Reviewed April 17, 2015
A wonderful showcase for the young and lovely Bette Davis, Jezebel is a very early film role for Davis that has many similarities to Gone with the Wind, a film that Davis reportedly lost out to Vivian Leigh. One wonders how she would have made the character of Scarlett O’Hara her own and Jezebel is a journey exploring that possibility.
Directed by acclaimed director William Wyler, Jezebel is set in 1852 (pre Civil War) New Orleans. Davis plays spoiled southern belle, Julie Marsden. Julie is engaged to wealthy banker Preston Dillard, played by Henry Fonda. After a dispute in which Julie selfishly feels her needs are not being catered to, she shockingly wears a red dress to a sophisticated ball where unmarried women are expected to wear white. This causes a scandal which results in Preston dumping Julie and leaving town. Cocky Julie expects Preston to return to town and grovel for her forgiveness, but when he does return with a life changing twist, the drama unfolds. Circumstances include a savage duel, longing love, and atonement.
Fans of Davis will love Jezebel for the sheer excellence that she brings to the screen. Mesmerizing with those soulful, big eyes and wonderful mannerisms, she exudes confidence and sophistication. Admittedly this is my earliest Davis experience and she shimmers on-screen. Bette Davis is perfectly cast. Interesting to note are the innocent qualities early Davis possessed. Later afflicted with a hoarse, deep voice and ravaged beauty after years of alcohol and cigarette abuse, Davis in Jezebel is virginal and debutante looking.
Interesting to me are Julie’s wardrobe choices- her horseback riding outfit, the vixen-like red dress, the virginal white dress, and the dark raven cape at the climax of the film, and various lighting techniques that Wyler used to showcase Davis’s face- almost look like candlelight.
The film itself has several similarities to Gone with the Wind (which it in fact preceded by a year). Julie, like Scarlett, is a rich, selfish girl who likes to manipulate men and both films feature a love triangle prevalent to the story as well as broken hearts. The slaves in both films resemble each other though are a bit more glamorous in Jezebel. The introduction of the yellow fever storyline and the sick and weak lying around in droves is similar to the wounded and dying soldier scene in Gone with the Wind where the sick and dying lie in pain. The time periods, triangle, and southern charms all heavily play in both. It is impossible not to compare the two films.
Melodrama done very well, Jezebel is to be admired as it is a film featuring a strong female character something lacking in film then (1938) and shamefully still lacking in film today! Jezebel is a true “ambitious woman’s movie”.