Jezebel April 18, 2017
William Wyler’s Jezebel (1938) is an overdressed, overly complicated, and undercooked period drama circling around one magnificent performance. Yet despite the reality that it wouldn’t contain so much of a morsel of magnetism without its leading lady, that leading lady is enough to make it worth a look.
Set in Plantation-era New Orleans, Jezebel stars Bette Davis as Julie Marsden, a strong-willed Southern belle prepped to marry Pres Dillard (Henry Fonda), a well-off banker. Already spoiled by a lavish upbringing, Marsden dominates the relationship and forgets that there’s such a thing as a highway that isn’t always run her way. This is best exemplified in just the first few moments of the film, wherein Marsden is seeking seemingly harmless revenge after Marsden uses work as an excuse not to help her shop for a dress for the most important ball of the year.
To get back at her beau for what she perceives to be selfishness, she unwisely decides to buy a red dress specifically because it’s deemed vulgar by the local seamstress. To naysayers, she excuses the decision as forward thinking. “This is 1852,” she says with a grin. “Not the Dark Ages.” But in actuality, she's looking to embarrass Dillard, as it’s a general no no for an unmarried woman to wear anything other than a humble white gown for such an occasion.
Come the night of the event, however, and Marsden is suddenly hit with the realization that her scheme isn’t going to run by with the playfulness she intended. Her risky move, in direct contrast to her lighthearted objective, is met with backlash, passive aggressive jabs proliferating. Dillard is especially angry. By the end of the night, the two’s engagement is called off, a slap from Marsden the icing on the cake.
Dillard immediately leaves for rest of the year, heading north on business. In the meantime, Marsden closes herself off from the rest of the world, refusing to see her friends and family alike.
But when it’s announced that Dillard will finally be returning to New Orleans to aid physician Dr. Livingston (Donald Crisp) in persuading Southern authorities into taking drastic measures in fighting a recent outbreak of yellow fever, Marsden sees an opportunity. Regretting her erroneous actions, she’s looking to reverse the problems of the past and continue her romance with Dillard.
Only moments after he arrives back in town, though, it’s discovered that he has married a northerner (Margaret Lindsay) during his time away. Furious, Marsden schemes with such blackness in her heart that she inadvertently finds herself responsible for a tragedy.
Structurally, Jezebel is a melodrama divided in three acts. All cohesively merge to tell the story of one woman’s alarming quest to assert her dominance and her need to reach self-actualization no matter the cost. The first gives us a glimpse into her personality and signifies the kind of woman she is: iron-willed and antagonistic. The second shows us how that personality reacts to betrayal and loss. And the third gives her the chance to redeem herself, to show both the people around her and the theatrical audiences watching her that maybe she isn’t so bad after all.
Jezebel’s being named after an infamous Arabian queen and the generally sinful-looking advertising campaign that preceded its release suggest that it homes a notorious femme fatale, a fireball more incendiary than Rita Hayworth’s Gilda (1946). But in watching the movie do we find that Marsden is not so much a femme fatale as she is a dick, a narcissistic she-demon who ruins the lives of others simply because she figures that she’ll get ahead in life if she does.
Played by an actress other than Davis and she’d be despicable, impossible to watch without our eyes rolled back and our sympathies minimal. But Davis makes her compelling. We never feel as though we’re witnessing a woman being wholeheartedly, or intentionally, cruel. To Marsden, self-centeredness is a way of life, an attribute that seems normal to her. And Davis takes on the role with certitude, finding the humanity in a character who sometimes seems undeserving of our compassion.
The finale lets on that we were right to manage to root for Marsden in spite of her egomania. And yet that finale doesn’t feel right. Jezebel is the kind of movie that might benefit from some sort of violent end, with Marsden perhaps having to atone for her sins through death or through some other kind of karma-infused tragedy.
Because it feels like a handful of movies scrambled up into one, Jezebel, then, runs by without grabbing us by the lapels. It’s interesting and it’s beautifully designed, and William Wyler's direction is stately and proficient. But it’s also too big for its own good, too ambitious and too palatial to see intimacy through.
Nonetheless, the movie was a major hit for Warner Bros. upon release in 1938. It was nominated for three Academy Awards and won two (for Davis and for Fay Bainter, who plays Marsden’s aunt with sensitivity). And such isn’t such a surprise – Jezebel is a definitive illustration of what an “important” movie looked like 80 years ago: grandiose, handsomely made, well-acted, and yet too gargantuan to affect. B-