romantic fantasy about an artist struggling to sruvive in Depression New York in the 1930s, almost the obvious stereotype of the starving artist living in a garret.

But as he says in the book, and in the narration to the movie, he wasn't feeling bad because he was hungry for food, as he puts it: "There is another kind of suffering for the artist which is worse than anything a winter,or poverty, can do;it is more like a winter of the mind..."

He goes on, and the writing is sometimes just ordinary, nothing special, though sometimes it is close to poetic. But it's the story that's captivating, at least it was to me, as much of a romantic then as I still am. Because the "Jenny" he ends up making the portrait of, is an apparition, but an appration of a real, once alive, young girl, who when he first meets her is little more than a child, but in each subsequent meeting, she has grown years older even though only days or weeks have passed.

The cover of the paperback, as you can see, looks like maybe they were planning on redoing the movie with Sophia Loren, but the 1949 movie I watched tonight starred Jennifer Jones as "Jenny" and Joseph Cotten as the artist. With Ethel Barrymore playing the "old maid" art dealer who recognizes Cotton's character's artistic potential, maybe because she has fallen in love with him from the distance of her years and that love generates a faith in his capacity to find some source of inspiration, which he does in this phantom that no one else experiences but him.

It's a fantasy, a parable of sorts, and a highly romantic metaphor for for the power of creativity to fill the hole loneliness makes, only in this story the metaphor seems to be a real woman.

I could never convince any of my friends to appreciate the book as much as I did. And no one I know includes the movie among their top favorites. In fact, I always felt the friends I tried to impress with the book or the movie, felt sorry for what they maybe perceived as a weak link in my own character, this endlessly romantic conception of love and even of the power of art. (I think I may have written about this flick once before on this blog, or had it on one of my many lists and don't remember anyone responding to it).

But tonight, when Robert Osborne, the white haired host of most of TCM evenings introduced PORTRAIT OF JENNY as one of his all time favorite movies, he added that in 1954 when a bunch of European film directors were asked to list their favorite Hollywood movies, Bunuel put PORTRAIT OF JENNY near the top of his list. That made me feel vindicated, though I'm sure it was more the surreal touches in the movie that impressed him, more than the romance, but who knows (the movie has a storm scene as it climax and when it occurs the black and white turns to green! starting with two bright green flashes of lightening, and Osborne explained that in theaters that were capable of doing it, the screen actually widened for the storm scene, an early experiment with wide screen filming).

There were other surreal effects, like scenes being introduced initially as though projected on a blank canvas, giving them a texture unlike any other movie scenes I've seen before or since, and the eerie music and repetitive ditty about not knowing where we came from or where we're going, and other touches I'm sure Bunuel loved. I loved it since I first saw it, as I did the story since I first read it, so I don't need vindication, but it's nice to share a love of this film with Osborne and Bunuel.

[I went back and read the first few chapters of the book again, after I wrote this, and realized it's a very spiritual book, and that the artist in it is Jewish, although he doesn't say it outright, but he has a cabdriver friend, Gus, who in the movie is Irish, or "Oirish" as we say of actors playing that stereotype broadly, and there's a whole subplot with a mural painted in an Irish bar in exchange for free meals and in the movie the mural's all about the Irish hero, to most, Michael Collins, whereas in the book the cabdriver's obviously Jewish, and the mural is a picnic scene and the bar owner possibly Jewish himself and the cabbie raises questions about why his and the artist's people were "chosen" and when asked about Jesus points out he was a Jew too, etc., and in fact the theme of the book seems to be as much about belief in God and the question of what God wants of us, and for us, as it is about the power of art and love, in fact, those are the vehicles through which those questions are raised and possibly answered.]

The movie that played after it (like an old double feature) was STARS IN MY CROWN, a Western unlike any I've ever seen before. Made in 1950, Joel MacCrae came out of retirement working on his ranch to play the lead role of an initially gun toting parson who is about as homey and good a man I've ever seen on film.

The movie is full of little delights. Like the parson's wife using an apple coring machine, or a little rotating fan device to keep flies off a cake she's made, etc. And Dean Stockwell plays the orphan the parson and his wife are raising and through whose eyes, and the words of his older self in the narration, we see the story.

The most amazing part of which is a subplot about a slave, freed by the Civil War and now an old man living alone on his property that the town rich man merchant wants because of the "mica" I think they kept saying, that's on the land. He's threatened first by "nightriders" who eventually don white hoods and burn a cross and finally come to lynch him. The character is played with dignity and realism, and there's no condescension expressed toward his character really by anyone other than the rich merchant. He's known as "Uncle Famous" and is treated more equally than the town's most childlike adult, named "Chloraform" by his mother, a white man.

That was one of the things both these movies had in common, the African-American roles were played without an ounce of what is often thought of as the typical condescension or stereotypical cartoony characterization of films of those times, but instead with the kind of naturalism a lot of people think only came about in recent decades. And the subject of race was treated as an accepted reality that most people dealt with the same as they did with everything else (not entirely untrue, as I learned when reading Theodore Dresier's DAWN the first volume of his autobiography, about growing up in the late 1800s, after the Civil Wat, and seeing in his first theater shows, comedies that made fun of African Americans, and German Americans and Irish Americans pretty much equally).

At any rate, it was refreshing to see these two movies handle that subject matter in a way that no one could object to, except racists. Another thing the two movies had in common was narration. I always love narration in a movie, when it works. In recent decades it fell out of favor and has been used most often to cover up problems in the story line or with the editing etc. I've written or rewritten narration for several movies, the best known probably being DRUGSTORE COWBOY, so I know a little about it, but I always dug it. As a kid it always filled me with anticipation and interest when a film opened with a voice beginning a narration that set up the story to come.

Joel McCrae isn't one of those Hollywood stars most people think of when they think of old Hollywood, and for too long I didn't fully appreciate him myself. I thought his acting was always a little stiff, and his star charisma a little less than those who still are the most famous of his times, Jimmy Stewart or John Wayne et. al. But in recent years I've begun to appreciate the subtlety of his acting more and more, and STARS IN MY CROWN, convinced me completely that McCrae was a consumate film actor, as good as any. Watch this film if you can and see if you don't agree.

1 comment:

Harryn Studios said...

i forgot the impact "portrait of ..." had on me - haven't seen the movie since the 60's but i've got to wonder how it may have helped shape a world i knew nothing about at the time - maybe we share that 'weak' character link about the power of love and art filling up the holes in our souls ...

i still believe ... [unlike my wall street colleagues] ...

i wonder if the 'winter of the mind' reference is related to artaud's line; "icicles stuck in my brain" ...

mmm, the 'theatre of cruelty' ...