Friday, December 11, 2020

Jezebel (1938)

USA, 104 minutes
Director: William Wyler
Writers: Clements Ripley, Abem Finkel, John Huston, Owen Davis, Robert Buckner, Louis F. Edelman
Photography: Ernest Haller
Music: Max Steiner
Editor: Warren Low
Cast: Bette Davis, Henry Fonda, George Brent, Donald Crisp, Fay Bainter, Margaret Lindsay, Richard Cromwell, Spring Byington, Matthew "Stymie" Beard, Theresa Harris

Margaret Mitchell's novel Gone With the Wind was published in 1936, became an immediate sensation, and has basically remained so since. I haven't read it myself but it has never been out of print in nearly 100 years. Even so, it was practically overshadowed by the movie version three years later, a sort of massive 1-2 knockout punch only seen in the annals of media culture perhaps once a decade (compare the Beatles owning the Billboard top 5 for one week in 1964 ... the Beatles have also never gone out of print). Word is that Bette Davis was given the lead in Jezebel as compensation for not getting the Scarlett O'Hara role. Indeed, sympathy may have run so deep it accounts for her Best Actress Oscar for this picture too, although Davis was plainly one of the best players of her generation, and well-liked, with 10 nominations and two wins for Best Actress between 1934 and 1944. Jezebel, based on a play that was successful in 1933, similarly goes down South for a good old slavery times story—this one set in 1850s Louisiana during a yellow fever epidemic, with racial tensions of a different kind, abolitionist, as thick in the air as 2020.

Davis is Julie Marsden, a Scarlett-like—and/or Scarlett-lite, depending on your feelings about GWTW—spoiled daughter of wealth. If Scarlett wears black to shock everyone at a dance, Julie wears scarlet. It works out pretty much the same. Julie's on-again off-again beau is Preston Dillard (Henry Fonda, young and on the rise but already with a ramrod up his spine) and the script sends the couple spinning. Julie seems to have a habit of going too far and then seeking atonement and Davis captains up her gyrations with quivering conviction. She's easy to hate in a sort of delicious way. At a key point in the movie, Julie's Aunt Belle says she reminds her "of a woman called Jezebel, who did evil in the sight of God." Jezebel, you may recall, is a biblical Phoenician character, the wife of Ahab and a general no-goodnik infatuated with power, and a woman besides. Aunt Belle is not wrong here but I will say Julie's road to redemption is far more compelling than Scarlett O'Hara's.

I like the way Julie is sent wandering around in this picture, aimless and lost but full of fierce conviction. She's a flawed human being, undermining herself continually, learning her lessons and then forgetting them again in fits of temper. For this she is dealt such severe punishment. When she and Preston break up after one of her episodes of defiance—the ball where she insists on dressing so shockingly—he moves to the North. She spends a year nursing her wounds, meditating, and turning over a new leaf. Everyone can see it. But when Preston returns to Louisiana he has married a Northern woman. The permanence of marriage is nearly as shocking to us as it is to Julie, not least because Davis puts it over so convincingly.

Also of notable interest in 2020 is the yellow fever epidemic here, which sort of sneaks into the movie sideways. Early in the picture the town's health official, Dr. Livingstone (Donald Crisp), is seen worrying over it, but no other community or business leader puts much credence in it. Then, in the last third of the picture, "Yellow Jack!" moves absolutely front and center as the epidemic goes out of control and extreme measures are required to combat it, including an island of the damned, Lazaret Island, a certain vision of hell. Jezebel is right on the nose with its observations of public behavior in the face of such a calamity—drunks are seen swearing that the alcohol makes them immune, etc.—and thus suddenly worth seeing for that aspect alone, with a very powerful ending that pulls all of its elements together.

I am starting to struggle with '30s movies as a steady diet, perhaps because 1938 is not one of its better years. The primitive technologies, routinely wooden performances, humdrum plot points, and many failures to engage (often simply for being so old and seemingly obtuse) are among the obstacles. But I'm also seeing other aspects I enjoy. One is the Hollywood system of stocking up a movie with great players in minor roles. Spring Byington is barely in Jezebel but I always enjoy seeing her. Donald Crisp if anything is a treasure hiding in plain sight. He is good in everything I see him in with an impeccable gentle manner. George Brent has a key supporting role as the roguish Buck Cantrell (whereas, to note in passing, GWTW put its roguish Rhett Butler in the starring role). Brent is well above average as an oily heavy, a sinister swaggering Southerner who kills people in duels and talks about hanging abolitionists. (I also want to say, parenthetically, how amazed I am by the way abolitionists are commonly spoken of as radicals, by implication a menace to social order, which strictly speaking is true enough, but even in places like this movie Buck Cantrell is presented as an accepted norm.) More nice-to-sees in Jezebel: Margaret Lindsay, Fay Bainter, Richard Cromwell, Theresa Harris, Stymie Beard (the latter two marred by demeaning roles, another continuing problem in '30s pictures). The slaves also get a nice big musical number suitable for Carnegie Hall too.

Last but not least, I happened to notice this is director William Wyler's third appearance in my Movie of the Year project, along with The Best Years of Our Lives ('46) and The Big Country ('58). I have plans to revisit the 1950-1965 years and not sure how The Big Country will do then—some of Wyler's big-ticket items from that time (Ben-Hur, Roman Holiday, Funny Girl) have less appeal to me. But I want to look into him further. My favorite movie by him, 1949's The Heiress, is one I've been meaning to write about for years. I also thought another Bette Davis vehicle he did, 1940's The Letter, was quite good, and also his version of Wuthering Heights, in 1939, with Laurence Olivier. He's one of those three-a-year guys in the '30s too, so looking forward to more on him in weeks and months ahead.

Top 10 of 1938
1. Jezebel
2. Holiday
3. Quadrille
4. Bringing Up Baby
5. The Lady Vanishes
6. Composition Class
7. Alf's Button Afloat
8. La Bete Humaine
9. Port of Shadows (Le quai des brumes)
10. The Adventures of Robin Hood


  1. I always had the idea teaching high school lit Mildred D. Taylor's Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry, for younger readers, and Margaret Walker's Jubilee were, both, black literary responses to Gone With the Wind, mid-19th Civil War era stories set in the enslaved south, but I see now that Alice Randall composed the official response in 2001, The Wind Done Gone. Haven't read it.

  2. Thanks for the titles, they sound interesting!