Jezebel (1938)

Dir. William Wyler. Starring Bette Davis, Henry Fonda, Fay Bainter

Jezebel is a Civil War movie without a single glance at the Civil War, as its story ends sometime in 1853, but the movie still leans heavily on the Lost Cause mythology which permeates so much Hollywood filmmaking. (The article I’ve linked to does a good job of discussing the history of Lost Cause ideology in American cinema, and even after reading it I’m still just dumbfounded about the imbalance of perspectives and the direction in which they are so imbalanced.) Doubtless Jezebel was made and released before Gone with the Wind to preempt the most breathlessly anticipated movie ever made, which makes me wonder if they jacked a scene right out of the novel or if Jezebel playwright Owen Davis actually got there first. Pres Dillard (Fonda) is a banker whose first scenes feature his arguments for New Orleans to begin relying on the railway rather than the river. He is well-born, from a respected family, and has enough sand to compel agreement even from sharpshooting Southern nimrod Buck Cantrell (George Brent). But he’s also married a Northerner, Amy (Margaret Lindsay), and he is willing to challenge conventional wisdom about the South. He says at dinner one night that the North, with its railroads and mechanization and factories, certainly has an economic advantage over the South. Cantrell disagrees; the argument very nearly gets out of hand until it is ultimately defused by a cooler eminence grise, Bogardus (Henry O’Neill). The next year, audiences could watch Rhett Butler challenge poor dumb Charles Hamilton on much the same grounds. “There’s not a cannon factory in the whole South,” he says. “They’ve got factories, shipyards, coal mines, and a fleet to bottle up our harbors and starve us.” According to Ken Burns’ Civil War, the New Orleans of Jezebel is a space of special irony for this difference: the guidebook for the Big Easy was printed in the Big Apple.

Jezebel does not actively pine for an antebellum past. It does not glory in the duels it presents, for example. The film is surprisingly adept in its handling of the Byzantine rules of the aristocratic Old South, too, which is not often done well in film; part of that adroitness is recognizing that those rules are Byzantine for the sake of themselves and that they can’t be scuttled soon enough. Its view of Southern manhood and womanhood alike in the time period is fairly dim. Julie (Davis) is Southern womanhood at its fullest flower, but she is also a holy terror, a sort of swamp kelpie luring unsuspecting gentlemen to sad second lives or early ends. Southern manhood is either Buck, who likes to get into tussles and then shoot the party who has “offended” him, or Pres, whose liberal speech falls well short of abolitionism. Heck, Henry “Young Mr. Lincoln” Fonda says so:

Buck: You talk mighty like a black abolitionist.

Pres: I think you know I’m no abolitionist.

But where Jezebel finds a way into the Lost Cause is through slavery, which the Lost Cause has never been terribly fond of bringing up in the first place. There are a number of slaves in Jezebel. They help Julie change, serve dinner, carry messages, sing spirituals in the dead. None of them seem, well, unhappy. Or terribly smart. Or, most importantly, none of them seem to exist unless a white person calls them into existence. Zette (Theresa Harris) is Julie’s personal slave, and in one scene she sets eyes on the red dress that Julie plans on wearing to an upcoming ball; she marvels and gushes over the dress, which will happen to get Julie in some trouble just a few hours later. Julie has Zette take a letter for her to Buck, swearing her to secrecy, and as a reward she promises to give Zette the dress. Zette’s eyes about bug out of her head with the generosity of such an offer, and the movie has its most incredible moment out of many. Zette is owned by another human being. She associates with other human beings who are the property of others. She has been owned by Julie for some time, and surely she knows what Pres knows: Julie says many things and she only means about half of them. Yet in this scene she believes a promise which is already ludicrous on its face, and the only reason she does so is her skin color. It’s a low moment in the movie, and it says far more about the 1930s than it does about the 1850s; it’s the kind of thing you like to think that writer John Huston or director William Wyler or actors Bette Davis and Henry Fonda, all of whom I’d imagine knew better, would like to take back.

When a faceless, merciless invader enters her city, Scarlett flees; she does not wander into the streets with a pistol looking for Sherman, but packs herself up and very nearly leaves Melanie behind. On the other hand, Julie runs right for yellow fever because the man she loves has contracted it and she cannot allow his wife to do the same. This is the difference between them. (The ending of Jezebel is frequently panned—since when has Julie been willing to put herself at risk for someone else?—but it seems to me to fit into her character nicely. The whole of the film has been her attempt to control Pres. Whether it’s from love or from an animal meanness is your opinion, but there is no better way to control Pres than to be there, dying next to him, and knowing that you managed to outlove Pres’ wife.) Where Scarlett is dictated by her fear and insecurity, Julie is pushed on by her audacity. For better or worse, but mostly for worse, Julie’s audacity is the propulsive force in Jezebel. She likes to get a reaction, and she does just that when she walks in late to a fancy party wearing her riding clothes. She decides that Pres’ choice to take care of his bank business rather than break it off to watch her try on dresses is worth breaking all social niceties: she wears red when, as an unmarried woman, she should wear white. When Pres back to New Orleans a married man, she decides to use Buck as her mace, prodding him on and refusing to intercede even when his topics of conversation become too hot to handle. It’s a decision which ultimately gets Buck killed. In Davis’ hands, that audacity is utterly maddening, and it’s great. After Pres actively humiliates her by refusing to let her leave the dance floor while everyone else has yielded it to them because of her brazen red dress, they finally return to her house. He bids her farewell; they shake hands and, without letting go, she slaps him. Even Scarlett wouldn’t have thought of it, and Davis puts the wickedest expression on to do it. The screen seems to leak little trickles of venom when she appears, and her malice makes for some of the most compelling acting I’ve seen in some time.

As seems to so often be the case, one incendiary performance does not inflame the others. Henry Fonda was still a little dull back then; even when he’s angry, he doesn’t have the juice to shine as brightly as Davis. (It’s a problem that The Lady Eve has, too; Barbara Stanwyck is firing on all six cylinders, and compared to her Fonda seems to be in neutral a little too often. There’s no superstar woman in The Grapes of Wrath or Young Mr. Lincoln who makes his aw-shucks performance feel simple.) The rest of the cast is mostly supporting actors, but two of them manage to feed into Davis’ passion by riding alongside it rather than jousting with it. George Brent’s Buck must be nearly as audacious as Julie, but he is not smart enough to make hay from it. He relies on her to do most of his thinking for him, to build his repartee up enough to make it interesting. Without her, he finds himself in duels in mere seconds; with her, it takes the better part of the night. And the other performer here who does well is Fay Bainter, playing Julie’s thoroughly impotent aunt Belle. Belle spends most of the film trying to get Julie to straighten up and fly right, but she has no power to compel her niece; Julie is of age and holds her own property. All she can do in most cases is worry and murmur that such things aren’t done (“outrageous!”), but twice she manages to get her nails into Julie’s blood. She tells Julie after Pres leaves her post-ball that he won’t return: she has pushed him too far this time. Julie is outwardly confident, but after muttering something about how she expects to see him the next afternoon, she finds herself unable to express the thought further and rushes upstairs. In the second, Bainter namedrops the title that we’d already come to associate with its protagonist, and it’s because she has been so weak that we feel the power in her words. “I’m thinking of a woman,” she says coolly, “called Jezebel, who did evil in the sight of God.”

If Davis is the undoubted star of the movie, with only a couple performers able even to survive in her corona, then we must give William Wyler some credit for making it so. Aside from his legendary reputation with actresses, few directors have ever been able to pull back from the action with Wyler’s flair for it. The host of the party has, in an effort to get Pres and Julie off the dance floor, motioned to the conductor to stop playing. Pres immediately objects to the orchestra leader, tells him to keep playing, and then resumes dancing. This all happens in a few medium shots. Before you know it, Wyler has created a veritable army of identically uniformed soldiers to make a wall against Pres and his rambunctious fiancee, one so mighty that to charge against it would be suicide.

Later on, Pres goes back into New Orleans with his friend Dr. Livingstone (a different one, presumably) to settle some affairs with a fellow bigwig at the bank before he dies of yellow fever. The movie quite simply falls apart at this point from a plot perspective: yellow fever terrifies everyone the whole movie, essentially shuttering New Orleans, but nope, we have to send Henry Fonda back there so he can fall ill with it in the worst place possible and make our big finish with Julie and Amy happen. All this so he can get some bank talk in with a guy who, presumably, can’t put it in a letter. (Whatever, man.) If there’s a saving grace here, it’s how Wyler shoots the scene where Pres can no longer support himself. He collapses in the middle of the bar at the St. Louis Hotel after having come darn close to challenging another man to a duel. The crowd immediately pulls back, and we get a sense of the fear in this place in a group of otherwise confident men.

Isn’t one of you drunk enough to have some courage to help me move him? Livingstone cries, but it’s no use. None of the swells in the bar are willing to risk their life an inch further than they must, and even Pres Dillard’s illness does not move them. Southern manhood, Wyler says, has its chivalric limits. These men are glad to put themselves in the line of fire when they have a gun for themselves; the animal instinct not to stick one’s neck out too far when there is no self-defense puts dents in the armor of that white knight.

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