Filmsite Movie Review
Jezebel (1938)
Pages: (1) (2) (3)

Jezebel (1938) is a romantic melodrama with views of early 1850s New Orleans ante-bellum society. It was the first in a cycle of films with Dixie backdrops that studied Southern chivalry and honor. The role of the title character was offered as compensation to film star Bette Davis - her first major film role - when she lost the opportunity to play Scarlett O'Hara in Gone With The Wind (1939), a characterization with a similar heroine. In fact, the film has been called a black-and-white version of the famous Selznick film that was in its pre-production stages.

Director William Wyler and Warner Bros' Studios brilliantly fashioned the superb character study with superior production values. [Note: Wyler also effectively directed Davis as an icy woman in The Letter (1940) and The Little Foxes (1941).] Davis plays the role of a spoiled, willful, coquettish Southern belle who spitefully and stubbornly ruins her relationship with leading men Henry Fonda and George Brent. She overcomes her own shallowness and selfishness when Fonda becomes ill with yellow fever and she heroically sacrifices herself to care for him. Her character was described in film poster taglines as:


The film earned a total of five Academy Award nominations with two major Oscar victories. Bette Davis won her second (and last) Academy Award for her portrayal of the tempestuous, manipulative Southern ante-bellum New Orleans belle for Warner Bros. [Note: Davis would be nominated eight more times, without an additional Oscar, until the time of her death in 1989.] Co-star Fay Bainter also won the Best Supporting Actress Award (in addition to being honored with an additional nomination as Best Actress for her performance in White Banners.) Other nominations were for Best Picture, Best Cinematography (Ernest Haller) and Best Score (Max Steiner's noteworthy musical score).

The screenplay of the astute costume drama was written by Clements Ripley, Abem Finkel, and aspiring screenwriter/director John Huston, and was based on the play of the same name by Owen Davis, Sr. Neither Miriam Hopkins nor Tallulah Bankhead, involved in the short-running, unsuccessful 1933 Broadway stage play, were cast in the film's lead role.

Plot Synopsis

After the film's credits that wash across a Southern plantation scene (the title word Jezebel glistens), the film opens in New Orleans - 1852, mixed with French, Creole, and Southern heritages. The camera pans along a row of street vendors selling various masks and other merchandise. Southern gentlemen Buck Cantrell (George Brent) and young Ted Dillard (Richard Cromwell) are chauffeured to the St. Louis Hotel where they enter the Long Bar to share drinks and conversation with other patrons. Cantrell has just lost "the lady of his heart" - Julie Marsden (Bette Davis) - she is engaged to marry Ted's brother Preston ("Pres") Dillard (Henry Fonda). They have an altercation with Frenchman De Lautruc (George Renevant) over his impropriety of mentioning Julie's name in the bar: "...a gentlemen doesn't mention a ladies' name in a barroom," and a duel is proposed. Admiring Cantrell, Ted steps in to defend the slight to Julie's reputation in the next day's challenge: "I ought to get Lautruc myself. It's my brother that's gonna marry her. That makes it much more my problem than yours. Let me act for ya, Buck?" But Buck declines Ted's magnanimous offer.

An afternoon party is held at the family mansion of strong-willed Southern belle Julie Marsden. Disdainful of punctuality, she is late to her own engagement party. Aunt Belle Bogardus (Fay Bainter) is scandalized and embarrassed by the predicament. But according to Julie's guardian General Theopholus Bogardus (Henry O'Neill), Julie has always been rebelliously unconventional:

That girl was never on time for anything in her life.

In a scene that defines her inner nature, Julie makes a noisy entrance on horseback along a cobble-stone entryway, riding side-saddle with a long dress/riding habit and crop in hand. She barks to her young slave Ti Bat (Stymie Beard) as he struggles to control the spirited horse (the horse represents her own restless spirit): "Don't stand there with your eyes bulgin' out like that! He knows you're scared." [In contrast, Bette Davis' own eyes bulge throughout the film!] Without time to change into her party dress, she flamboyantly strides into the reception room in her "horse clothes," cracking her whip against her riding habit - in rhythm to her step. She explains her willful tardiness:

I'm terribly sorry to be late. I had trouble with the colt....So sorry, but you know, when a colt gets high-handed, teach him his manners right now or ruin him.

Ladies react to Julie's vibrant impulsiveness and tempestuousness: "I declare! Hope I'm broad-minded but I must say!...I always say 'You spare the rod and you spoil the child!'" Buck Cantrell, one of the guests, proposes an incomplete toast to his ex-girlfriend Julie:

Buck: To the very good health of the future, Ms. Dillard.
Julie: Buck! Aren't you gonna wish me happiness too?
Buck: What's the use? You won't get it. Marryin' a traitor and goin' up North.
Julie: Pres is a banker, not a traitor. I'll thank ya to remember that.
Buck: I keep forgettin' there's a difference, but you won't like it in the North, Miss Julie...
Julie: I'll be happy anywhere Pres is.
Buck: You won't like it up North.

Julie's new fiancee Preston Dillard, son of a wealthy banking family, has been detained from attending the festivities while engaged in an important business conference with the directors of the investments and exchange firm of Dillard and Sons - "a venerable institution, a financial colossus with branches in New York, Boston, London, and Paris." In the meeting, Preston expresses his belief that the expansion of Northern railroad lines and rail freight shipments are bypassing the South:

...and New Orleans is missing the parade...Yankee sharpers are smart enough to turn the flow of traffic around. The railroads are gettin' it...Gentlemen, I have here the figures on the decline in river freight. These figures don't lie...Now I'm not tryin' to put the bank into a ten million dollar proposition without knowin' what I'm talkin' about. I haven't spent six months gettin' these figures together for my album. The least you could do...

Pres keeps Julie waiting in her carriage outside the bank, although she is confident that she has him trained and obedient to her will: "I've been trainin' him for years." Furious and neurotic, she stomps into the bank and interrupts the meeting, demanding that he fulfill his promise of accompanying her to a dress-fitting for her ball dress for the great Olympus debutante ball to be held the following evening. When he refuses, arguing that he is struggling and "having the fight of my life," she proceeds to the French costume-fitters without him.

At Mme. Poulard's (Ann Codee), Julie is sitting on a stool trapped within a wide, hoop-skirt frame while trying on a white crinoline dress in front of a mirror. Exasperated by the uncomfortable, unstylish dress - and to spite Preston, she defiantly commands to have the white dress removed. In her underwear, exposed from both sides by the mirror, she insists on wearing and flaunting herself in a "saucy" and "vulgar" red dress, customarily worn by a demi-mondaine - an "infamous Vickers woman" - rather than the traditional virginal, pristine white gowns worn by unmarried women:

Aunt Belle: Pres has always loved you in white...If he isn't simply bowled over by it, I won't know what to think.
Julie: (speaking to an assistant who carries off a red dress) Wait a minute. Bring that over here. (She holds the dress up to herself) Saucy, isn't it?
Aunt Belle: And vulgar.
Julie: Yes, isn't it? Come on, get me out of this.
Aunt Belle: Julie, what are you doing?
If it fits me, I'm gonna wear it to the Olympus Ball.
Aunt Belle: A red dress to the Olympus Ball? Why, you're out of your senses.
Julie: ...Mary Vickers couldn't possibly do it justice.
Aunt Belle: Child, you're out of your mind. You know you can't wear red to the Olympus Ball.
Julie: Can't I? I'm goin' to. This is 1852, dumplin,' 1852. Not the Dark Ages. Girls don't have to simp around in white just because they're not married.
Aunt Belle: In New Orleans they do. Julie, you'd insult every woman on the floor.
Mme. Poulard: Mademoiselle, your aunt - she's right. Look how beautiful this dress is.
Julie: Will you kindly get me out of this? (She removes the white dress)
Aunt Belle: Julie, you can't be serious!
Julie: Never more serious in my life.
Aunt Belle: But Julie, think of Pres.
Julie: That's just exactly what I am thinkin' of.

At the Bogardus' mansion, the General advises Preston that Julie, with whom he had a "fuss" at the bank, is "high-headed and willful. Son? If you just come to realize it, what she needs is a firm hand." When fickle-minded Julie insists on remaining in her upstairs room rather than coming down to greet Preston in the parlor, he marches up to her boudoir door wielding a walking stick. While knocking repeatedly, she teases him. As her hair is being pinned up by her black maid-servant Zette (Theresa Harris), she deliberately stalls answering to him. In front of a mirror which displays her image in three panels, she reddens her cheeks and finally responds: "Who is it?" When his patience has been tried to the breaking point, she opens the door and coyly flirts with him:

Julie: Why Pres! Bangin' on a ladies' door. I'm scandalized at you. Well, did you come up here just to stand there?
Preston: Julie, how long must we go on like this?
Julie: Like what, Pres?
Preston: Fightin', fussin' all the time, like a couple of children.
Julie: Why do you treat me like a child?
Preston: Because you act like one. A spoiled one.
Julie: You used to say you liked me like that once. You never wanted me to change. Remember?
Preston: Julie. (He lays aside the cane and kisses her)
Julie: Why Pres! In a lady's bedroom. Now you'll have to marry me.
Preston: What do you figure I aim to do?
Julie: Then kiss me again.

Having softened him up, she shows off her shocking red dress laid out on her chair, with the obvious intention of scorning convention and publicly embarrassing the conservative banker. Pres immediately objects to her wearing a non-customary gown to the chaste, social event of the year:

Preston: For the Olympus Ball?
Julie: Uh, huh. Isn't it lovely?
Preston: Julie, it's red!
Julie: It's gorgeously red.
Preston: But you can't wear red to the Olympus Ball!
Julie: Why not?
Preston: You never saw an unmarried girl in anything but white!
Julie: Then you're gonna see one tomorrow night.
Preston: Julie! You can't be serious.
Julie: Are you afraid somebody will take me for one of those girls from Gallatan Street?
Preston: Julie!
Julie: Oh, I'm sorry. I forgot I'm a child. I'm not supposed to know about things like Gallatan Street. I'm just supposed to flutter around in white.
Preston: You're supposed to know better than to scandalize the whole town.
Julie: It might be bad for the bank. Of course. Will you please hold another director's meeting and ask 'em to decide what I can wear?
Preston: Julie, for heaven's sake, will you be reasonable?
Julie: Were you reasonable this afternoon?
Preston: So that's it. You're just nursin' a spite. Well, I'm not gonna let ya. You made your point. For once, you're gonna do as I say. I'm callin' for you tomorrow night at ten and you're gonna be dressed properly for the ball in white.
Julie: Am I? Oh, but of course Preston, if you say so.
Preston: Don't be absurd. Your own good sense will say so.
Julie: And if it doesn't?
Preston: Then, my sweet, you and I will sit at home quietly with our embroidery. (He kisses her goodbye) Goodnight. Tomorrow night at ten.
Julie: Oh Preston, you forgot your stick.
Preston: So I did. I forgot to use it, too.
Julie: So you did.

After Preston leaves, Julie sends a note via Zette to Buck Cantrell, inviting him to pick her up the following evening. On his arrival, Julie asks about his duel with Lautruc to defend her honor: "Is it true you killed him?" He admits: "It just looked like a busted hip to me." And he admires her sinful, scarlet dress: "Are you all dressed up for a hog killing?" But when he realizes she wants him to escort her to the Olympus Ball in a red dress to arouse Pres' jealousy (a symbol of her sexual recklessness), he declines, claiming that Southern manners wouldn't allow it:

Buck: You had a set-to with Pres?
Julie: Oh, I'd rather not discuss it.
Buck: Yes, I'd better, 'cause Pres isn't gonna like it.
Julie: What's the matter, Buck? Afraid Pres would call you out?
Buck: Oh, he'd do that naturally. Can't say I'd blame him much. Where do I stand, carryin' his lady?
Julie: If I ask you to, isn't that enough?
Buck: Not this time, Miss Julie. I think too much of you to help you do something you're gonna regret.
Julie: I know exactly what I'm doin'.
Buck: Well, most likely you do but you're wrong. That dress would cause no end of trouble. Folks would keenly resent you comin' to the ball in it.
Julie: Well, let 'em. They're just petty and narrow-minded.
Buck: No, ma'am. It's just they got rules and they go by 'em, same as you and I.
Julie: And do you prefer to go by your rules?
Buck: I always have, Miss Julie.
Julie: Then I'm sorry I troubled you.

When Preston arrives at the mansion, he (and Aunt Belle and the General) are stunned to see her, inappropriately dressed in a bare-shouldered, flaming red dress. Pig-headed, she challenges her beau to escort her while ignoring his wishes that she be "properly dressed" according to the social conventions:

Julie: Well, shall we go, Pres?
Preston: Not 'til you're properly dressed.
Julie: You're sure it's the dress? It couldn't be that you're afraid, afraid somebody'd insult me and you'd find it necessary to defend me.

Next Page