William Wyler had already made a few creditable films—among them, These Three (1936) and Dodsworth (1936)—by the time he made the first film of his that truly owed a substantial part of its excellence to his filmmaking. This was Jezebel, an antebellum drama based on a play by Owen Davis, adapted by Clements Ripley, Abem Finkel and John Huston. (With Robert Rossen, Finkel had co-authored the fine script for They Won’t Forget the year before.) There’s no question that the film originated in substandard literary material; despite a Pulitzer Prize (for Icebound), Davis was a prolific hack. But Wyler, who would remain attracted to melodrama, in this instance and several others wrought a result that transcends its sensational material to reflect on serious matters. Wyler may have been no more than a craftsperson bordering on being some sort of an artist, but surely in the late 1930s it must have seemed, with Jezebel, that he was on the verge of brilliance.
I wish to dispose of the Gone with the Wind matter at the outset, because it is almost completely a distraction. Everyone knows that the star of Jezebel, Bette Davis, had wanted to play Scarlett O’Hara in the film of Margaret Mitchell’s silly, unreadable racist novel; because it’s such a rich part, so did most every other Hollywood actress. Despite an overture to Warner Bros. from producer David O. Selznick’s camp, this was not to be. (And fortunately so, it would seem, given the incomparable beauty of Vivien Leigh’s subsequent performance in the role.) Thus began the rumor that Jezebel was her studio’s “consolation prize” to Davis for her not getting the part she coveted, and that indeed the film itself was Warners’ own attempt to steal some of the thunder of the upcoming epic from a rival (actually, independent) studio. None of this is of any consequence, really, except for a bogus idea that has attached itself to all the speculation, to wit, that Julie Marsden, the girl that Davis plays in Jezebel, is soul-sister to Scarlett O’Hara. Both are southern, highly spirited, and deeply in love, but two characters that are more unlike would be difficult to find. Scarlett O’Hara is almost entirely conventional and defined by the conservative context of her time and place; she is the quintessential “southern belle.” Julie Marsden, on the other hand, chafes hard against convention. Unlike Scarlett, she is, in the film at least, a vehicle for radical social inquiry.
There is another misunderstanding pertaining to Julie’s character and to the nature of the film, equally ridiculous, that needs to be dismissed. Jezebel is not in any psychological sense a “character study.” Perhaps it seems so because the lead performance is complex and exquisitely detailed. Nevertheless, Wyler’s Jezebel is a social not a character study, and I can prove it. Julie is a perverse, tempestuous and obviously troubled girl. About Julie, Dr. Livingstone thus says to her Aunt Belle, with whom it’s plain he long ago had a love affair, “She’s more like you, Belle, than you ever was.” The notion that two distinct characters could have the same “psychology” is—well, I’ve already indicated this: ridiculous. The duplication, rather, indicates the role of a certain kind of woman in society—one who is highly intelligent and therefore desirous of independence and of respect from the menfolk. To be sure, Julie’s being an orphan contributes to Davis’s comprehension of the character. So do other personal and “psychological” details. Nevertheless, it’s crushing to see Julie alongside Belle once we know that the latter, a now perfectly conventional person, was once (to mainstream society) as disagreeably in pursuit of her own prerogatives as her surrogate daughter is now. Wyler’s film wants us to grasp something of the social forces that drive young females to perverse behavior—forces that most often succeed, as in Belle’s case, in subduing them to a subordinate role in the male-dominated mainstream. I daresay Fay Bainter won an Oscar, as best supporting actress, because she succeeds in suggesting the tragic reduction of the full-blown girl Belle once was—the girl we currently see mirrored in her interesting niece, who seems so full of possibilities.
New Orleans, 1852. Preston Dillon, a young banker, joins Dr. Livingstone in recommending that the local swamp be drained, to limit the breeding of mosquitoes, in order to protect the community against an outbreak of yellow fever such as it suffered in 1830. The cityfolk won’t listen. The (white) men—the only community members with the political right to decide such matters—are instead wrapped up in decadent manners and customs, such as dueling, often to the death, over the cause of a woman’s “honor.” It is the role of (white) women simply to follow the rules that the (white) men lay down. Even Livingstone, so enlightened in other areas, believes that females should be whipped whenever they rebel against the male-determined rules of the community. Dillon’s fiancée, Julie Marsden, is a born rebel. An orphan under whose guardian Dillon works at the bank, she sees no reason to submit to either tradition or convention; politically powerless, she is not above flouting rules when she feels slighted. Julie feels precisely that when Pres forsakes her party for a bank meeting. Even the other womenfolk feel she is being unreasonable; bank business is, after all, serious business. To Julie, though, it is male business—at the time, by custom, females aren’t even supposed to step foot in a bank—in a world where male rule is pervasive, and in order to gain at least the illusion of power in such a world a girl such as she must rack up points as she can. Thus when another bank meeting keeps Pres from their own appointed meeting to buy for her a new dress for the Olympus Ball, Julie makes a rash decision that will disgrace her and ruin her life: she buys a red dress for the ball, where all unmarried girls are supposed to wear white to signify their virginity. In a stunning passage showing his symbolical public rape of her, to justify the scarlet in which she is gowned, Pres forces her to dance at the ball even when, realizing her mistake, she begs him over and over to let her go and take her home. He breaks off the engagement and leaves town for a job up north, thus withdrawing from New Orleans the one young public voice whose constant agitation might have succeeded in imposing desperately needed health measures. One year later he returns, married, and in a fatal stroke of irony succumbs to the yellow fever that has erupted just as he had predicted. Meanwhile, Julie’s machinations have resulted in the death, by duel, of an old suitor whom she had manipulated in order to try to make Pres jealous. Pres’s northern wife, Amy, plans to accompany her dying husband to Lazarette Island, where contagious yellow fever victims are being quarantined among the lepers; but Julie begs her to allow her to go instead on a number of grounds, among them, to prove herself unselfish and make herself “clean.” Pres loves which of the two, Amy dares to ask Julie, who responds by lying: “Pres loves his wife. Who else would he love?” With Amy’s permission, Julie gets her wish. A blazing fire—realistically, an inadequate defense against the plague; symbolically, an exultant sign of Julie’s purification—provides the backdrop for Julie’s courageous profile in one of the most celebrated shots in Wyler’s long career. Moreover, as many commentators have pointed out, the fire presages the American Civil War a dozen years off in the future. This impression is heartpoundingly bolstered by the sound of cannons being fired in an attempt to disperse the contagion in the air.
Wyler realizes the film visually with great imagination, employing deep shadows, especially in the second half, to portray an inwardly drawn society suffocating from its own pride and its addiction to outmoded rules that (like slavery) have no place in a new nation that has declared its independence from the Old World. He is alert to humanity: the contrast between rambunctious slave children and the robotic slave elders, for example—and he is alert to symbolism: wheels of wagons carting away yellow fever victims to their doom: inexorable fate—but “fate” only because humans haven’t acted as they might have acted. Collaborating on the film’s superlative visual aspect is Wyler’s cinematographer, Ernest Haller. Fortunately, Jezebel was filmed in black and white, which not only suits the mood of the piece but is essential in capturing the full import of the red dress that Julie defiantly wears to the Olympus Ball. The point is not that the dress is red—for the sake of contrast, in fact, a black dress was used—but that it isn’t white—a point that a color film would have at least blunted, perhaps lost.
What a fine American film this is, although the limited choices it allows its female characters can depress in the extreme. The film’s centerpiece, of course, is Bette Davis’s delicately nuanced, emotionally thrilling and ultimately heartrending Oscar-winning performance—one of the three or four most highly deserving of this best actress accolade. (Having already won for her alcoholic Joyce Heath in Dangerous, this was Davis’s second Oscar.) Julie’s transfigured face—a mixture of fear, selfish opportunism and transcendent selflessness—when (by way of someone else’s remark) the idea comes to her to tend to her dying beloved on Lazarette Island is perhaps the most riveting moment of this performance, although surely its most moving ones occur when Julie pleads to accompany Pres to almost certain agonizing death for them both. I have a theory of how such an extraordinary performance arose from what is essentially cheap material. In shaping and detailing her Julie, a girl who perversely tosses acid on all her hopes to succeed romantically, Davis, perhaps guided by Wyler (whom she would totally credit for her performance, and who was her lover at the time), used for guidance another, more substantial Julie: the title character of August Strindberg’s play Miss Julie.
Henry Fonda is wonderful as Pres, a practical, enlightened man still tied to the Old South—and a cruel man, who in denying Julie his love cuts his nose to spite his face. That’s the irony; for Pres is more like Julie than he knows.
Max Steiner’s music is also an asset to the film.
It goes without saying that Jezebel is infinitely better than Gone with the Wind, with its patchwork quilt of direction (George Cukor, this scene, Sam Wood, that scene, Victor Fleming here, someone off the street there).
And just for the record: Owen Davis’s play preceded Mitchell’s book by a few years.
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