[Film Review] Jezebel (1938)

Jezebel poster.jpg

Title: Jezebel
Year: 1938
Country: USA
Language: English
Genre: Drama, Romance
Director: William Wyler
Clements Ripley
Abem Finkel
John Huston
based on the play of Owen Davis
Music: Max Steiner
Cinematography: Ernest Haller
Bette Davis
Henry Fonda
George Brent
Fay Bainter
Margaret Lindsay
Donald Crisp
Richard Cromwell
Spring Byington
Henry O’Neill
Lew Payton
Theresa Harris
Eddie ‘Rochester’ Anderson
Margaret Early
Matthew ‘Stymie’ Beard
Irving Pichel
Rating: 6.9/10

Jezebel 1938.jpg

Often referred as a black-and-white version of GONE WITH THE WIND, or in a more dismissive but not entirely incorrect comparison, a poor man’s version of it, William Wyler’s JEZEBEL is not in the same league in terms of the latter’s epic scale, chromatic splendor, involute sex politics or an indomitable male player to match its barnstorming female star, but honestly, as a Ms. Bette Davis’ star vehicle, it gives her a helluva three-act stage to incarnate a southern belle’s petulant, reckless and vindictive perversity with their concomitant ramifications in an antebellum New Orleans, to a point even her final redemption doesn’t feel fully justified.

Davis plays Miss Julie Marsden, a pesky and conceited patrician ingénue, who never live up to our expectation of espousal and compassion, in the first act she has no one but herself to answer for the breakup of her engagement with the young banker Preston Dillard (played by a four-square Henry Fonda but nothing more), whom she deeply loves and when she wants him back, one year later, her blithe scheme to stoke Preston’s jealousy through cozying up to her long-time admirer Buck Cantrell (Brent) goes awry with disastrous outcome, not that Buck deserves our eulogizing, who is a foolish man blinded by his irrational hubris and abject subservience. And Preston doesn’t fall into her manipulation, he doesn’t want her back, because he is now happily married with a Yankee wife Amy (Lindsay), that’s the second act, yet we don’t see her even shed a tear for the tragedy she is partially responsible for.

A yellow fever epidemic overshadows everything else in the third act, where her repentance and integrity finally well up to the fore and undergirded by a show-stopping Davis, she even transfigures her ultimate self-sacrifice into a self-pleasing triumph in that harrowing final shot, which certifies Ms. Davis’ own iconic screen image, she doesn’t need or want to be pitied by audience, her character must sustain her pride however vestigial it is and no matter what happens, it is a bold message sending to a sexist world and she should and would be deservingly worshiped for this conducive deed that transforms the presentation of women on the screen, who refuses to be lachrymose and takes all the gnarly consequences in her stride. Although in my book, it recoils upon the wholesome impact of the film per se, there is a fine line between being free-spirited and being thoughtlessly whimsical, Julie has no tact and no grounds to put on a winner’s stance (even ostensibly for her heroism) albeit the film shrewdly brings down the curtain there without further exposition since either survival or dead would only gild the lily, after all it is a moral story to exhort young ladies to behave themselves and hits out back-handedly to the manipulative nature of a woman who is privileged with beauty and wealth. Another bad taste comes from the patronizing paragraph of treating black people like uncouth chanting animal, quite an eyesore for viewers in this day and age, that is something even Wyler’s scrupulous direction and Max Steiner’s sonorous score cannot temper with.

Ms. Davis won her second Oscar for this intrepid work at the age of 31, and in hindsight, an honor which has come premature among her 11 nominations in toto, and probably denies her another trophy for her absolute apotheosis in ALL ABOUT EVE, although 1950 is a such a wonderfully competitive year for actresses. Fay Bainter also takes home a golden statuette for her cracking supporting turn as Aunt Belle Massey, who always stays in close range to counterpoint Julie’s disaster-prone caprices with decorum graced with solicitous concern and subtle tenderness, it is also worth mentioning that Ms. Bainter is the first actress being nominated in both leading (for Edmund Goulding’s WHITE BANNERS) and supporting categories in the same year, which means she has to compete with two Jezebel co-stars, loses to Davis, but wins over Spring Byington, who is nominated in Frank Capra’s YOU CAN’T TAKE IT WITH YOU (1938).

referential points: Victor Fleming’s GONE WITH THE WIND (1939, 8.4/10); Wyler’s THE LETTER (1940, 8.0/10); Joseph L. Mankiewicz’s ALL ABOUT EVE (1950, 9.3/10).


2 thoughts on “[Film Review] Jezebel (1938)

  1. Pingback: [Film Review] Dark Victory (1939) – Cinema Omnivore

  2. Pingback: [Film Review] In This Our Life (1942) – Cinema Omnivore

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