Jezebel (1938)
Director: William Wyler
Cast: Bette Davis, Henry Fonda,
George Brent, Margaret Lindsay

Set in New Orleans before the civil war,  Julie Morrison (Bette Davis) a spirited, fiery and spoilt southern belle is so set on rattling the brains of the south, and upsetting every apple cart in sight.  Following an earlier aggressive, to passive aggressive temper tantrum, where Julie stormed into a important meeting at her fiance’s, Preston Dillard (Henry Fonda)  bank, because he had “promised” to go with her for her dress fitting for an upcoming ball.  She decides to buy a glowing red dress that she will wear a to a ball, when all unmarried southern women of the time are supposed to be seen only in virgin white.

After finishing his day at the bank, Preston turns up at Julie’s house, after being convinced by everybody since her storming into the bank that he should pull her into line, so he storms up to her room, cane in hand.  Julie shows Preston her ball dress, and lets him know that she is determined as hell to wear it.

Preston escorts Julie to the ball, they walk in the ballroom to that gasps off everybody present.  Both men and women avoid the couple when they are approached, but now that she has gone this far, Preston will not let her leave the ballroom.  He dances with her, and even when the band stops playing and the floor is clear apart from the disgraced couple, he holds her fast to the floor, making sure she carries out to the end the event which she desired so much.  Preston keeps her there until everyone sees them, and until Julie is shaken and begs to leave, showing that when needed he can be as stubborn as she.

Following the ball Preston says goodbye to Julie, and that is the end of their relationship.  Julie is convinced that he will come back to her, but soon after Preston disappears up north to Yankee land.  Following this event Julie withdraws from society, having no callers, she will not even receive Buck Cantrell (George Brent) who had previously been interested in Julie, and whom had remained a loyal friend even when the rest of New Orleans has shunned her.

This continues until one year later, when Preston returns to the south with the area under the threat of yellow fever and civil war.  Preston having been exposed to “Yankee” ideas and with a nice surprise for all his old friends.  Julie is still thinking he is coming back for her, has got a few surprises coming.

After his return Julie starts of feuds whenever possible between Buck and Preston ending in the death of the loyal friend of the family, Buck.  With yellow fever hitting everybody, Julie has a chance to atone for her passed mistakes, and begs to be allowed to do so.

Bette Davis deservedly won an academy award for her part as Julie. This is a brilliant film, and definitely one of her best, which is not easy as she performed magnificently in so many films.

There are obviously arguments for both side of the story.  The wanting to rebel against what a lady has to do in that society and that age.  Not wanting to conform to dress codes, or other centuries old customs.  And from the side of the customs and conformity about how far  this rebellion is allowed to be taken.  Certainly it is over a hundred years ago,  so the idea now that a woman has to wear this or that or is allowed to do this or that, in most now societies is absurd.  But then it was the way things were, and if you try to put your mind into that time, imagine what it is like and imagine what you would rebel against, and what you would stop at, it certainly gets you thinking about it.  Do you stop at the stomp into the bank?  Or do you stop at the red dress?  Or you just go a head and wear the red dress, knowing that you are just doing it to get even with him for not coming shopping with you?

The scenes with Julie storming into her house for her party after being out riding and still wearing her riding clothes, I found very funny, and applauded it.  And as she says later on to Preston, that fire and spirit, is part of what attracts him to her.  But just her doing what she wants to the detriment of everything, how far do you let her carry it?  The scene where Preston makes her dance at the ball, for  several minutes after she wants to leave is a brilliant scene.  This is what she wanted to do, she wanted to shock everybody by wearing her dress, and boy does he make sure she carries that through.

Just as brilliant is the scene just after Julie has stormed into the meeting at the bank.  Preston storms up to Julie’s room and on his way up the stairs lifts a cane, intending to whip her into shape with it.  Of course I’m not saying that people who do that now should be excused, but in that time, and continuing with the spirit of the film, a spirit as stubborn as Julie’s is needed to oppose hers.   Of course she nonchalantly reminds him at the end of the scene that he has forgotten his cane, to which he replies… no I wont tell you that bit.

Henry Fonda is brilliant in this film too, but it is Davis’ film.  I have seen quite few Bette Davis films, and this is definitely one of my favourites. Along with Now Voyager (1942), Whatever Happened To Baby Jane (1962), The Old Maid (1939) and The Letter (1940) it should not be missed. It very deservedly was nominated for five Academy Awards, including best picture, and it did succeed in winning two, Davis for best actress and Fay Bainter for best supporting actress.

One last thing I would like to add, Bette Davis, as far as I am concerned is one of the greatest actresses that ever lived.  She was the first to take roles where she would wear no make up, and would make herself, for certain roles, look older and uglier.  Obviously, she was a brilliant character actress, and her films will stand the test of time, even though at the time what she was doing was perceived as career suicide.  So with all this character acting, one thing is quite often forgotten and that is that she was a very beautiful woman.  Which can be seen mostly in earlier films before the character acting.  She begun her career in the  blonde bombshell days appearing with Joan Blondell, Glenda Farrell, Ann Dvorak, Mae Clark (well know for parts in Laurel and Hardy shorts and features) Olivia De Havilland and countless others.  I know she struggled to get out of the blonde films and into more serious roles, but she did succeed brilliantly in doing so.  I’m’ going to include a blonde bombshell Davis picture here, just to help remind people of this.  I’m just including this because younger people I have spoken to just remember her being old, and for some of the ugly characters like Baby Jane.

Review by Giovanni Pistachio, Giovanni can be contacted at: –

© Owned Giovanni Pistachio.


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