Review: Jezebel (1938)



William Wyler
Clements Ripley, Abem Finkel, John Huston (Play: Owen Davis Sr.)
104 min.
Bette Davis, Henry Fonda, George Brent, Margaret Lindsay, Donald Crisp, Fay Bainter, Richard Cromwell, Henry O’Neill, Spring Byington, John Litel, Gordon Oliver, Janet Shaw, Theresa Harris, Margaret Early, Irving Pichel
MPAA Rating

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Source Material

Bette Davis gives a fine performance as a Southern Belle in Louisiana longing to break free of societal restrictions but not realizing just how dangerous such maneuvers are. Wearing red to a ball where every woman is traditionally to wear white turns her into a cultural pariah and ends up driving a near-permanent wedge between her and her fiance, played by Henry Fonda in a rather bland performance. The film also features Fay Bainter as Aunt Belle, a compassionate woman who despite her niece’s antics still acts as a rock where she can return when her misguided ways threaten to destroy her.

Davis was rumored to have been offered this role after David O. Selznick turned her down for the part of Scarlett O’Hara in Gone With the Wind. Releasing the year before the all-time box office champ (considering inflation), there was certainly an opportunity for Davis to show she could outshine Vivien Leigh in the role of Julie, yet there is something lacking in the performance. Davis is still quite good, but if this is any indication, she would have been ill-suited to carry Gone With the Wind the way Leigh did.

Even though Jezebel does a fairly solid job treating the black cast with respect. They maintain the period setting’s treatment of slaves, but through words (Fonda’s Preston Dillard coyly speaking out against the South while supporting Northern ideas) and actions (Julie speaks to and treats the blacks on her plantation with respect and even sits with and holds them during one pivotal scene in the film), showed a modern and perhaps even forward-thinking approach to dealing with not only characters of color but actors of color as well. It was the one thing Gone With the Wind did too little of and Jezebel managed to do better. Had the rest of the film had as much compassion and foresight, it might not have felt so hypocritical in its treatment of women as strong characters. While Julie is portrayed as strong-willed and prideful woman, she is nevertheless constricted by her society, but instead of continuing the rebellion, she eventually sequesters herself back into tradition and an inferiority position.
Review Written
July 19, 2010

1 Comment

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  1. How utterly absurd and obsessive to critique a movie made nearly 80 years ago for its handling of race relations.

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