Jezebel (1938)

“Marriage, is it? To that washed out little Yankee? Pres is mine — he’s always been mine!”

Synopsis:
A headstrong Southern belle (Bette Davis) jeopardizes her engagement to a conservative banker (Henry Fonda) by scandalously wearing a red dress to a ball, then experiences extreme jealousy when he marries a woman (Margaret Lindsay) from up north.

Genres:

Response to Peary’s Review:
Warner Brothers’ million-dollar “antebellum costume drama” — directed by William Wyler “with his customary attention to period detail” — is notable in cinematic history as Davis’s consolation prize for not securing the role of Scarlett O’Hara in Gone With the Wind (1939). Peary argues that it “suffers because of too much chit-chat about what’s proper in southern society and the embarrassing portrayal of the black slaves (a happy-go-lucky, singing lot)” — but he concedes that “the large-eyed Davis is a joy to watch, whether stirring up things at the ball, humbly apologizing to Fonda, or, in the film’s highlight, convincing Lindsay… to let her take care of the seriously ill Fonda.” However, in Alternate Oscars — where Peary names Margaret Sullavan in Three Comrades as Best Actress of the Year instead — he writes that while it’s “fun to watch Davis in one of her most ostentatious roles”, the “more one sees this hokey film, the less interesting is [her] character”, a woman who (unlike Scarlett) is “empty at the core”. I disagree: Davis’s Julie is clearly presented as a brash, privileged white woman who is used to having her own way and defying society’s (often illogical) rules, but she eventually undergoes a character arc that’s refreshing to behold. With that said, I agree with Peary that the presentation of slaves in this film is distressingly demeaning; and it’s frustrating not to see Julie’s oh-so-scandalously-red dress in — well, red. This isn’t a great film, but Davis’s performance — as well as fine supporting performances by Fay Bainter as Julie’s aunt and George Brent as her would-be suitor — makes it worth a one-time look.

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • Bette Davis as Julie
  • Fay Bainter as Aunt Belle
  • George Brent as Buck Cantrell
  • Fine cinematography and direction

Must See?
Yes, once, for its historical relevance as Davis’s second Oscar-winning role.

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