Nov 22, 2013

[Movies] Jezebel (1938)

Drat, I sort of wanted to run a review of the 1996 Doctor Who TV Movie, but I haven't had time to watch it. Not that this isn't a movie worth reviewing of course - it's just that this is supposed to be Doctor Who Week after all.

Continuing my efforts to explore more Bette Davis movies (and don't think I've forgotten my Alfred Hitchcock project), I've come to the movie Jezebel, which seems to rank rather high on various lists of Bette Davis movies worth watching. Plus she did win an Academy Award for this film, so that says something.

Popular movie lore indicates that Bette Davis was originally favored to be cast in the now iconic Gone With The Wind. But when she didn't get the role, somehow Jezebel was determined to be the alternate movie that was provided in lieu of that role.

If anything, this often cited as the moment when her career really took off, and thus watching it is pretty essential.

Synopsis: Jezebel is the 1938 drama film adaptation from the play by Owen Davis, Sr. The movie was directed by William Wyler and received five Academy Award nominations with 2 wins.

Julie Marsden (Better Davis) is your spoiled Southern Belle in New Orleans. She's engaged to Preston Dillard (Henry Fonda) although she often competes with his banking job for the attention that she thinks she's entitled to. When Preston is unable to join her in shopping for a new dress, she decides to get back at him by selecting a stark red dress to wear at the biggest ball of the year. This is a problem since unmarried women are expected to wear white when attending such social functions. To wear a color as bold as red would be a scandal of the highest degree.

True enough, her red dress certainly makes a scene and the couple are pretty much shunned by most of the party goers. Even when Preston dances with her, they eventually find themselves alone on the dance floor with all other guests staring at them from the sidelines. With even the slaves looking down on her, Julie is desperate to leave but Preston pushes to see the night through. By the end of the affair, Preston breaks off their engagement. He then heads north for business and Julie pretty much shuts herself from the world.

The rest of the story talks about Preston and Julie finally seeing one another a year later, but Julie's hopes of repairing things with him. And this little drama is all set against an outbreak of yellow fever, which inevitably affects their lives in the South as well. So yes, as a period film we have to deal with depictions of African American man servants and maids as was fitting for the era.

By modern standards, it seems like this whole fuss about a red dress seems a little silly. But go back to the Antebellum period and it's a completely different story. There was a whole different standard for behavior, especially in the South. And violating those social conventions was certainly scandalous and the effects could virtually scar you for life if you weren't careful. And this movie explores that facet of the period quite well.

I can understand why Bette Davis went on to win the Oscar for her performance here. It's not easy to depict being rebellious and yet still somewhat respectful of the traditions of the period. But she manages this quite well, and in a way that seems completely different from how she was much later in All About Eve. So yes, quite the range indeed.

Looking at those two Bette Davis movies is pretty much night and day. Eve was about a woman in the twilight of her career and dealing with a young upstart. Jezebel is about the follow of youth and how her spoiled nature gets the better of her and costs her the man that she loves.

Jezebel was a great film, but not necessarily my favorite Bette Davis movie so far. As much as I enjoyed it, there's just something about the period setting that just drags me down. But the movie still deserves 3.5 key outfits for Julie out of a possible 5.

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