Reviewed by Colin Jacobson (September 17, 2019)
Nominated 11 times, Bette Davis won two Oscars. The second of these came for 1938’s Jezebel, a period piece set in Louisiana circa the 1850s.
Spoiled and arrogant, Southern belle Julie Marsden (Davis) bosses around and alienates fiancé Preston Dillard (Henry Ford). This leads to a big furor at a major social event and Preston leaves Julie.
Distraught, Julie attempts to change her ways to win back her ex. However, she learns she faces a steep upward climb.
When Margaret Mitchell’s 1936 novel became a massive hit, Gone With the Wind immediately turned into fodder for a film version. Due to a variety of factors, the movie didn’t go into production for an extended period, so it didn’t hit screens until late in 1939.
Though adapted from a 1933 play, Jezebel bears enough similarities with Wind that its existence as a film feels like an attempt to beat the latter to the punch. Wind enjoyed immense interest during its long path to the screen, so Jezebel comes across like a way to capitalize on that fever.
Alas, Jezebel tends to feel like a low-rent version of Wind. Shorn of that epic’s grandeur, it comes with many of the same non-PC problems but few of its positives.
Though I can’t criticize the casting. No, Jezebel lacks the depth of talent found in Wind, but as Hollywood legends go, Davis and Fonda feel at least equal to Vivian Leigh and Clark Gable.
In terms of performance, Davis more than carries the load. As she would a year later in 1939’s Dark Victory, Davis brings a force of nature to the screen.
Though an underwritten role, Davis’s take on Julie offers a strong turn. Even when the script starts to neuter this wild stallion, Davis’s natural charisma makes her engaging and impactful.
Preston feels like a mix of Rhett Butler and Ashley Wilkes, with more of the simpering Ashley on display, so Fonda finds less room to maneuver than Davis. Fonda does fine in the part, but he can’t compete with his co-star’s dynamic personality.
Their characters really become the bigger problem. Love her or hate her, at least Scarlett offers a vivid role, and Rhett remains one of the most compelling “alpha males” committed to celluloid.
Julie and Preston don’t feel nearly as engaging, and the supporting characters don’t pick up the slack. We get a movie with roles that seem bland and forgettable.
Jezebel also mires its characters in a mopey melodrama that fails to impress. Of course, at its core, Wind offers basic soap opera material as well, but again, its epic scope and sumptuous production values elevate it.
None of this happens in the bland Jezebel, and the absence of color becomes a surprising impediment. The incident that ruptures the Julie/Preston relationship occurs because she dares to wear a red dress to a party.
This might work better if we could actually read the red. Unfortunately, in the black and white photography, Julie’s scandalous red dress looks more like a black plastic trash bag, so any impact from the hue fails to materialize.
As noted, Jezebel comes with most of the same un-PC notions as Wind. I won’t call it more offensive to modern sensibilities than the 1939 movie, but I won’t say it seems less problematic either.
Actually, I find myself mainly bothered by the sexism. While the racism offends me, I also know it’s par for the course given the film’s era. As much as I dislike the attitudes, I know they’re what passed for “normal” back then.
The way Jezebel depicts male/female relations and Julie’s metamorphosis seems more extreme. Like Scarlett, Julie gets beaten down by life, but whereas Scarlett remains indefatigable to the end, Julie appears to give up her prior feistiness.
This becomes a bad choice because we lose our rooting interest in Julie. When she shows independence and fought against social mores she viewed as irrelevant, we cheer for her, but when she submits, we lose interest.
Despite that arc, Davis still brings enough to the role to make her remain ever-watchable. Davis can’t carry the movie all on her back, though, so Jezebel sputters as it goes.