Remastered and Remaindered: Debussy's Music, Nat King Cole's Song, and David O. Selznick's Attempt at High Art on a Low Budget

Sarah Ellis, University of Oklahoma

The 1948 film Portrait of Jennie was slotted to be the first picture in a low-budget series by producer David O. Selznick's financially unstable production company. Yet, with Jennie Selznick also wanted to create the motion picture version of high art. Selznick was very concerned with both the quality and style of score. For one, the score needed to bridge the fantastical gap in the film's storyline. But also, Selznick aimed for a score that would create cultural uplift, a score that would lend the movie the intrinsic, transcendent quality of high art. In an attempt to create what he billed as possibly "the most distinguished and revolutionary score ever written", Selznick turned to the music of Claude Debussy, which became the source for the majority of the music used in the film. By using the music of Debussy, Selznick aimed for a score that would lend the movie the intrinsic quality of high art. Yet, closer look at decisions regarding music for Jennie and how Debussy's music was altered and fragmented to create the film's score shows how, as much as he tried, Selznick could not control the signifying process. By altering the music and placing it in a new context, the range of meaning created by the signifier of Debussy is increased and instead of clarifying meaning, ambiguities are introduced. Thus, while Selznick wanted the music to support the signifier of high art that he projected for the movie, he could not keep the music from taking on additional meanings. The result is that the film's score not only projects the image of high art, but also that of the prosaic commodity. While reorchestration of Debussy's themes dominate the soundtrack to Jennie, the slippery qualities of signification can also be examined through music that never made it into the film. In the decades after the movie a "popular" song left out of the score, due in part to its supposed banality, has taken on a new kind of artful quality, achieving the eternal timelessness that Selznick so desperately sought for his movie. Thus, the music, both used and not used, in Portrait of Jennie becomes an artifact, displaying how the behind the scenes dissonance created by material constraints colliding with ideological values concerning high and low art bleed into the film itself, via its soundtrack.