Here’s the thing about Lillian Gish.
In the 1949 drama, A Portrait of Jennie, Gish’s total screen time is about 10 minutes. TEN MINUTES. And yet, in many ways she is the pivotal character, the fifth column, as it were; the one who brings Truth to the story.
A Portrait of Jennie is a film about Truth, judging by the endless quotes presented at the beginning of the film. (Here is an example.) This is a bit much, because since when does Hollywood care about Truth?
A Portrait of Jennie is also an Art Film. We know this because some establishing shots are transposed on a canvas texture. This is highbrow stuff, see?
However. For all the schmaltz in the script, we are treated to some amazing performances in this film, not the least of which is by Ms Gish.
Briefly, the plot: A poor and unknown New York artist (Joseph Cotten) meets a slightly strange but pleasant young girl named Jennie (Jennifer Jones). She is cheerful and friendly, but disappears without warning. As the film progresses, Cotten has more chance meetings with the girl, but each time she has grown older. He begins to sketch the girl and then, finally, paints her portrait. As he does so, he begins to fall in love with her.
This film messes with your mind. Jones grows older – perhaps as much as ten years older. Yet, in “real” time, the movie takes place over a single year. It’s a terrific time manipulation trick.
Now, on to Ms Gish, who plays Sister Mary Mercy, a nun at the convent where Jones attends college. Jones says the sister is her favourite because she brings – are you ready? – Truth to things.
Gish, known as “The First Lady of American Cinema,” was a huge star during the silent era and had a career that lasted over 70 years. In A Portrait for Jennie, Gish would be in her fifties, and she’s almost too beautiful to be a pious nun. Through her conversation with Cotten, you can see that she is every bit as spiritual and other-worldly as we expected.
Gish has some antiquated lines, but delivers them with charm. “What vision has been vouchsafed to you, I can’t say,” she tells Cotten. (Who TALKS like that?) But Gish speaks with such care that we feel a little sad words like “vouchsafed” have been removed from everyday conversation.
Her character is a cultured, gentle soul, but strong enough to rival Cotten’s screen presence. She has to be; she is the pivotal character who tells us What It All Means. It takes a seasoned professional to count for this much in under 10 minutes.
Gish knows how things will end, and gives us a clue with her soulful eyes. We think we can guess the ending – but we can’t! The ending has a twist that we do not see coming.
A Portrait of Jennie is a special film, despite all its self-aggrandizing. It’s a haunting story with pitch-perfect performances. And even if it weren’t, it would be worth seeing for Lillian Gish alone.
Portrait of Jennie: Starring Jennifer Jones, Joseph Cotten, Lillian Gish. Directed by William Dieterle. Written by Paul Osborn and Peter Berneis. Selznick Releasing Organization, B&W and Colour, 1949, 86 mins.