May 15, 2013
Jezebel (1938)
Grade: 75/100

Director: William Wyler
Stars: Bette Davis, Henry Fonda, George Brent

What it's about. An historical romance set in New Orleans during the 1850s, which of course is a few years prior to the Civil War. Julie (Bette Davis) begins the film as a young and headstrong Southern woman who lives in a plantation mansion with her socialite aunt Belle (Fay Bainter) and various black house servants, headed by elderly Cato (Lew Payton) and Eddie Anderson, a.k.a. Rochester from Jack Benny's radio show.

Julie is engaged to Preston (Henry Fonda), a banker from New Orleans with ties to New York. Julie and Preston have a stormy relationship, since Preston is practical while Julie's behavior is outrageous. Julie also encourages the interest of Buck (George Brent). He is a stereotypical wealthy young Southern man, well behaved but unreflective and willing to duel upon slight provocation.

Noteworthy supporting characters are Ted (Richard Cromwell), an earnest and progressive young man who admires his older brother Preston and disapproves of Buck; and Dr. Livingston (Donald Crisp), a middle-aged physician obsessed with preventing yellow fever.

Julie's petty and scandalous behavior causes Preston to break their engagement. He moves to New York, while Julie mopes in her mansion. A year later, Preston returns to New Orleans to aid Livington in his fight against a plague of yellow fever. Julie learns of Preston's arrival and invites him to her mansion, along with Ted and Buck. She is shaken when Preston arrives with a gorgeous and loyal but humorless Yankee wife, Amy (Margaret Lindsay).

Julie schemes to get Preston back by stoking jealousy through flirtations with Buck. The scheme collapses when Preston's defender, Ted, provokes Buck into a duel. All blame Julie for this, and she is ostracized. However, Julie has the chance to make amends when Preston falls ill with yellow fever and is sent to a leper colony with many other victims, all of whom have little chance of survival.

How others will see it. Today, Jezebel is best known as an Oscar-winning role for Davis. It was her second statuette, following Dangerous (1935). Largely forgotten is Fay Bainter's win for Best Supporting Actress. Bainter spends the film watching Davis with a combination of sympathy and trepidation. Meanwhile, Davis relishes her status of villainess despite her eventual noble character turn.

The film was belatedly added to National Film Registry in 2009. Today at, Jezebel has a respectable 6K user votes and a high average user rating of 7.6. Older audiences like the movie best, and women enjoy the film more than do men, though the spreads are modest. These outcomes are fairly predictable, since the film stars an actress famous for playing strong and independent characters, and is set in a distant time period than can be appreciated more fully by older viewers.

How I felt about it. Davis commands all the praise, and of course she is a fine actress, but the unsung heroes are director William Wyler and the screenwriters, one of whom is John Huston, later himself a famous director. Wyler's hand is sure and experienced, and the writers show considerable respect to the source Owen Davis play. The balance is correct between depicting both the nobility and the stupidity of wealthy antebellum Southern culture, personified by Buck, who dies in violence much as the Old South soon would die during the Civil War.

Comparisons are inevitable between Jezebel and Gone With the Wind, another period Southern drama starring a willful young woman caught in romantic triangles. Certainly, Gone With the Wind is the better movie, primarily because producer Selznick poured everything he had into it. Jezebel rejects both the limited role of a refined Southern woman and the parochial, self-serving views of the Southern man. Gone With the Wind is about perseverance: the Civil War and Reconstruction are formidable obstacles for Scarlett O'Hara to overcome, and men are the stepping stones along the way.

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