For many years, it was popular to shrug off William Wyler’s antebellum melodrama Jezebel (1938) as a rip-off of David O. Selznick’s Gone with the Wind. Fiery, outspoken, bitchy southern belle? Check. A heroine whose modernity shocks society? Check. Political conflict? Check. Yet in recent years, an open reappraisal of the film has led to a number of critics not only praising its broody, uncompromising story, but laud its nuance over the grand flourishes of Selznick’s Civil War epic. Well, I happen to find great nuance under the gloss of Selznick’s vision and find them both tremendous achievements in their own right, thank you very much. However, that being said, William Wyler’s Jezebel remains an underrated gem of a film– netting Davis her second Academy Award for Best Actress (deservedly so)–and a film deserving a good, hard, reappraisal.
Famous for their three-screen partnership (and off screen relationship) the films of William Wyler and Bette Davis are unmistakable in style, tone, and staging. As to why Wyler is not recognized readily amongst the American autuers I don’t quite know, and am in no authority to assess the director’s grand career. But in terms of the Wyler-Davis films, they are unmistakably visually unified–his mise en scene is deeply focused, full of long takes pivoting around elaborate staging. And it all started with Jezebel.
A remarkable film fashioned from an unremarkable play by Owen Davis, it required three writers to get the screenplay right—latecomer John Huston adding the grit and snark that would make Davis’ character of Julie Marsden so unforgettable.
Wyler and Davis were both perfectionists. Davis once said of Wyler, “When he doesn’t get a scene exactly as he wants it, he almost loses his mind.” It was a directorial approach that Davis was most approving of. And that expectation of nothing less than the best that consumed both director and star is almost entirely responsible for the magnetism of Jezebel.
It is New Orleans in 1852, and we first meet Julie Marsden in a manner that will dictate, not only her own personality, but the entire direction of the film: Beautiful and proud, she is brazen and entirely without regard for convention. Wyler wanted a ferocity to this pivotal first entrance. Spoiled southern belle Julie Marsden is running terribly late to show up at her very own party. Her well-dressed guests are waiting, and when she arrives, back from a ride, she decides to simply make her entrance as is: in her riding habit. (Even to a 21st century viewer, the overstep is obvious: who of us would show up for a grand society party—that we’ve organized—straight from gardening the rosebushes dressed in stained overalls?)
The scene was not an easy one. Davis was confident, given the direction she’d received, but Wyler felt in his gut that it was theatrical; artificial. 30 takes later, the exasperated Davis was sure as hell exasperated, giving Wyler that simmering quality that makes Julie so exciting to watch. There is a wild ferocity to Julie’s manners in the opening moments of the film. (Wyler and Davis were also, it should be noted, embroiled in a love affair at the time.)
From the minute Julie sweeps into the frame, her danger is palpable. The company is surprised (but nothing that will compare to the shock awaiting them at her entrance to a society ball later…) and takes delight in gossiping behind her back. (“I always say, spare the rod and you spoil the child…”)
There is a complexity beneath her selfish brazenness that is very well put by author Gabriel Miller: “Julie is a split individual. She represents and embraces the “Old South” but is also rebellious individual who must assert herself against those aspects the that world that are holding her back. The film’s production notes describe her as a “product of her environment” in fact, “she IS the Deep South: beautiful, exotic, alluring, lavish, and also savage and deadly dangerous.”
Julie is seriously involved with a successful young banker, Preston (“Pres”) Dillard (Henry Fonda). Their affair is every bit as tempestuous as one would expect, and the chilvarous young Southerner has put up with almost all of Julie’s highly childish antics. The problem is that Julie is genuinely in love with Preston, but does not yet understand that true love requires complete selflessness.
Julie seems intent on making Pres’ prove her love by punishing him. The fact his is working instead of being able to attend her party, and is also unavailable to escort her to a dressmakers, puts her on the rampage. When he comes to call on her she is horribly self-absorbed and dismissive. All part of her strategy, obviously, but hers is a disastrous battle plan.
In a way, I don’t blame Julie for some of her impudence: the mores of society must have suffocating for any broad minded woman. But even for a 21st century mentality, this natural desire for independence is coupled with a shameless brand of selfish superiority. One would like to be sympathetic to Julie, were it not for her insufferable determination to destroy any shred of decency within herself.
This sad realization comes to Julie in the last act of the film when, as with her silver screen counterpart Scarlett O’Hara, it is too late.
Wyler’s film is famous for Davis’ Julie wearing a tarty red dress to a formal society ball, a place in which all women were expected to wear white. Davis’ take on the matter is quite reasonable and quite modern, as she tells her long suffering Aunt Belle (Fay Bainter): “This is 1852, dumpling. 1852, not the Dark Ages. Girls don’t have to simper around in white just because they’re not married.”
She says this as she’s being fitted for the ball, her slender build scaffolded by a massive hoop frame skirt. As author Gabriel notes: she claims to be emancipated: but the prison of her hoopskirt frame implies just the opposite.
Julie’s wearing of a bright red dress to the Olympus Ball is the most memorable moment of the film, and also the most telling: a pivotal moment between Julie and Pres. Also, for all of her professed veracity, it is one of her most vulnerable. The crowd is relentless in their unspoken judgment. Not five minutes into the ballroom, Julie begins to pull back. “I want to go home,” she whispers urgently to Pres. But Julie has forced Pres into this situation. He grabs hold of her hand. Knowing that Julie has openly, and unfairly, doubted Pres’ willingness to stand up for her, he will do so now. Even if it means humiliation for them both. Which it does. Pres knows they cannot leave, and sees through their dance.
Julie is terrified—a sensation that angers her immensely. Pres knows this is the schooling that Julie dearly needs, but also know it is one that he needs as well. You can see it in his face that his toleration has reached his point. When he drops her home that night, he ends their courtship.
Julie, at that moment, realizes her error, and the irreparable strain of it.
Up to this moment we’ve been disdainful of Julie. Here we see, and understand, her frustrating vulnerability. His is the face of a man who can do no more and must wash his hands of her. Hers is the face of a woman desperately in love.
Reconciliation is an impossibility.
One year passes.
Pres has been up north with business with the bank. And the hotheaded Julie has been broken. She rarely leaves the house. Tends to the grounds religiously.
She has not even begun to cope with the prospect of life without Pres.
Then comes the news that Pres is finally coming home from the North.
Julie is alight with life and pledges to Aunt Belle: “I’m going to beg his forgiveness. I was mean, and rude, and selfish. And I’m going to tell him that I hated myself for the way I was … even then.”
And we do believe her. And begin to forgive her for her insufferable nature, just as she’s begun to try and compensate for it. Which is why we greet the news of Pres’ marriage to a Northerner with the same shock that she does.
Julie is duly hospitable to the Northern woman, Ann, but in private shuns all pity from her Aunt Belle: “Do you think I want to be wept over? I want to think. To plan. I’ve got to fight.” (Queue the closing words to Gone with the Wind: “I must think about it now…I’ll think of some way to get him back. After all, tomorrow, is another day!”)
The courteous Julie is still a solid hostess, and there is a rather volatile dinner in which the smalltalk mingles with the contentious subject of politics; it is, after all, unavoidable considering Pres’ wife is a Northerner.
David O. Selznick threw a fit at this scene, the language of which mirrors almost exactly the language of a scene in Gone with the Wind. Pres informs the table, including the epitome of Southern gallantry Buck Cantrell (George Brent) that if there were to be War, the Northern would succeed based entirely on industry. Rhett Butler makes an almost verbatim sentiment in Gone with the Wind.
It is important to note that Jezebel was filmed during one of the many hiatus of the Gone with the Wind production, making it possible to be released prior to Selznick’s film, and Darryl Zanuck knew that the film would capitalize off the Gone with the Wind fever that had swept the country. (Bette Davis’ role as Julie was something of a consolation prize to not having been offered the role of Scarlett O’Hara. Well…that and a lawsuit she filed against Warner Bros. for not giving her the manner of prestige films befitting an Academy Award-winning actress.)
Selznick sent a furious letter to Zanuck, admonishing that Jezebel will be “dismissed as an imitation by the millions of readers, and lovers, of gone with the wind….” The dinner scene in particular, in which the fates of north versus south should war come, use language very familiar to any familiar with the Selznick film. “it is lifted practically bodily out of Gone with the Wind.”
One can almost see Jack Warner’s gleeful smile, as he responded to Selznick, saying that the language used in the scene was taken directly from the Owen Davis play. He thanked Selznick for his “splendid interest” after sending him a copy of the scene in question.
Another layer of drama to Wyler’s melodrama is added when the threat of yellow fever, which has been hinted at since scene one act on, becomes a horrific plague in the final act. It is kickstarted at that pivotal dinner scene which got Selznick’s knickers in such a twist.
Unable to win Pres’ attention by her flirting with Buck Cantrell, and provokes the rancor of Pres’ brother Ted. But things go against plan when the passionate young Ted challenges the experienced Buck to a duel. Buck, who is all too aware of Julie’s prodding, is killed by young Ted.
This is the final blow.
Her own Aunt Belle labels her a Jezebel. And Julie knows the full truth of it.
One of the most remarkable scenes, however, is Julie’s command performance from the Plantation’s slaves. Julie sits and a billowing dress of white on the plantation steps, and the plantation slaves gather around her, in harmonious chorus of a rhythmic spiritual. She stops them, queues a brighter tune, and sings along with them. Amy is standing just at the edge of the frame, observing the display. As Julie glances over her shoulder to make eye contact with the Northerner, it is clear that the display is entirely pointed at her.
There is a hysteria as Julie sings, beckoning the slave children to sit at her side, holding them in close, waiving her hands along with the music. The light catches onto the silver whites of her eyes: tears are rimming them.
Pres’ wife is visibly horrified at the exhibition. Faye Bainter looks down upon her daughter in, once again, disappointed understanding. Julie, torn apart with grief over the duel that is her doing, and having lost Pres, shouts to the Yankee woman: “That’s why I wore my white dress tonight. I’m being baptized!”
The final act winds down quickly as the yellow fever that has been hinted at since act one, scene one, becomes an inflamed plague. Pres is summoned into town to assist and, of course, comes down with the fever himself. New Orleans has taken up the custom of shipping all afflicted persons, black or white, to a quarantined island and Pres is in such danger.
Julie, learning of the news, knows this, and sees it as her chance to finally make the necessary sacrifice to atone for all of the wrongs she’s caused Pres by going with him to the island to nurse him through the ordeal. It means an emotional showdown with Pres’ wife, but Julie wins with the simple logic that Julie can “fight” better than Amy. Julie says, with wide-eyed desperation, “I’m asking for the chance to prove myself to be brave, and strong, and unselfish. Help me, Amy. Help me be clean. As you are clean. Let me prove myself worthy of the love I bury.”
The film concludes with Julie accompanying Pres, unconscious in her lap, to the condemned island. Wyler closes in on Julie’s face: brightly lit by firetorch as she rides along with Pres, her face confident, pure, at peace.
Their fate is not disclosed to the viewer. Nor need it be.
The questions remain: Is Julie actually capable of true redemption? Or is even this an act of her insatiable need to win– to have her way at any cost?
Wyler and Davis would go one to create two more of classic Hollywood’s most memorable and critically acclaimed films: The Letter and The Little Foxes. Their love affair would, however, not last. Davis admitted “he was the love of my life” and that she ought to have married him… “but I was too afraid.”
Incredible, isn’t it. That anyone who has it within them to play the lead role of a film like Jezebel should ever be afraid of anyone.
Then again … maybe not.