Jezebel (1938)


  • directed by William Wyler
  • starring Bette Davis, Henry Fonda, Fay Bainter, Donald Crisp
  • a haughty headstrong Southern Belle in Antebellum Louisiana loses her fiance due to her stubborn vanity and pride and vows to get him back.

“This is 1852 dumplin’, 1852, not the Dark Ages. Girls don’t have to simper around in white just because they’re not married.”

I learned after watching this that a color option was available so I’m a little bummed I didn’t go that route. There’s a pretty major scene early on that hinges completely on the color of Julie’s dress and it would’ve been nice to have that visual accompaniment. Not to mention there’s a big difference between a sweeping plantation in drab black and white versus vibrant color. A lot of people like to mention the similarities between Jezebel and Gone With the Wind, which came out a year later, but the intensity of the relationship between the two leads here doesn’t match up to that of Scarlett and Rhett, and not to mention a colorized version of Tara Plantation makes this setting (in black and white) look like a murky swamp by comparison.

On the other hand Bette Davis’ performance matched up perfectly to the black and white aesthetic for me, like there was something angelic or ghostly about her at certain points here and there. There’s a scene at the plantation where she walks outside to where Preston is in the yard. It was nothing special at all, but she approaches him so slowly wearing such a flowing white dress that it struck me. I felt the same for many of her reactions, scene entrances, and mannerisms throughout the movie. I still don’t know how I feel about Bette Davis on the whole (I’ll get more experience soon enough), but so far I like her most for simply her presence.

In terms of the movie, this is the first pairing of Wyler and Davis and it seemed a little uneven to me. There’s a pretty huge transformation of character that Julie goes through from start to finish and it was hard to get on board with the fact that the inspiration for it all was Henry Fonda’s Preston. He was a jerk for the first third of the movie, boring the next third, and bed-ridden with Yellow Fever for the final. I’m a big Fonda fan but he just fell flat. Incidentally, production of Jezebel was slightly disrupted by the birth of his daughter Jane. Other than that there was an OK Corral-type shootout scene and a pretty touching musical scene shared between Julie and the plantation kids.

As I keep thinking about the movie, I guess I like it more and more. Wyler definitely knows how to compose a shot around Davis and I am excited to watch their next two efforts together. It’s also easy to be knocked out by what Davis did with the role of Julie, masterfully playing her from flighty to fawning, with or without words.


About classixquest
all the things I should have seen

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