Jezebel

Released:  1938

Cast:  Bette Davis, Henry Fonda, George Brent, Margaret Lindsay, Donald Crisp, Fay Bainter, Richard Cromwell, Henry O’Neill, Spring Byington, John Litel

Oscar Wins:  Best Actress (Bette Davis), Best Supporting Actress (Fay Bainter)

Oscar Nominations:  Best Picture, Best Cinematography (Ernest Haller), Best Music, Original Score (Max Steiner)

SUMMARY:  In 1852, Julie Marsden (Bette Davis) is a beautiful young woman living in pre-Civil War New Orleans.  Julie lives with her aunt, Belle Massey (Fay Bainter), but her official guardian is Dr. Livingstone (Donald Crisp, who has shown up in like the last three movies I’ve watched).  Julie is extremely strong-willed and independent, which is unusual for the time.  These characteristics frequently get her into trouble, particularly with her on-again, off-again fiancé, Preston “Pres” Dillard (Henry Fonda).  Pres runs his family’s bank, and is in the middle of a major business deal.  He had promised to go dress shopping with Julie, but when she arrives at the bank, he tells her that he is too busy to go with her.  To get back at him, Julie orders a red dress instead of the traditional (and expected) white one.  Pres demands that she find another dress, since the party is the biggest of the year, and her actions will reflect on him, as well.  Virtually everyone else also begs Julie to change her mind, but she stubbornly insists on wearing the dress.  When she arrives at the party, all the other party-goers move away from her – as do the slaves who are working the party.  Pres forces Julie to dance with him; as they do so, all the other dancers leave the floor.  The party’s host even stops the orchestra.  This finally convinces Julie that she has made a grave mistake, and she asks Pres to take her home.  However, Pres is determined to play things out.  He requests that the orchestra keep playing, and makes Julie finish the dance with him, as everyone else stares.  When the dance is over, Pres announces that he has finally had enough of Julie’s actions, and is leaving her.  Julie believes that this is just another episode in their rocky relationship, and ignores her aunt’s advice to go after Pres and ask for forgiveness.  To her complete shock, Pres does not return to her in a few days – instead, he goes north to work in another bank, and stays away for an entire year.  When Julie realizes the magnitude of what she has done, she becomes a recluse.

After a year, Pres returns to New Orleans.  He works with Dr. Livingstone to try to improve living conditions in the city, because Dr. Livingstone firmly believes that without these changes, another epidemic of yellow fever will strike.  The city had experienced a similar outbreak several decades earlier, and is still terrified of the threat.  However, they seem unwilling to make the advised changes.  When Julie hears that Pres is returning, she flies into action.  She dresses in the white gown that she should have worn to the party a year ago, and prepares to beg Pres for forgiveness, doing whatever it takes to win him back.  When she sees him, she does this, even getting down on her knees – only to learn that Pres had gotten married in the year he was away, to a Northerner named Amy (Margaret Lindsay).  Julie is determined to have Pres for herself, and results to her old tricks.  She cozies up to Buck Cantrell (George Brent) in an attempt to make Pres jealous, since the two men have never gotten along.  In addition, Buck is a very good duelist, so Julie tries repeatedly to incite a fight between the two men.  This attempt proves successful, save for one thing:  it is Pres’ brother Ted (Richard Cromwell) who challenges Buck to a duel, not Pres himself.  To everyone’s surprise (including Ted’s), Ted wins the duel and kills Buck.  After the duel, the entire Dillard family prepares to leave Aunt Belle’s plantation (where they have been staying to protect themselves from a possible fever outbreak), as they are disgusted with Julie’s actions.  They are stopped when they learn that yellow fever has indeed broken out, and are advised to stay inside the house, which is above the “fever line” that marks the scope of the outbreak.  Pres insists on going into the city to continue advocating for reforms with Dr. Livingstone.  Eventually, Pres himself catches yellow fever, and is taken to Julie’s house in the city.  When the group learns about this, several of them instantly prepare to leave – including both Amy and Julie.  While Ted and Amy manage to take a carriage through the fever line, Julie resorts to trekking through the swamps with one of the slaves, in order to get there as quickly as possible.  She is the first one to arrive in the city, and immediately begins nursing the delirious Pres.  The others soon arrive, but Pres does not get any better.  Dr. Livingstone is forced to report him as a fever victim.  The city sends all fever victims to the former leper colony, on an island, in an effort to quarantine them.  When the men arrive to pick up Pres, Amy insists that she is going with him.  However, Julie stops her, saying that Amy has no idea of how to handle the slaves and other Southerners that inhabit the island, and that she lacks both the mental and physical strength to survive the ordeal.  Julie then asks Amy to let her go instead, in an effort to redeem herself for the pain she has caused those around her.  Amy demands to know whether Pres loves Julie or not, to which Julie sadly replies that if he truly loved her anymore, he would never have married (and stayed true to) Amy.  Amy then tells Julie to take good care of Pres, and wishes her luck on the journey.  Pres is put on the sick wagon, with Julie riding right beside him.

MY TAKE:  As I have stated before, I love Bette Davis because she was an ass-kicker, much like Katharine Hepburn.  In an era dominated by the heads of studios – who were all men – she managed to be independent and powerful in her own right.  Of course, she’s also a hell of an actress.  There are a few interesting stories about how she got the role in this movie, all of them involving a very similar movie that came out a year later – Gone With the Wind.  According to TCM, Bette Davis was given this role as a consolation for not getting the role of Scarlett O’Hara.  Bette was the apparently the fan favorite for the role, but David O. Selznick had no intention of casting her.  I have also heard that Bette herself ultimately turned down the role.  She loved the story, and desperately wanted to play Scarlett, but would have to be loaned out, since Gone was being produced by another studio.  There was a hitch to the loan:  Bette would only get loaned if her studio-mate Errol Flynn got the part of Rhett Butler.  Bette knew that Errol was not right for the part, and unwilling to sink the whole movie, she turned it down.  Whatever the reasons, things seemed to have worked out well for both sides:  Bette got an Oscar, and still became one of the greatest actresses of the age (ever, really); Selznick cast Vivien Leigh (who also got an Oscar) and Clark Gable, who were perfect choices, and the movie became one of the greatest ever made.  This movie is extremely similar to that one – both revolve around a headstrong, willful young woman in the mid-1800s South, who uses her considerable charms and wits to twine men around their fingers.  However, they ultimately go too far, and push away the men they want.  There isn’t a Rhett Butler character in Jezebel, but Pres is a much stronger character than Ashley Wilkes, anyway.  In Gone, Scarlett finally realizes that she loves Rhett, not Ashley, but it is too late; Julie is always about Pres, but also realizes her folly too late.  In a fight between Scarlett and Julie, I’m not sure who would win.  I’m tempted to say that Scarlett is more malicious than Julie, because Scarlett does things like attract her sister’s beau out of spite; Julie uses Buck to get at Pres, but doesn’t have much venom for anyone else (save Amy).  Both of them could greatly benefit from a swift kick in the pants (or an attitude adjustment at a younger age), as this would have saved everyone around them a lot of heartache.

RATING:  Pretty good.

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