It’s spring. Alfred, Lord Tennyson was on the right track when he wrote: “In the springtime a young man’s fantasy turns into thoughts of love. But I don’t think this process is limited to young men. No matter a person’s age, gender, inclinations, most of us think about romance in the most imaginative way in the spring.
My own thoughts manifested in a great desire to see classic romantic fantasy movies again. The first film that comes to mind is Portrait of Jennie which opened, not in spring, but on Christmas Day 1948. It’s a mystical tale of Eben, a shy, unsuccessful artist, played by Joseph Cotton , who meets schoolgirl Jennie (played by Jennifer Jones) in Central Park in the winter. Dressed in old-fashioned clothes and a very adolescent look, she captivates the artist. Her visits to Eben become quite frequent, and each time she seems strangely older. Eben paints a portrait of Jennie and finds success. The two fall deeply in love, but the weather continues to be out of order, magical, bringing Jennie to an unusually fast adulthood. The cast is extraordinary, including movie divas Ethel Barrymore and Lillian Gish. The production is one of David O. Selznick’s greatest films. Until its climactic storm streak, Portrait of Jennie is a magical fantasy that captures the deep and varied emotions of romantic love and hope through grave danger.
For Shakespeare lovers, there is the extraordinarily beautiful production of Warner Bros. A Midsummer Night’s Dream of 1935. With a cast of stars of Hollywood royalty including James Cagney, Olivia de Havilland, Dick Powell, Joe E. Brown and Mickey Rooney, and directed by two of the most prestigious European filmmakers of the time – William Dieterle and Max Reinhardt, this production is a visual knockout and a fine example of stylized acting. The lovers disappear in a forest enchanted by the fairies. And a group of comical, silly laborers occupy the same forest to rehearse a play they are going to perform for the next local nobility wedding. Cinematographer Hal Mohr artfully sprinkles moonlight and magic throughout this film. Try to see the 132 minute roadshow version, rather than the standard 117 minute version.
The Ghost and Mrs. Muir was released in 1947, and it ranks among the fantasy novels. Ms Muir is a pretty widow with a young daughter who rents Gull Cottage, a beachfront house said to be haunted by Captain Daniel Gregg, an alcoholic thug who owned the place and allegedly committed suicide there. Indeed, his spirit appears and the two cohabit platonically in the house. Over the years, the couple grow closer, although one is alive and the other has been years before. Stunning actress Gene Tierney and star Rex Harrison. It was directed by Joseph L. Mankiewicz, one of Hollywood’s supreme filmmakers.
The 1990 number one movie is another ghost story that combines romance and fantasy. It’s Phantom. With Whoopi Goldberg as Oda Mae, Patrick Swayze as Sam and Demi Moore as Molly, Ghost takes viewers from the delirium of perfect love to the shock of tragic death. In the first half hour we go from euphoria to tears when the young man’s life is ended by an assailant with a gun. Soon Sam’s spirit returns, breaking through the walls and trying to protect his beloved from the bastard who killed him. He asks Oda Mae, a mischievous reader and spiritual advisor, to deliver messages to Molly. Combining comedy, fantasy, melodrama and romance, Ghost has become a classic. This film may not have been the darling of critics when it was released. Still, it’s one of the most enjoyable and touching movies I’ve ever seen and it’s cult, especially among women.
These films have all received Oscar nominations and / or wins. Each has a magical quality that is perhaps best celebrated in the spring of the year… because each movie carries a powerful theme. These are not so much stories of life and death as stories of the rejection of the human spirit.
Audrey Kupferberg is a Film and Video Archivist and Reviewer. She is a distinguished lecturer and former director of film studies at the University of Albany and has co-authored several entertainment biographies with her husband and creative partner, Rob Edelman.
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