Tuesday, May 14, 2013

Jezebel (1938)

Director: William Wyler


It was a time where the novel Gone with the Wind had swept through America as a major best seller, the film adaption was still the hottest talk in the trades, but still over a year from release, and the charm of the Antebellum South was on the minds of popular culture. Warner Bros capitalizes on craze with Jezebel, a story that woman with similar southern customs and the tragedies that surround her, itself becoming a critical and award winning success. The studio that seemed to take chances would be led by its assertive star actress in this opportunistic production.

Jezebel is a dramatic woman’s picture of a strong-willed, spoiled Southern belle and how her strong-headed actions cause her to lose the love of her life. Julie (Bette Davis) is a spoiled lady of New Orleans engaged to Preston “Pres” Dillard (Henry Fonda), a successful banker with offices both in the north and overseas. Upset by how Pres is occupied with his work Julie plans to wear a brash red dress at the most important a ball of the year where all the unmarried ladies traditionally wear only virginal white. Shocking family and friends Pres accompanies Julie turning the ball into a spectacle as Pres uses her own plans with the dress against her to humiliate the socialite on this big night as they stand out as a black sheep in the massive party. From this great moment of drama Julie and Pres part ways effectively ending the engagement.

A year later, a period while Pres was up north on business, Julie makes herself a shut in, and with yellow fever at the doorstep of New Orleans, Julie sets for country home outside of the city safe from the outbreak. As word is of Pres coming back home to help the city with planning ways to fight off the plague Julie sets to welcome her former love and ask for forgiveness only to be introduced to Pres’ new northern wife, Amy (Margaret Lindsay). Julie attempts to make Pres jealous, but only causes more harm. Tragedy strikes as Pres comes down with yellow fever. Out of love Julie becomes the one to sacrifice herself to take care of Pres as he surely will die, sparring his wife of possibly catching the disease as well, assuring Amy was the love of Pres’ life.

The picture is a product of its time and the fad of Antebellum Southern ways in the mind of pop culture. The idea of a South rooted in ways of propriety where ladies wore dresses inspired by Victorian ways, gentlemen bowed, women curtsied, and the thought that there is a “proper” way to act. It was a romantic, chivalrous time for a part of the country inspired by the French culture from the days when New Orleans was once a major colony of French America. American audiences ate up this romanticism with the release of the famed Gone with the Wind on bookshelves in 1936. Warner Bros clearly took the opportunity to capitalize on the craze while the film adaptation was in the works at Selznick International , a long and heavily publicized process for fans of the movies and movie stars.

Jezebel is beautifully shot with wonderful angles and precise blocking of the actors. Director William Wyler was known for his perfectionism, sometimes taking dozens of takes to get everything just right. It is said that it took nearly four dozen takes just to get right the shot where Davis uses her riding crop to sweep up the train of her dress in one scene. Very little can be improved upon with the composition or look of the picture other than it was in black and white as color was still an expensive luxury for most productions.

The film would be an adaptation of a short lived stage play that ran in late 1933. Ironically enough the play starred Miriam Hopkins, a known rival of Bette Davis. As the play failed to make any impact on Broadway Warner’s saw instant use of the story as a good vehicle for Davis, purchasing the rights for cheap due to the lack of success on stage.

Bette Davis’ award winning performance as Julie  provides the actress with yet another opportunity of her playing a greatly flawed, tragic character whose own deeds destroys what she loves. At one point Warner Bros was attempting to acquire the distribution rights to the forthcoming Gone with the Wind and talks had it that in trade for the rights Bette Davis would have been lent to Selznick to play the much sought after role of Scarlett O’Hara. Negotiations with Warners never got off the ground and MGM would grab the distribution rights to the highly anticipated picture. Despite legend Davis would never be considered for the role as O’Hara, but her acting in Jezebel would land her the second of her two Academy Awards for best actress, of what many critics thought should have been three after being snubbed for her work in Of Human Bondage. Her strong willed persona plays very well for the role of Julie as a head strong girl that did not see the consequences coming to her.

To play second fiddle to Davis was Henry Fonda. The great, young stage actor that broke into the movies playing across from some of the best actresses in the business would have been at the call of the headlining star, but as the birth of his daughter, Jane Fonda, was eminent he was allowed to be at his wife’s side while Davis and the rest of the cast worked around his shots. That was a kind gesture for the star who could have commanded that he stay to work at this time. The result is a strong, weathered-feeling performance from an actor that would become a major player in the cinema in coming years. Fonda’s performance clearly states how he wants to teach this spoiled woman a lesson and is mighty enough to stand his ground.

Bent, Davis, and Fonda in the scene with the red gown.
George Brent would play the pawn in the scheme of Julie. A brash duelist, the character of Buck allows his pride and chivalry to be the death of him as he loses his life in trying to teach a lesson to those surrounding Julie. Brent would receive higher billing, but Fay Bainter would receive an Academy Awards for best supporting actress. She played Julie’s aunt who desperately attempts to get Julie to behave and act properly. She too was a stage veteran and provides much emotion with her face, earning her the award.

The picture plays out in stages as to how Julie is acting, and her steps to ruin. These stages are playing out creatively in the costumes that were worn by Davis through the picture, clearly displaying her character. Opening with her in a riding outfit improper at the moments when greeting guests at a party, setting up her strong will. It then moves to the infamous red dress (in reality it was bronze to play well for the black and white film), this showed her defiance and quick remorse for the decision. Next was the white gown as she humbles herself to her ex-lover. Finally is a black dress with edges that become worn as she watches after the dying Pres. These four distinctive costumes perfectly change and evoke the character of Julie as she changes through the picture.

As with any picture about that period in American history there is the portrayal of Southern slaves to look at. To avoid any Southern censorship the black slaves are made to look like they happily serve their masters, even with the hint of abolitionism in the film. It is important to remember that though slavery is retrospectively look back on as a blemish, in film it is looked at with sweet icing as if nothing was wrong so the Southern audiences would not stand up against the idea they were flawed. It is an issue panned over hoping it would not cause problems, thus the overly happy slaves in the film.

Jezebel is quite a treasure to find in 1938. Despite it being the product of a fad at the time, its strong performance by the stars, beautiful direction, and greatly understated score by Max Steiner all make for one of the best pictures of the year. In fact the film would be up for best picture, best cinematography, and best score at the Oscars that year, aside from the two awards for its actresses. In 2009 the feature would be named to the National Film Registry and stands as one of the culturally significant films in American cinema history. Jezebel stands as a reminder of how the motion picture business reacts to what audiences like many times, but can still turn up a wonderful picture at the same time.

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