Friday, December 18, 2009

R.I.P, Jennifer Jones

So I take a teensy break away from the computer yesterday…only to come back and learn of the passing of Oscar-winning actress Jennifer Jones, who died yesterday of natural causes at her Malibu home. She was 90.

Because I have made it a long-standing policy here at Thrilling Days of Yesteryear to be as honest as I possibly can, it is with a tiny modicum of sorrow that I must confess I wasn’t a huge fan of Jones—an actress whose career in films I attribute more to who she knew (*cough* David O. Selznick *cough*) rather than the requisite thespic talent to blow audiences away. Her celebrated turn in The Song of Bernadette (1943)—the feature film that earned her the Best Actress statuette—constitutes one of the few occasions when somebody should have stood up during the ceremony and demanded a recount. (I mean, seriously—they picked this performance over Jean Arthur’s in The More the Merrier [1943]? Madness!) And I've mellowed a bit on this opinion; in January 2007 I called her win "rank Hollywood nepotism at its worst," adding " she managed to snag a statue for this sappy performance as a peasant girl who has a vision of the Virgin Mary is a miracle even faith cannot adequately explain."

That having been said, I will affirm that in the right vehicles Jennifer Jones could be positively sublime. I think she’s nothing short of luminous in Portrait of Jennie (1948, particularly in how she’s able to convincingly play the same character from schoolgirl to tragic young woman), first-rate in Madame Bovary (1949) and sensational as the titular schoolteacher of Good Morning, Miss Dove (1955, which I saw on TCM several months back at the urging of Linda at Yet Another Journal).

I think it’s interesting that my two favorite Jones films were both directed by John Huston: We Were Strangers (1949) and Beat the Devil (1953). Jones is falling-down-funny as the platinum blonde, compulsive liar Gwendolyn Chelm in the latter film; a cult favorite that spoofs he-man adventure epics with an amazing cast in Humphrey Bogart, Gina Lollobrigida, Robert Morley, Peter Lorre and Edward Underdown. (Devil is conspicuously missing from TCM’s Star of the Month Bogie festival but it does show up in the channel's rotation from time to time.) Strangers stars Jones as China Valdés, a young woman who agrees to assist in an assassination plot against the Cuban government, masterminded by American Tony Fenner (John Garfield). (Jones is more convincing here as a Latina than her Pearl Chavez from Duel in the Sun [1946].) It would be hard for me to pick a favorite from these two; I’d lean toward Strangers only because I’ve not seen it mentioned among the obituaries and tributes to Jones that I’ve perused this morning.

(Of course, I should also point out that Jones also co-starred [as Phyllis Isley] in the 1939 Republic serial Dick Tracy's G-Men. Even if every movie she made after that stank to high heavens she would receive recognition from this blog on the basis of that appearance alone.)

Several of my esteemed blogging colleagues have put up more heartfelt tributes to Jones—the always on-target Self-Styled Siren’s is a must-read, but the contributions from Jamie Weinman at Something Old, Nothing New and Laura at Laura’s Miscellaneous Musings shouldn’t be skipped over, either. R.I.P, Ms. Jones. You shall be missed.

Update: TCM will interrupt its normally scheduled programming on January 7th to present a four film tribute to Jones beginning at 5pm with Duel in the Sun (1946), Beat the Devil (1953), Madame Bovary (1949) and Indiscretion of an American Wife (1953).

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