JEZEBEL (1938) 

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Bette Davis
Henry Fonda
George Brent
Margaret Lindsay
Donald Crisp
Fay Bainter
Richard Cromwell
Henry O'Neill

William Wyler



Time: 103 mins.
Rating: Not Rated
Genre: Drama/Romance/Civil War

Won Academy Awards for Best Actress (Davis) and Best Supporting Actress (Bainter). Nominated for Cinematography, Score and Best Picture.

The only reason I wanted to see this film was for Bette Davis' performance. The story is hardly unique, but there's nothing like a classic romantic potboiler to get you through a gloomy afternoon. This film was made in the days when women ruled the box office and got well-written, glamourous, juicy roles that showcased their talent as much as their looks. Davis rarely looked better than in JEZEBEL and she certainly gives her all as a strong-willed Southern belle who makes all the wrong decisions when it comes to love. Though it was released a year earlier, it's still a second rate GONE WITH THE WIND. This was a film made to please Davis who wanted to play Scarlett, but was not given the chance. Seeing her work in JEZEBEL, I'm not sure she could have played the more complicated Scarlett O'Hara, but she sure does meet the maliciously manipulative quotient. Wyler tries to keep her sympathetic, but Davis' Julie Marsden is one of those characters you love to hate. There's not a moment in her life where she isn't thinking of her needs and on some level you have to admire a woman like that. On the other hand, she's nothing but trouble and I'm glad there's no one in my life who behaves like that.

The film opens in New Orleans in 1852. It's a day for happiness since everyone has gathered to celebrate the engagement of Julie Marsden (Davis), their hostess, to local banker Preston Dillard (Fonda). The only problem is that neither the soon-to-be bride or groom are anywhere to be found. Julie's Aunt Belle (Bainter) is just in a tizzy about Julie's tardiness, but this is nothing new for the head-strong young woman. When she finally does arrive she greets her guests in her riding habit, which is highly inappropriate, but understandable since it's Julie. Julie is thrilled with the prospect of marrying Pres and wants everyone else to be as well...even her old beau Buck Cantrell (Brent). He gives a toast to her future, but not her happiness. That he fears she will never find. She's proud to become a banker's wife, even if it means moving up North.

However, she will not play second fiddle to anything, not even the bank. When Pres refuses to leave a board meeting to go to the dressmaker's to see her new dress for the upcoming Olympus ball, she decides to punish him for breaking his promise to her. Instead of wearing the requisite white gown, de rigueur for unmarried ladies, she decides to attend wearing a vibrant red dress – something you have to take their word for since the film is in B&W. Her aunt and uncle are horrified and beg her to reconsider, but she refuses. When Pres calls that evening, she refuses to see him until she's ready to spring her trap. He begs her to stop being so childish and end these petty arguments. Her answer to that suggestion is to show him what she plans on wearing the following evening. He knows she's just punishing him for not being there and doesn't believe she'll go through with it. She'll be ostracized from all polite society if she shows up in that thing. Just to push her point further, she tries to get Buck to take her to the ball instead, but he's not that stupid. Upon seeing her so ill attired, Pres initially refuses to attend the ball. That is until she goads him by mocking his courage. Their arrival brings the ball to a standstill and Pres, forcing her to stay and face the music, teaches her a lesson she won't soon forget. It's also the end of their engagement.

"This is 1852 dumplin', 1852, not the dark ages. Girls don't have to simper around in white just because they're not married."

We pick up the story a year later. Pres went North without Julie. She's locked herself in the house, refusing to do anything or see anyone. A vicious yellow fever epidemic sends Julie and her Aunt Belle to their country plantation Halcyon to avoid the plague. They decide to throw a party to welcome Pres back to the South and invite all the usual suspects. What Pres forgot to tell them was that he was bringing his new wife Amy (Lindsay) with him to meet everyone. Needless to say, Julie, who was expecting to be reconciled, is less than happy with this change of plan. She was all ready to turn over a new leaf, but being thwarted doesn't bring out her better nature. To assuage her hurt feelings, she puts a plan into motion that will cost Buck his life and alienate her from everyone she loves. When Pres becomes ill with yellow fever, his survival is all she can think about. To redeem herself once and for all, regardless of whether or not she loses her own life, she puts her health on the line to make sure that Pres pulls through and is reunited with his wife. The ending is somewhat ambiguous, but if you believe in this character you know there's no way she's going to let him die.

JEZEBEL is a star turn of the highest order and if you're not a fan of Miss Davis, you will most likely not care for this movie. She won an Oscar for this performance, which gets a little high-handed towards the end of the film, but it's worth it to see the machinations and their horrible consequences. I haven't seen many Henry Fonda films and I was genuinely surprised by how much I liked him in this. I never imagined him as a romantic lead, but he does a pretty good job. He has chemistry with both Davis and Lindsay which can't have been easy. The rest of the supporting cast is also wonderful, making what could have been a run-of-the-mill romance into one that's enjoyable to sit through. The cinematography and costumes are also first rate. The best scene in the film is the one at the ball where Pres and Julie join a full dance floor only to quickly become the only ones dancing. The disdain and humiliation are palpable and even though you can't tell her dress is red, it sure sticks out like a sore thumb. Wyler is a great story teller and though I wouldn't say this is his best picture, he does a decent job with what he was given.

If I had a choice, I would recommend GONE WITH THE WIND, which certainly is a more complete picture of the South at that time and has a much more developed central character. However, if you've already seen that a million times and want to watch another film about that era, the performance by Davis is worth a whirl.

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