Saturday, October 19, 2013

Film of the Week: Jezebel

Davis as "Julie" in her scandalous dress.

This is a truly superb picture and features one of Bette Davis’ finest screen performances. Directed by William Wyler, Jezebel was released in 1938 and starred Bette Davis, Henry Fonda, George Brent, Fay Bainter and Donald Crisp.

Bette Davis plays the petulant and strong-headed Julie Marsden who has a penchant for breaking rules and behaving in an independent manner that was frowned upon for a young woman in New Orleans’ high society. Still, Julie makes her own rules. After all, as she tells her Aunt Belle, “This is 1853, Dumpling, 1853.”

Her fiancé, Preston Dillard (Fonda), is a young banking executive who believes in being high-minded, proper and respectful. When his business delays Preston from attending their engagement party, Julie retaliates by buying a scandalous and tart-y red dress to wear to the Olympus Ball, an event where unmarried girls always wore virginal white.

Calling Julie’s bluff, Preston escorts her to the Olympus Ball in the red dress and forces her to dance—much to her embarrassment—in front of the disapproving New Orleans elite. Thus ends their engagement, and Preston goes north, leaving Julie depressed.

Julie vows to win Preston back. When the Yellow Fever epidemic forces them to flee New Orleans for Julie’s plantation, Halcyon, Julie is pleased to know that Preston will be joining them. Little does Julie know that Preston is bringing someone quite unexpected with him.

Julie’s manipulations endanger the lives of all the men in her life, causing Aunt Belle to label her, “Jezebel.” When Preston contracts the Yellow Fever, Julie has a difficult choice to make.

Brilliantly directed by William Wyler who was one of the few directors who was fully able to tame Bette Davis, the film is spectacular. With those typically grand Warner Brothers sets, a sweeping score by Max Steiner, 
Jezebel is one of the best, and Bette is never better.

Her performance earned Bette Davis her second Academy Award for Best Actress with Fay Bainter (Aunt Belle) winning Best Supporting Actress. By far, one of the most outstanding films of the late 30’s, this picture is a favorite of mine for many reasons. This is, of course, my time-period of interest. Also, I am very much interested in the Yellow Fever epidemics that struck Louisiana in the late 1800’s.

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