Jezebel, as I’m sure you’re probably aware, is often written off as a lesser version of Gone With the Wind, or alternatively, a peace offering from Warner to Bette Davis. After some pondering though, I have come to the conclusion that it is most definitely neither of those things… well, maybe a little of the latter! For me, Jezebel is the epitome of the cinematic South; passionate and gallant, brought to life under the watchful hand of a young William Wyler.
It begins in New Orleans, 1852. We see a young woman galloping through the streets, terrifically late for a party in her honour. Using her crop, Julie Mardsen whips up her riding clothes with the greatest ease, so much so that you can totally suspend all your previous knowledge of Bette Davis and wholeheartedly believe that she is this fiery southern belle. (And no wonder this is so, popular belief is that it took forty-eight takes before Wyler was satisfied.) One night though, Julie takes things one step too far: she wears a striking red dress to a ball where only white was permitted, much to the frustration of her respectable fianceé Pres Dillard (Fonda). He ultimately leaves for the North, returning a year later with something ‘rare and precious.’ 3 guesses what (or rather who) that can be…
What I love about Jezebel is its authenticity; the mood and atmosphere of the south are captured wonderfully. This is done through the haunting black and white cinematography, perfectly utilised in the dramatic Olympus Ball scene. Julie realises her little stunt has gone too far and pleads with her fianceé to stop dancing. Pres refuses to let her go, resulting in the two surrounded by an empty floor and a sense of foolishness. The stark contrasts of Julie’s radiant dress and the pure white of every other lady’s in the room becomes increasingly evident, with the tension highlighted further by Steiner’s ironically dignified theme.
And what would the film be without its very fine performances from the entire cast? Fonda, George Brent and Fay Bainter are all excellent in their roles, but the movie, of course, belongs to Bette Davis. For the most part, when a character is as worryingly self-centered as Julie Mardsen is, an audience really wouldn’t care what her fate would be. As Julie though, Davis is realistic, flawed and so captivatingly unpredictable in this restrained performance that it is genuinely difficult to take your eyes off the screen.
The end of Jezebel raises question about the motives of each character, and this is something I believe every great movie should do. The final shot, Julie and Pres riding away to what only can only be described as their imminent deaths, just leaves you reeling. Was Fonda’s character still in love with Julie, you ask aloud. Did Julie Mardsen redeem herself? Did she really change her ways? Would the two ever return home alive?