Jezebel (1938)

Jezebel (1938)

Synopsis:

In the 1850s New Orleans, Louisiana, a high-strong Southern belle, Julie Marsden (Bette Davis), gets her kicks from going against society’s expectations and that makes her beau, Preston Dillard (Henry Fonda, On Golden Pond), very angry. Preston eventually breaks off the engagement, but Julie is determined to win him back.

Reaction & Thoughts:

“I’m thinking of a woman called Jezebel who did evil in the sight of God.”

Jezebel has all the trademarks of a great movie. Ernest Haller’s (Rebel Without a Cause) gorgeous cinematography, Max Steiner’s (Since You Went Away) lovely music score, William Wyler’s (The Best Years of Our Lives) meticulous direction, the story, the acting, etc., all elements come together to create a rewarding cinematic experience.

Because it resembles David O. Selznick’s Gone with the Wind (1939), Warners’ Jezebel was seen by many people as nothing but a copycat. While it’s true that Warners studios did want to cash in on publicity surrounding Selznick’s 1939 classic, saying that Jezebel is merely a Gone with the Wind wannabe is grossly unfair. Plot similarities aside, Jezebel stands on its own merits — it’s drama of the highest order.

The film is based on a successful 1933 stage play by American dramatist Owen Gould Davis. The screenplay — credited to Clements Ripley (Buffalo Bill), Abem Finkel (Sergeant York) and future director John Huston (The Maltese Falcon and The African Queen) — is particularly well-constructed. Melodrama and sociopolitical issues interact in fascinatingly complex ways throughout the whole movie.

The movie does a surprisingly fine job exploring sexism in the 19th century. The story’s anti-heroine, Julie Marsden, is on the surface a bull-headed woman who goes too far with her schemes. All that is true. But it’s also true that Julie shows a lot of guts as she attempts to nip at the heels of a society where gender equality is nonexistent. It’s something to think about while enjoying the drama and great performances.

Jezebel was a big commercial success and made Bette Davis a superstar. After much struggle and suffering, Davis finally got what she always wanted: A great role in a Class-A movie. Her brilliant work was rewarded with an Oscar for Best Actress. Davis always gave director Wyler all the credit for her improvement as an artist, and I’m inclined to agree with her. He’s clearly the very first director to take Davis’s energy and channel it into stunning work. It’s unquestionably one of her best performances.

I was also loved Fay Bainter’s (The Children’s Hour) performance as Davis’s long-suffering Aunt. It’s mostly a reactive performance, but Bainter is great at acting with her eyes. She is often in the background, rarely at the center of the scene, but her face conveys so much! And Bainter’s character is the conscience of the movie. Like Davis, she nabbed an Oscar (Best supporting Actress) for her stupendous work.

Although he’s effective as Davis’s love interest, Henry Fonda is out-acted by Davis and Bainter. George Brent (The Great Lie) also a tad lost as Buck Cantrell, Davis’s ex-boyfriend. The huge cast includes Donald Crisp (Juarez) as Dr. Livingstone, Spring Byington (You Can’t Take It with You) as Mrs. Kendrick, Henry O’Neill (Marked Woman) as General Theopholus Bogardus and Eddie Anderson (Cabin in the Sky) as Gros Bat.

Conclusions & Final Thoughts:

Jezebel is an intelligent, engrossing, and utterly entertaining movie. Bette Davis is absolutely marvelous, and director William Wyler creates many unforgettable set-pieces: the Olympus Ball sequences are superbly staged, and the ending is wonderfully sly (Wyler leaves the door open for all kids of interpretations). Although nowhere as good as Gone with the Wind, Jezebel is a near-perfect movie — a must-see for all classic movie lovers! Highly recommended! B&W, 104 minutes, Not Rated.

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