January 22, 2012


Pre-Gone With the Wind Antebellum South drama, set in New Orleans in 1852-3, in which Bette Davis plays Julie Marsden, a passionate, unconventional, complicated Southern belle who tries to win back her ex-fiance (Henry Fonda) after he's remarried and moved to Boston. Because its story is set before the Civil War, Jezebel (1938) provides some interesting insight into the pre-war clash between Southern and Northern culture. Granted, it's a Hollywoodized insight, but it doesn't seem as rosily nostalgic for the glory days of the Old South the way Gone With the Wind is.

Instead of war, the big scare--the thing that tries to lend this movie some big, epic-style, overarching dramatic weight--is the impending yellow fever that paralyzes New Orleans. But this movie doesn't feel like a lumbering epic, because it's just over 100 minutes, and the director, William Wyler, manages to keep the picture from being self-important. He doesn't go for the overdramatic close-ups too often, and keeps the swelling music in check, and keeps his camera moving to give us multiple points of view, rather than turn this into a stuffy stage play that fixates too long from one angle. (It was based on a play by Owen Davis).

Wyler is much more interested in character than plot. Julie is selfish, but it's her independence of mind for which she's punished by losing the man she loves. When she refuses to wear a white dress to the big ball--donning a red one instead--all of New Orleans society is scandalized by her bucking of the custom. (Those dresses are like little cages draped in decadent muslin. There's a funny scene where Wyler shows us the ugly steel hoops that serve as the structure of the dresses, and you feel really sorry for the ladies who had to war them all the time.) This breaks up her engagement, and eventually he finds another lady to marry.

Bette Davis is of course a legend, but she was also known for her histrionics. In Jezebel, however, Davis exercises masterful control of herself, and her performance is stronger as a result. She lets us see her character flaws in subtle facial expressions rather than big dramatic gestures and screaming voice. Her voice hasn't yet attained that deep, sharp, bellowing quality that would so marvelously serve her Margo Channing in All About Eve. Here, Bette's voice is soft, and she's at her most beautiful. She looks soft and vulnerable, but she's a fighter. Moreover, she's more complicated than you might expect. It's hard to pin her down as a vixen or a heroine--she falls somewhere in the middle, but then her morality spills over into each side at varying times in the movie. She doesn't explain her motivations away, and she doesn't rely on sympathy to get what she wants. In the end, Julie is punished for being too independent, but Davis makes it believable. Julie takes everything that comes at her with a certain degree of calm, as if she knew about it all along. 

Jezebel holds up well. Wyler doesn't marinate his drama in excess--too much. The gaudy Southerners aren't reduced to caricatures; they aren't proffered up cavalierly as cartoons. There's a certain humanity in just about everyone, and yet the movie doesn't sly away form showing how silly some of their customs were. With George Brent, Margaret Lindsay, Fay Bainter, Richard Cromwell, John Litel, Donald Crisp, Spring Byington, Eddie Anderson, Henry O'Neill, and Irving Pichell. Music by Max Steiner.

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