Oh, she’s a wild one, that Jezebel! Set in New Orleans in 1852, when the rules of society were not to be trifled with, Bette Davis’ Julie Marsden trifles all over the place. She rides a “mankiller” horse! She enters a drawing room in riding clothes! She storms into a bank, where ladies aren’t allowed! And worst of all, she wears a red gown to the Olympus Ball, where everybody know a young lady just has to wear white. The scandal of it all! Somebody pass me my smelling salts!!!
About the red gown… she chooses it against the strenuous objection of every sensible lady in the shop, including the wonderful Fay Bainter as Aunt Belle. But she won’t be dissuaded. “This is 1852, not the dark ages. Girls don’t have to simper around in white just because they’re not married.” To which Aunt Belle replies “In New Orleans they do.” You should always take Fay Bainter’s advice.
Once Julie shows up to the ball in that red gown, even the delightfully roguish Buck Cantrell (George Brent) refuses to be seen with her, greeting her with “My zing, miss Julie, are you all dressed up for a hog killing?” And let’s just take a moment to appreciate the name Buck Cantrell. I mean. Buck Cantrell.
But back to the dress. As soon as she gets to the ball she realizes she’s taken things a step too far. But her fiancé, Preston Dillard, (Henry Fonda) has been criticized for not having treated Julie with a firm enough hand, so he has something to prove. He takes her out on the dance floor, and the entire sea of proper white-clad missies parts before her, until the scarlet woman and her stoic man are the only pair on the floor. It’s an amazing scene. The movie is in black and white, but I swear when you think of that ball later, you’ll see Bette Davis in a red dress.
A word about Fonda and that firm hand he’s supposed to use. After Julie visits him at his bank, some old white guy tells Pres what his father would have done if his woman came surging into his place of business. “He’d have cut him a hickory, sir, a hickory. And he’d have flailed the living daylights out of her. And helped put lard on her welts, and bought her a diamond broach. That’s what he’d have done, sir. And she’d have loved it.”
Really, can you blame Miss Julie for rebelling against this shit?
And here’s where it gets complicated. Because if they made this movie today, Julie would be in the right. Society would see that they shouldn’t curb a strong, brave woman. But this movie was made in 1938, and the takeaway was a little different. Pres gets scarlet fever, you see, and after being humiliated, dumped, and abandoned by him, Julie ultimately sacrifices herself to go nurse him on an island quarantine hellhole, which will likely be her death sentence. The music swells and we’re meant to love the fact that someone so headstrong has finally been tamed. Or that her bravery has finally been properly channeled in service to her man. Or something.
I think not.
To me, this movie has something more interesting to say about what it was like to be a fearless headstrong woman in the 1930’s than it does about Jezebel in the 1850’s. And who better to play fire and fearlessness than Bette Davis, who had just taken on her own studio to win better scripts and directors? Luckily for us, her recklessness paid off.
Because really… Bette Davis. And by that I mean BETTE DAVIS! Giving Jezebel everything she’s got (which is a lot) to make us forget that other Southern belle named Scarlett who also had a movie coming out. And also Fay Bainter, who earned her Oscar with the look on her face when she finds out Pres has come back to New Orleans with a Northern bride. So good!
What you’ll choke on:
Oh, so much. Aside from the cheerful endorsement of giving your woman a proper beating, there is cringe-inducing treatment of happy slaves saying “yass’um” and singing at the ol’ plantation.
Most heartbreakingly self-deluded line:
“He had to come back to me. He couldn’t help himself.”