Oscar Vault Monday – Jezebel, 1938 (dir. William Wyler)

I really love this film. I have watched it many times. It’s one that gets richer each time you watch it. Often, you hear it dismissed, or at least introduced, as Bette Davis’s Gone With The Wind, but it is definitely more than just a consolation prize. This film represents a turning point in Davis’s career and it was after her phenomenal turn in this film that she became the superstar we now know and love. The film was nominated for five Academy Award, won two: Best Cinematography, Best Score, Best Supporting Actress Fay Bainter (won), Best Actress Bette Davis (won), Best Picture. The other films nominated for Best Picture that year were The Adventures of Robin Hood, Alexander’s Ragtime Band, Boys Town, The Citadel, Four Daughters, La Grande Illusion, Pygmalion, Test Pilot, and winner You Can’t Take It With You. I have actually seen all of these films, and they are ALL fantastic.


Although William Wyler holds the record for most Best Director nominations – twelve nominations with three wins – he was not nominated for his work on this film. Jezebel was also the fifth film on which John Huston received a writing credit and his third collaboration with William Wyler. It comes just three years before his breakthrough film The Maltese Falcon.


When we first see Bette Davis’s character Julie Marsden, she rushes in late to her own party wearing her riding clothes. She thinks it’s more important to greet her guests than the change into proper attire. Her guests think otherwise. This is when we first see that Julie is a different kind of woman, who runs by a different set of rules. She’s stuck in a world that doesn’t understand her and therefore punishes her for it. During her six-decade-long career, Davis was nominated for Best Actress eleven times, winning for this film and 1935’s Dangerous (which despite having seen 32 or so of her films, I’ve yet to see that one!). Her first nomination was a write-in nomination for 1934’s Of Human Bondage. Davis was nominated for Best Actress five years in a row starting with her nomination (and win) for Jezebel. Davis is the third most nominated actress in Oscar history, behind Katharine Hepburn (with twelve) and Meryl Streep (with fourteen).


This quote pretty much speaks for itself. She’s going to the Olympus Ball with her fiancée who has just stood her up to stay at his bank when he was supposed to come look at her dress. Out of spite, she decides to buy a shiny red dress (it’s hinted it was made for a woman of the oldest profession, if you know what I mean). No unmarried woman in New Orleans society would dare wear anything but white to this ball. No one but Miss Julie.


Julie’s fiance Pres Dillard (Henry Fonda) is chastised by his older co-worker at the bank for letting Julie interrupt a meeting, told that his father would have beaten the tar out of woman who acted like her. After Pres comes to visit her and apologize for standing her up, Julie refuses to see him. This leads to him banging on her door wielding a stick. He doesn’t beat her, but Julie sees the stick and uses the moment to torture him further with her words. If you notice in the background there is a painting that strikes a remarkable resemblance to a portrait of Anne Boleyn. This cold be a coincidence. Or it could be some damn fine direction.

Which brings us to Henry Fonda as Pres Dillard. Fonda was one of the last people cast in the film and had it in his contract that he had to finish filming by mid-December because his wife was expecting a child and he wanted to be there. He finished filming just in time to be there for the birth of his eldest, Jane (born December 21, 1937, and winner of two Best Actress Academy Awards). It also goes that  Wyler was rough on Fonda during filming – making him film ten or twelve takes constantly – because they were both at one time married to actress Margaret Sullavan. During his career, which also spanned six decades, Fonda nominated for Best Actor for The Grapes of Wrath, got a Best Picture nomination for producing 12 Angry Men, won an Honorary award in 1980 and finally won the Best Actor Oscar for 1981’s On Golden Pond. In Jezebel, his character is the only man who could ever truly match with Julie. He understands her fire and her independence, but for all his prescience, he has his pride and he has a line that once crossed, is crossed forever.


That line is crossed when Julie insists on going to the Olympus Ball in the infamous red dress (oh for a Technicolor sequence!), at which both he and Julie feel a shame that will last a lifetime. Only Aunt Belle (Fay Bainter) and  Buck Cantrell (George Brent) receive the couple; everyone else makes excuses to get away from them. This leads to one of the most painful scenes in all of cinema, when Pres forces Julie to waltz with him, evening telling the band that stops playing to continue. It is excruciating to watch.


Wyler repeats this shot of Julie hiding from Pres twice. The top shot is from before the Olympus Ball, when she’s hiding her red dress. The second, is a year later. Pres broke their engagement and went to the North on business without her. He has returned and Julie has waited all this time to wear white for him and to prove that she loves and respects him. It’s equally painful to watch her prostrate herself in front of Pres. We’re so used to this spitfire of a woman, but because society has crushed her fire with its “manners,” she’s forced to change her ways and succumb to their idea of what is proper.


Her plans fo awry, when Pres introduces her to his “Yankee” wife Amy (Margaret Lindsay). Pres has changed while up in the North (at one point he even predicts the outcome of a civil war that is still years away; the film is set in 1852). At first Amy is delighted by the South and all its little rituals and traditions, but after a particularly violent incident (which I will write about soon), she asks “Are you Southerners savages?!” Amy’s character goes through a real transformation in the short time we see her, and Lindsay does a remarkable job with it. She also co-starred with Davis in 1935’s Dangerous.


When Julie discovers Pres’s marriage to Amy, she decides to goad sometime-admirer and expert duellist Buck Cantrell to pick a fight with him. Earlier in the film Cantrell “defended” Julie’s honor by dueling with a man who impugned her good name in a bar.


Pres is called off to business – Yellow Fever is spreading and men are scarce at the bank – so his brother Ted winds up challenging Buck to a duel, despite being Buck’s best friend. This is one of those “quaint traditions” that is called into question by the film. Julie is against it, but she can’t do anything about it, so she embraces it. This is to be her fate throughout the film and this is part of the film’s great power. Julie is blamed for everything – including actions men take on her behalf, even when she begs them not to do so. This is the lot of women.


Donald Crisp as a small, but pivotal role as the doctor who attempts to save Pres’s life when he falls victim to the Yellow Fever. Crisp won Best Supporting Actor for 1941’s Best Picture winner How Green Was My Valley.


Fay Bainter gives a stunning performance as Aunt Belle, a woman wise in the ways of the South and of men. She tries to guide Davis’s Julie, but to no avail. A lot this performance is silent; it’s in her reactions and her observant eyes. This is movie acting at its finest. Bainter was also nominated in 1938 in the Best Actress category for her work in White Banners, losing to her co-star Jezebel Davis. She was nominated for Best Supporting Actress a second time for Wyler’s 1961 film The Children’s Hour.


Like many films set in the South during the Antebellum period, the film depicts happy singing slaves. I’m never sure how to take this. There are actually several roles for African American actors in this film, though all are played for comedy in a “laugh at the house slave” kind of way, which again makes me a little queasy. It’s hard to look at films with depictions of slavery like this, but I think it’s important to know what was once acceptable in order to understand why it’s not.


Lastly, I wanted to talk about Davis’s wardrobe. When you first see her, she is in that dress riding dress. Then she is in the dark red dress, followed by the white dress. Lastly, she is in a black-and-white cloak and this dress, which is also black-and-white. It’s at this point in the film where Julie has decided to sacrifice her own health for the well-being of the man she loves. She has learned some hard lessons, but she has retained just enough of her spark and independence to act in ways that she knows are right, despite what society might think. Her dress reflects the merger of these two Julies into one, strong, determined woman.

About Marya E. Gates

Cinephile to the max.

Posted on December 3, 2012, in Oscar Vault Monday and tagged , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

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