Which Bette Davis movies qualify for greatness? Her flawed character in this costume picture doesn’t conquer all, and it’s historically more sensitive than Gone With the Wind. It’s also William Wyler at the top of his form, creating in just 104 minutes a rich image of a long-gone world. Southern Belle Julie Marsden is a contrary troublemaker, a flip coquette who shoots her whole life to hell with just a couple of social gaffes. The story is ‘bigger than Bette’ – the apocalyptic finale is just a side event in a fable about the nature of chivalry and honor in a flawed social structure.
Warner Archive Collection
1938 / B&W / 1:37 flat Academy / 104 min. / Street Date August 27, 2019 / available through the WBshop / 21.99
Starring: Bette Davis, Henry Fonda, George Brent, Margaret Lindsay, Donald Crisp, Fay Bainter, Richard Cromwell, Henry O’Neill, Spring Byington, John Litel, Theresa Harris, Irving Pichel, Eddie Anderson, .
Cinematography: Ernest Haller
Film Editor: Warren Low
Original Music: Max Steiner
Written by Clements Ripley, Abem Finkel, John Huston, Robert Buckner from a play by Owen Davis Sr.
Produced and Directed by William Wyler
Jezebel may be a Bette Davis star vehicle, but it’s also a great picture about bigger things. Yes, as with other William Wyler ‘power dramas,’ the big scene takes place on a sweeping stairway. The difference here is that the story isn’t twaddle about the blooming of an ugly duckling or a woman succumbing to a glamorous Hollywood disease. Legend has it that Jezebel is the picture given Davis to compensate for losing the role of Scarlett Whatzer Nayme in that other big antebellum movie. Loyal Bette fans prefer to deem it as better than Selznick’s sprawling epic. It’s certainly less politically damned at the moment, when PC revisionism is finding more traction than ever in film history. Thank providence that Warner Home Video didn’t feel it necessary to slap on a ‘racial insensitivity’ disclaimer, the way it does its rowdy cartoons from an earlier age. More on that subject below.
In the pre-Civil War New Orleans, entitled whites are waited on by black slaves and the well-to-do conduct themselves under codes of conduct already 100 years out of date. Hoping to win her beau Preston Dillard (Henry Fonda), spoiled Julie Marsden (Davis) shows how independent and daring she can be by breaking the inflexible rules of propriety. Nobody seems able to control Julie, not even her caring Aunt Belle Massey (Fay Bainter). Pres is sincere and thoughtful, but Julie presses her luck by flirting with an ex-flame, Buck Cantrell (George Brent), a genteel rake willing to kill men in duels over petty insults. Determined to make a mark nobody will forget, Julie arranges to wear a forbidden scarlet dress to a fancy ball where white is proscribed … and is horrified when Pres responds to the disgrace by breaking with her and leaving town. Pres returns a year later, and Julie has new plans to win him back — but when he arrives she’s met with a shocking revelation…
What? I’ve stopped short with the synopsis for this very good drama, because its few story turns need to be experienced firsthand. The heavy-duty dramatics of Jezebel allow Bette to show what she can do with the most demanding material. Julie Marsden is as tough an acting challenge as that other brat Scarlett O’Hara; she’s perhaps even more difficult of a heroine to sell to an audience. This coquette entertains us with her cute tricks, which prove to be self-destructive in this regimented mini-society. Julie alienates her family, friends and fiancé by being a self-centered pill; by the time she’s derailed her romantic life and encouraged at least one tragedy, the only way to regain her self-respect is by drastic means. Davis does all of this in awkward-looking hoop skirts, without benefit of Clark Gable, Technicolor, or a cast of thousands.
Surprisingly, romance takes second place in this story. The love of Julie’s life is no Rhett Butler. The rather stiff-backed Pres has no intention of carrying her off to a bedroom kicking or screaming. Halfway into the story, he wants nothing to do with her, and by the finish he’s just a silent presence on a hospital litter. The real conflict is inside Julie, and the lesson in personal responsibility she learns is actually rather anti-feminist and socially conservative. The only other movie I’ve seen that makes as powerful case for conformity in female role models is The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie. That movie gives us Maggie Smith as an entertainingly liberated, unconventional woman, and then all but beats her to death with a moral tire iron. Yet both movies are wholly satisfying.
The multi-authored screenplay works because it reverses audience expectations. Conventions, societal rules and other frippery was often challenged in 1930s movies, where women did the opposite of what they were expected to do in real life — stay passive and ‘ladylike.’ Screwball comedies are based on the notion that high spirits cancel out the rules of etiquette, so we initially applaud Julie Marsden as she shocks her servants and relatives with her outspoken opinions and contrary behaviors. The issue of wearing a forbidden color to a dress ball sounds like a stupid taboo begging to be broken — until we see the scandalized consensus reaction and the furious response of Henry Fonda’s Preston Dillard. Whether she likes it or not Julie must live in the same fishbowl as her peers, and she grossly miscalculates the effect on Preston. There’s a difference between a spirited girl and a disgraceful loose cannon. Julie’s folly is best felt through the terrific secondary performance of Fay Bainter, who reacts with growing sadness as Julie refuses her advice and persists with her games. Both actresses won Oscars that year.
Jezebel presents the South of 1852 as a foreign land of arcane customs. The most identifiable feature of the ‘women’s’ picture is the passive male presence, but that’s not the case here. Henry Fonda’s Pres has only a limited patience for Julie’s ‘spirit’, and eventually takes his crazy parade elsewhere. We sometimes forget that at the beginning of his career, Fonda wasn’t considered a great actor by any means — William Wyler seems to be capitalizing on his stiffness. Pres begs and pleads for Julie to see reason, but at the big dance his gentlemanly manners force him to both take the disapproving stares of his friends. Chivalry demands that he shield Julie as well — if someone were to insult her directly, a duel of honor would be mandated. Julie’s caprice could easily get somebody killed.
The prominent human doormat of the ’30’s woman’s weepie genre, George Brent, plays a fascinating exaggerated masculine gentleman, the male counterpart to independent Julie. Brent’s Buck Cantrell is consistently courtly in his manner, but he also lives in a strait-jacket of behavior as rigidly proscribed as that of a Samurai. Buck’s ‘politeness’ often masks distaste, disapproval or contempt. No challenge to a duel can be forgiven or ignored, and one’s temper need not be raised to kill a man, even a good man. The rules aren’t just for Julie. The macho code is out of control.
Gone with the Wind has the entire Civil War to contend with (and to reduce to an all-consuming background conflagration). Jezebel concocts an epidemic that all but spells doom for New Orleans — the levees breaking would be less disastrous. Thoroughly humiliated by her own foolishness and humbled before the plainspoken Yankee visitor Amy Bradford (Margaret Lindsay), Julie redeems herself through an extreme sacrifice. The theatrical nobility and emotion of Julie’s actions come this close to being laughable — but never cross the line. William Wyler essentially re-draws the line. The Warner production machine comes through with the visual grandeur, Davis provides the acting powerhouse and Jezebel roars to an unforgettable finish.
I would argue that Jezebel presents a fair picture of its subject, not seen in ‘aren’t we shocked’ modern movies like Steve McQueen’s Twelve Years a Slave or even the post-modern weirdness of Tarantino’s Django Unchained. The film’s black cast of servants include Eddie Anderson as well as the remarkable, under-celebrated Theresa Harris. The docile slaves exhibit the standard Yowsah and Sho-nuff behaviors, as that is what their unfair status required of them. Julie interrupts a party to welcome the children of the slaves, who sit on her broad skirt and sing with her. It’s done without comment even though William Wyler was acutely aware of racial inequities in 1938 America. This is the way it was in New Orleans of the 1850s: a Southern belle could be praised as sweet and thoughtful for making a celebrity appearance with the children of her powerless vassals.
It would be an anachronistic insult to invent a liberal audience surrogate spokesperson to go about muttering ‘tsk tsk’ at the backward attitudes. The sane outsider Amy Bradford may even be an abolitionist, but she knows she’d do no good by making a scene about any of this — she reserves her outrage until the Southern Code puts the life of her brother-in-law in jeopardy. Instead, Pres Dillard is given a few mushy things to say about The Change That Must Come in Time.
Besides, it’s not as if these provincial nabobs have a handle on any other societal problem. The city fathers of New Orleans can’t get their act together to drain the diseased swamps, even though not doing so means certain calamity. That sounds a lot like this century’s climate denial game.
Gone With the Wind is ultimately a valentine bemoaning a ‘lost paradise’ that never was, celebrating themes that Selznick should never have touched after The Birth of a Nation. Wyler’s Jezebel gives us a society that still exists wherever money and privilege trump human rights. The ‘glamour’ of chivalry boils down to a gentlemanly slaughter. Even a meaningless dispute begun as a slight to a Belle of Honor can result in a death. Buck Cantrell’s swash & style dims when events prove his lifestyle to be an absurd fraud.
Bette Davis immerses herself in her conflicted character; I like the movie because there’s a dramatic symmetry to Jule Mardsen’s strange fate. Her immaturity makes her unhappy and causes an unnecessary calamity, but she still has positive qualities. The character is still there, and the honor attached to loyalty is genuine. She’d commit the same sacrifice if she had married Pres as she planned. It’s just more Southern madness that poor Amy Bradford will have to accept.
When I try to imagine ‘what happens next’ in Jezebel, I keep being reminded of John Ford’s The Prisoner of Shark Island,which has an epidemic sequence similar to what might be waiting for Pres and Julie at the end of their wagon ride. The main character of the Civil War thriller does exactly what Julie says she can do, and that Amy cannot: cow and intimidate a bunch of ‘darkies’ into doing her bidding to save Preston’s life. I’m happy that Turner Classic Movies, now all but the only outlet for these older movies, doesn’t edit them to remove ‘inconvenient’ content. You can’t make historical injustice disappear by hiding its evidence in movies.
The Warner Archive Collection Blu-ray of Jezebel is the hoped-for digital restoration of a genuine WB classic; MGM dominated grandiose period dramas, but with William Wyler at the helm this mini-epic has qualities The Lion rarely achieved. It is only 104 minutes long, but padding it out wouldn’t make it better — we’re emotionally wrung-out as it is.
The excellent transfer pulls a fine image from the 1938 production; the film stock used still has that slightly gauzy look of the earlier ’30s, except that the granularity here is finer than on older copies — in close-ups those Bette Davis Eyes do indeed look like glimmering pools. Max Steiner’s music score relies less on standards or stereotyped tunes than some of his work — Wyler apparently asked him to stick with the powerful main theme, which comes up full force at the conclusion.
WB has changed the extras slightly from those on the older DVD from 2006. Historian Jeannine Basinger comes forward with an informative commentary; she’s good company and doesn’t use the track as a professor’s pulpit. The 2006 Davis-centric featurette Legend of the South covers all the same bases, and brings in the issue of Bette Davis’ failed attempt to escape studio servitude, the short version of which is that Olivia de Havilland succeeded where Davis flubbed up. The musical short on this disc is Melody Masters: Jimmy Dorsey and his Orchestra, but the color cartoon has been changed to the classic Daffy Duck in Hollywood, presumably chosen because it’s been restored in snappy Technicolor. The cartoon studio head says the immortal line that I love to paraphrase:
“Amazing! Marvelous! Stupendous! Colossal! Tremendous! Gigantic!
Astounding! Unbelievable! Spectacular! Phenomenal!
And it’s good, too.“Also new is a featurette with a cameraman ‘rambling around the studio’ to capture ‘candid’ scenes of stars at work. A trailer completes the package.
Think I need a few more pictures of Bette Davis here?
Reviewed by Glenn Erickson
Supplements: Commentary by Jeannine Basinger, featurette Legend of the South, Musical short Melody Masters: Jimmy Dorsey and his Orchestra,, featurette Rambling ‘Round the Hollywood Studio with the Candid Cameraman,, Cartoon Daffy Duck in Hollywood, Trailer.
Deaf and Hearing-impaired Friendly? YES; Subtitles: English (feature only)
Packaging: One Blu-ray in Keep case
Reviewed: September 18, 2019
Final product for this review was provided free by The Warner Archive Collection.
Text © Copyright 2019 Glenn Erickson