Tuesday, 10 May 2011

Portrait of Jennie: Clarence Slifer takes home the Oscar

David O'Selznick's self indulgent 1948 star vehicle wrapped around his infatuation for his stunningly attractive engenue Jennifer Jones was a beautifully photographed (by Joseph August who tragically died before filming was completed) though not entirely successful ghost story of sorts which cost a fortune and sank at the box office.  The timeless notion of pathological romantic obsession is one that many have tackled, with Alfred Hitchcock's hitting pay dirt with VERTIGO being one prominent and popular example.  PORTRAIT OF JENNIE was one of several purpose made vehicles Selznick tailored, almost obsessively, for Jones around that period such as DUEL IN THE SUN.  The William Dieterle directed film is entertaining enough, despite it's obvious heavy handed meddling by producer Selznick - a trait all of Selznick's directors would be forced to clench their teeth and put up with as David insisted on being involved in ALL aspects of pre, shoot and post production - no more so than where his precious love, Jennifer Jones was involved.  David was a prodigious memo writer and dictator of lengthy notes to all key members of the creative team with endless critiques of each and every shot with Jones in it.


Effects wise, PORTRAIT OF JENNIE is a great looking film, with many invisible trick shots throughout which were good enough to win the visual effects Oscar of 1948.  Long time Selznick Studio photographic effects man, Clarence W.D Slifer was by this time running the effects unit, with former head Jack Cosgrove by this time over at Warner Brothers as well as engaging in solo effects jobs for Walter Wanger on films such as JOAN OF ARC and others.  Slifer started with Selznick as far back as 1935 as matte cameraman and optical effects man shooting Cosgrove's beautiful matte paintings on classics such as THE PRISONER OF ZENDA, THE GARDEN OF ALLAH,  INTERMEZZO,  REBECCA, TOM SAWYER and most notably, the gargantuan epic GONE WITH THE WIND.  For those interested, I have covered all of these films previously on my blog and have many wonderful frames demonstrating the Cosgrove/Slifer teamwork at it's best.

An original Selznick effects dept. matte painting.
The Selznick effects department was a small one of around 8 technicians whose phenomenal output, both in terms of quantity and quality easily matched that produced at the larger studios with their substantial special effects departments such as Warners' whose effects team numbered between 40 and 100 throughout the 1940's.  Visual effects designer and art director J.MacMillan Johnson also figured as a career Selznick man, and whose watercolour sketches had formed the basis for many of the great Cosgrove shots featured in GONE WITH THE WIND.  

Although not an effects cameraman or matte painter per se, Johnson would be among the six recipients of the 1948 special effects Oscar for PORTRAIT OF JENNIE in a joint visual and audio effects category.  Johnson would go on to enjoy a long career in visual effects design, largely over at MGM and would continue to collaborate with long time associate Slifer on films such as ICE STATION ZEBRA and POINT BLANK.  Pictured at left are camera operator Harold Grigg and effects supervisor Clarence Slifer during the shoot of DUEL IN THE SUN, made the year before POJ.

Matte artist Hans Ledeboer
At the time the Slifer unit had three matte artists on staff: Hans Ledeboer - a true veteran whose career began in the silent era with backdrop work and who would be the mentor to Paramount's Jan Domela in the late twenties.  Also painting at Selznick were Jack Shaw who had painted on PRISONER OF ZENDA and GONE WITH THE WIND.  Shaw would move over to Warner Brothers for the rest of his career before his untimely death by suicide in 1956 after finishing Irwin Allen's ANIMAL WORLD.  Spencer Bagtatopolis was one of Slifer's favourite painters, having joined the studio to help out with the many mattes on SINCE YOU WENT AWAY and subsequently painted significant mattes for films such as THE PARADINE CASE and DUEL IN THE SUN.
The Selznick photographic effects unit - 1947

Veteran effects cinematographer Paul Eagler was signed on to shoot the miniatures in the exciting climactic storm sequence.  Eagler's career stretched way back to 1914 silent shorts at Inceville and would include such notable later examples as the outstanding Hitchcock thriller FOREIGN CORRESPONDENT.  The film POJ was experimental in it's release version whereby selected 35mm prints were mixed in stereophonic sound and a new twist added where the storm sequence would be significantly enlarged during theatre projection via a Magnascope lens system onto a far bigger screen than normal.

I must take a moment here to express my gratitude to Rick Starstairs for sharing with me the many wonderful and exciting old Selznick-Cosgrove matte images from his collection as well as snippets of other amazing cinematic archival finds too.  I'll showcase more in upcoming articles and hope to receive higher quality images from Rick when he finds them.

Special Photographic Effects - Clarence W.Slifer, ASC
Matte artists - Hans Ledeboer, Spencer Bagtatopolis and Jack Shaw
Special Effects Cinematographer - Paul Eagler, ASC
Assistant Effects Cameraman - Harry Wolf
Visual Effects Design - J.MacMillan Johnson
Special Mechanical Effects - Russell Shearman
Matte Camera Operator - Harold Grigg
Special Camera Effects Engineer - Oscar Jarosch

Although essentially a monochrome film, several instances occur where colour is introduced - notably a green tinted storm sequence, sepia end credits and a closing technicolor shot of the title portrait.

At right is Robert Brackman's portrait executed for 'screen artist' Joseph Cotten to obsess over.

The opening visual effects sequence is a stunningly achieved glide down through the clouds onto a romantically realised view of New York City.  The initial cloud vantage point were practically produced physical effects followed by a soft wipe as the camera then moves in on a matte painted cityscape.

Another stunning effects shot of NYC produced by Clarence Slifer.

Several set pieces commence with optically altered effects to add a canvas texture to complement Joseph Cotten's striving artist characterisation.

The early appearances of the Jennifer Jones character where she purports to be a 14 year old girl are patently ludicrous and one of the serious failings of the narrative.  Above is 'kid' Jones against an atmospheric matte painting of Central Park

Selznick apparently ordered much NYC material to be re-shot back at his studio in LA and be augmented with painted mattes.  I don't know for sure about this one, but I strongly suspect it to be a split screen with a soft blend and doubled in foreground tree possibly combining two separate locations and/or a painted distant view.

A beautifully romanticised storybook view of Central Park - where all muggers, rapists and Scientologists have been matted out and replaced with a delightful painting (!)

A rare find - and an exciting one.  One of the surviving original matte paintings prepared for this film of the view from Cotten's apartment where the matte artist has completely fooled the audience with this trick.

Although the photo is indistinct, this is a similar night view - also entirely painted.

A quickly shown cutaway matte shot of a skyscraper.

Eerie night sky and stars supplied by the matte department.

Another of the apartment POV mattes.

The centrepiece of the film, effects wise, is this gloriously painted and composited matte of a snowy urban landscape with Jennifer Jones matted in skating across the ice as Cotten watches in disbelief.  A wonderful scene which may now be fully appreciated with this extremely rare, never before seen photo of the original painting from a private collection.

A close up photograph of the only surviving portion from another more expansive matte painting.

Yet another stunning and extremely rare PORTRAIT OF JENNIE matte, presumably from a shot ultimately dropped from the final, rather rushed edit.

The penny drops: Jones see's the lighthouse amid Cotten's unsold paintings.  I include this as I love storm shrouded lighthouses, I paint' em too and I suspect maybe Mac Johnson could have painted this for the scene.

The convent painted matte shot, and below, as it later appears as a quite poor process shot.

Very subtle matte addition of docks and sailing ships.

Top - the green tinted extended climax with Cotten sailing over to the lighthouse.  Miniatures shot by Paul Eagler, and in the bottom picture is a subsequent matte painting of the island and lighthouse, presumably for a shot that didn't make the final cut.

The interior of the lighthouse is a series of beautiful painted matte shots which considerably augment a minimal set.

Left - a shoddy composite which looks like a dupe of a dupe whereby Cotten and Jones on a small stage set are matted into a miniature rocky outcrop with huge waves in a tank.  Right - lightning fx animation.

Top - two more matted spiral staircase extensions that look sensational, and below, a regrettably poor quality photo of one of those surviving paintings.

Real time physical effects on set by Russell Shearman where presumably stunt doubled stars are deluged by some expertly engineered tidal wave effects. The sound editors, James G.Stewart and Charles Freeman utilised a novel approach to mixing the effects track here.  Combined recordings of an earthquake, thunder, Niagara Falls and a blow torch were mixed to thunderous and terrifying effect, resulting in an Oscar

Miniatures in a tank photographed by Paul Eagler.

Another original matte painting of the Lands End Lighthouse.

One more surviving lighthouse matte painting and a moody concluding effects shot of the setting after the storm.

Rick and some of his amazing treasure trove of rare, vintage matte paintings - mostly from the Selznick studio.  Shown here are some of those POJ mattes I've included above and it's most interesting as to just how large these are when compared with some other studios of the time.  Also in this collection are several DUEL IN THE SUN mattes, THE PARADINE CASE, SINCE YOU WENT AWAY and a fantastic GWTW matte, which I've included in a previous posting, among others.


  1. Just wondering if the monastary is really a matte shot as that seems to look like footage of the Cloisters (part of the Metropolitan Museum of Art)up in the Bronx in Fort Tryon Park.

  2. Hi Steve
    You may be right, though it definitely has the hallmarks of painted augmentation with sky, light rays and some foreground to my eye. I have some other pics of POJ artifacts which are very poor and indistinct - sort of a wide group snapshot of many mattes etc and this view looks to be among them - but it's hard to tell.

  3. Publicity at the time of filming mentioned the Cloisters as the location of the filmed scenes set at St. Mary's Convent.
    The images here are a great find for fans of the film. Well done. I really love this film but I've always thought that the portrait really doesn't look much like Jennifer Jones.

  4. How did they get Jennifer Jones' height to change from that of a short child (she came up to Cotten's shoulder) to a full-height adult (almost his height)?

    1. I've no idea - probably careful camera angles and Cotton standing on a box as Alan Ladd used to do perhaps? Whatever it was, the notion of Jones as a teen was ludicrous and must have raised chuckles back in the day.


    2. (Sorry for my English) I was thinking about it too and the answer is the bench. When Jennie reaches Eben, we see his back at the right side of the screen, and Jennie takes place on the left: look at the bench, has three planks and a lot of space between the planks. On the next shot they start walking but we still see the bench: now he has four planks and no space. Well, by itself it means nothing but I am pretty sure that at the first shot the bench was raised up from the floor a little bit and the planks were supposed to see a little Jennie coming to it (that's why there are more space between planks): Jones was far away from the camera, Cotten closer. On the other scenes when she is little we don't use to see them side by side.

  5. I just finished viewing the wonderful "Portrait of Jennie" for the first time, recorded on my DVR from a recent airing on Turner Classic Movies. Having worked as a Hollywood visual effects cameraman myself over the years, I was tremendously impressed by the swirling, hurricane cloud effect at the end of the picture. It looks like it was probably created in a cloud-tank, a glass walled water-tank filled with swirling water as white or colored pigments are injected under pressure into the surface of the water. Considering that this visual effect in the 1948 "Jennie" predates the same type of effects in 1958's "The Ten Commandments", I'm wondering if "Jennie" might be the first time it was ever used? Does anyone know of even earlier examples of cloud-tank effects in movies?

  6. Dear Sir.. Id be so overwhelmed to see your collection! I know the film so well, and been raised on Debussy and Keats, and everything DOS! This weekend they are naturally focusing on the centennial of TITANIC,people have taken trips of a Lifetime to the wreck, but to me, the ultimate would be to be in the same room as these paintings!
    I respect you very much for safeguarding these. Presently I too am under a like quest, as I have many of Carole Lombards personal possessions including a portrait that hung over Mr Gable's bed after her death in 1942.(Her life example got me thru 2 cancers ond diabetic complications. She was a rare lady..) Anyway the portrait, It also has his cigar smoke stained on the frame..I think of them and 1939 and the GWTW premiere in ATlanta with Selznick and Irene and everyone else..(I didnt mean to go on, its just that I understand what it means to be an archivist. )Thank u for publishing the pictures here. Such ART stays with you, and the "TRADITION OF QUALITY" in ALL things SELZNICK, is unforgettable!
    My sincere BEST to you!

    1. Thank you so much for that positive response, it is indeed appreciated.
      All the best


  7. Hello! This post couldn’t be written any better! Reading this post reminds me of my previous room mate! He always kept chatting about this. I will forward this page to him. Fairly certain he will have a good read. Thank you for sharing!
    Coreldraw for Mac

  8. I really appreciate this post, Pete! Having been a spellbound viewer of POJ for 13 years, these rare artifacts are a treasure trove for someone like me! One of my most treasured possessions is an original publicity poster of the great Brackman portrait that proudly hangs in my house. Thanks LOTS for sharing these!

  9. Just finished viewing PORTRAIT OF JENNIE for the umpteenth time and enjoy it each viewing as though it were the first. It is a stunning film which holds me from the first frame til the last. Cotten and Jones are, of course, outstanding, but, being a big Ethel Barrymore fan, I find her in this film to be exceptional. Anyway, I came upon this site while wondering what might have happened to the Brackman portrait of Jones for the film. The coverage you have provided on so many aspects of the film is excellent and so illuminating. Rest assured, I will revisit your blog again and again to explore more of your blog entries. Keep up the good work. And in the words of the immortal Frank Sinatra, "I shall return." Thank you!