US Release Date: 10-03-1938
Directed by: William Wyler
- Bette Davis, as
- Julie Marsden
- Henry Fonda, as
- Preston Dillard
- George Brent, as
- Buck Cantrell
- Margaret Lindsay, as
- Amy Bradford Dillard
- Donald Crisp, as
- Dr. Livingstone
- Fay Bainter, as
- Aunt Belle Massey
- Richard Cromwell, as
- Ted Dillard
- Henry O'Neill as
- General Theopholus Bogardus
Bette Davis in Jezebel.
Directed by the great William Wyler Jezebel won Bette Davis the second of her two Best Actress Oscars. Legend has it that she made this movie as a way of thumbing her nose at Jack Warner for refusing to lend her to David O. Selznick for the highly coveted role of Scarlett O'Hara in Gone with the Wind. Though not as epic or as famous as that landmark movie Jezebel did give Davis a great opportunity to strut her stuff before the camera. She gets to be athletic, regal, pouty, stubborn, seductive, teasing and even courageously self-sacrificing, and all with a flamboyant southern accent. Henry Fonda co-stars as her fiancé.
Set in New Orleans in 1852, Jezebel is Julie Marsden (Davis), a spoiled and headstrong southern flirt. She is engaged to Preston Dillard (Fonda) a prominent young businessman. Julie's constant demands for Preston's attention finally backfire when she insists on wearing a red evening gown to the annual Olympus Ball. Blatantly defying the time-honored code of propriety that unmarried women always wear white gowns to the ball. She creates a scandal and loses Preston in the process.
A year later Preston returns from up north with a Yankee bride in tow. When a sudden outbreak of Yellow Fever strikes and Preston catches the highly contagious disease someone must be willing to go with him to the quarantined Yellow Fever colony to desperately fight for his life. Will it be the wife or the Jezebel?
The fine supporting cast includes George Brent as Buck Cantrell the man in love with Julie, the imposing Donald Crisp as Dr. Livingstone and Fay Bainter who won the Supporting Actress Award for her role as Aunt Belle.
Max Steiner's sweeping score is similar to the more famous one he would write for Gone with the Wind the following year. Jezebel is a memorable movie that unfortunately gets too often overlooked, sitting as it does smack in the middle of the giant shadow cast by Gone with the Wind.
Bette Davis and Henry Fonda in Jezebel.
Being a movie about a strong minded, southern belle in the Old South that was released in 1938, there's no way for Jezebel to escape being compared to Gone with the Wind. Unfortunately, it's a comparison where Jezebel will always come out on the losing end because apart from Davis's performance, this movie isn't a patch on that 1939 classic.
One serious strike against the movie is the fact that it was filmed in black and white. I have nothing against black and white movies, but this one should have been filmed in color. The scene at the Olympus Ball in particular, with Davis in a red dress is crying out for the Technicolor treatment.
For a movie set in the Antebellum South, the depiction of slavery is almost laughable. All of the slaves seem quite happy in their servitude, joining in a merry sing-a-long with their owners. Both Julie and Preston treat the slaves more like old retainers than their property, which is very nice of them, but not realistic. For all of its glossing over of the slavery issue, the film doesn't avoid stereotypes, such as when Uncle Cato, the black butler, goes wide-eyed with fear at the mere mention of the word "haunted".
Another thing this movie has in common with Gone with the Wind is that the spunky female lead is in love with a boring, but noble and entirely unsuitable man while she spurns the more rakish fellow who is pining for her. As Rhett was more suited for Scarlett, so Buck is more suitable for Julie. In both cases, had either woman actually married the man of their dreams, they no doubt would have become bored quite quickly.
Davis does deliver a great performance as Julie. However, what was once considered shocking now seems quite tame and mild. Julie is supposed to be a scarlet woman because she dares to wear a red dress to a dance. Later, it is implied that she's an evil manipulator because she flirts with one man to make the other jealous. Those are really the only crimes, apart from being quite spoiled, that she must redeem herself for by the movie's end.
If this was Davis's consolation prize for not getting the role of Scarlett, I suppose it was good for her career at the time. She won the Oscar and it pushed her star even further into the heavens. In the long term though, this movie will never be remembered by as many as those who remember Gone with the Wind.
Bette Davis and George Brent in Jezebel
Julie is an evil manipulator and not just because she flirts with one man to make another jealous. The way she treats Preston is pathetic. She marches into his place of work and embarrasses him in front of his co-workers. In fact, Julie seems to enjoy pissing people off and makes a point to do it whenever she pleases. Her first scene has her purposely arriving late to a party at her own home and attends it wearing her riding clothes. Julie begins the film as a very unlikable character.
When Preston objects to Julie wanting to wear the red dress, Julie asks in a conniving tone, "Are you afraid someone will take me for one of those girls from Gallatan street?" Preston reacts shocked that Julie would mention a place of whore houses, but Julie continues, "Oh I'm sorry! I forgot, I'm a child. I'm not supposed to know about things like Gallatan street! I'm just supposed to flutter around in white!" Preston, getting a bit upset, responds, "You're supposed to know better than to scandalize the whole town!" Julie, mocks him by saying, "It might be bad for the bank of course! Will you please hold another directors meeting and ask 'em to decide what I can wear?"
When Preston arrives to take Julie to the dance he finds her wearing the red dress and says to her that they will not leave, "Not 'til you're properly dressed." Julie knows just what to say to get Preston to do as she wants, "You're sure it's the dress? It couldn't be that you're afraid, afraid somebody'd insult me and you'd find it necessary to defend me?"
Jezebel was made during all the talk of the pre-production of Gone With the Wind. It was intended to capitalize on all the excitement of Margaret Mitchell's popular novel of the old south being made into a movie. The most glaring difference is that Scarlett O'Hara is a sympathetic character. As the novel begins, "Scarlett O'Hara was not beautiful..." She was insecure and wanted to marry a man above her in social standings. We understood why Scarlett committed so many selfish acts and saw her change into a genuinely giving person.
Julie on the other hand, seems cruel for cruel's sake. There is no reason given for her to be so self centered. Her story arc of learning to think of others instead of herself is similar to Scarlett's story arc. Patrick mentions her selfless act, "What does it matter who he loves? It's his life that matters". Scarlett was a much more well rounded character. I understood her motives while I never understood why Julie enjoyed being such a bitch. Even when Preston returns and we see Julie has a broken heart I felt nothing for her. She chased Preston away, why should I feel anything for her? Julie redeems herself but she starts as such a spiteful character that she only had one direction to go.
Photos © Copyright Warner Bros. (1938)