Monday, March 2, 2020
"JEZEBEL" (1938) Review
"JEZEBEL" (1938) Review
Following the release of Margaret Mitchell's 1936 novel, "Gone With the Wind", some Hollywood studios scrambled to find a way to cash in on its success. Producer David O. Selznick managed to purchase the film rights to Mitchell's novel. However, Warner Brothers Studios decided to do its own Southern melodrama called "JEZEBEL".
Directed by William Wyler, "JEZEBEL" starred Bette Davis in the title role as a headstrong New Orleans belle named Julie Marsden in the early 1850s. Julie's vanity and willful nature leads her to a series of actions, culminating in the loss of the man she loves, a banker named Preston "Pres" Dillard. The movie begins with Julie and Preston engaged and the former demanding the full attention of the latter. When Pres refuses to drop his work and accompany her on a shopping expedition for the upcoming Olympus Ball, Julie decides to retaliate by ordering a red dress (in New Orleans society, virgins wear white). Although Pres accompanies Julie to the ball and dances with her, he eventually has enough of her temperamental and foolhardy behavior and breaks off their engagement. Then he leaves New Orleans to spend some time up North in New York City. Julie eventually realizes she had made a major blunder and spends a year grieving over her broken engagement. However, she becomes determined to mend fences with him, when he returns to New Orleans. But their reunion proves to be bittersweet, due to Pres' new companion - his bride - and the potential danger of a yellow fever pandemic within the city.
The road to the 1938 movie began with playwright Owen Davis Jr., whose play of the same title made its Broadway debut in December 1933. Starring Miriam Hopkins, the play only ran on Broadway for over a month before it eventually flopped. Someone at Warner Brothers must have seen some kind of potential in this Southern melodrama for the studio had purchased the play back in 1937. Rumor has it that the studio had specifically purchased it for Bette Davis as compensation for her failure to win the part of Scarlett O'Hara for David O. Selznick's film adaptation of Mitchell's novel. The truth is that Selznick had yet to consider his leading lady for the 1939 film back in 1937. I think Warner Brothers saw the story provided a juicy role for Davis and purchased it. Miriam Hopkins, who had starred in the 1933 play, had hoped to be cast in the coveted role. Needless to say, she was very disappointed when Wallis informed her that he had only "considered her" for the role. Warner Brothers had originally cast Jeffrey Lynn for the role of Julie's true love, banker Preston Dillard. However, the producers of a play he was appearing in refused to release him and the studio eventually turned to 20th Century-Fox star Henry Fonda as a last minute replacement. As for the film's director, Wallis and studio chief Jack Warner's first choice as director was Edmund Goulding (who had directed "GRAND HOTEL"), who was eventually dropped. Next, they approached Michael Curtiz (future "CASABLANCA" director), who dropped out at the last moment. They finally hired William Wyler, who had a contract with Samuel Goldwyn at the time.
There have been many comparisons between "JEZEBEL" and the 1939 movie, "GONE WITH THE WIND". Considering the settings and leading female roles for both films, I could see why. But this is about my opinion of "JEZEBEL". The 1938 movie is not perfect. Since the film is set in the Antebellum South, naturally it would feature characters that are African-American slaves. With the exception of two characters, the majority of them are portrayed in the usual "happy slaves" literary trope that has marred a good number of Old Hollywood films set during the 19th century. You know . . . infantilizing the black characters. One scene featuring Julie's maid, Zette, enthusiastically accepting Julie's infamous red gown as a present. Now, any maid worth her salt would recognize the gown as trash. A black maidfrom the 1939 comedy, "DAY TIME WIFE", certainly regarded a cheap rabbit fur as trash and contemptuously rejected it as a throwaway present. But this wince-inducing portrayal of blacks in "JEZEBEL" seemed to be at its zenith in one particular scene that featured the Halcyon slaves greeting Julie's guests upon their arrival at her plantation . . . with cheers. Mind you, I have seen worse in the 1957 movie, "BAND OF ANGELS". Another major scene that I found equally wince-inducing featured Julie and a group of young slaves surrounding her, while they sing "Raise a Ruckus" to her guests. Yikes. I find ironic that a film like "GONE WITH THE WIND", which was equally guilty of its cliched portrayal of African-Americans, managed to feature at least three or four memorable black characters. I cannot say the same for "JEZEBEL", despite having the likes of Eddie Anderson (who was also in the 1939 Best Picture winner) and Theresa Harris in its cast. William Wyler redeemed himself, I am happy to say, in his 1956 movie, "FRIENDLY PERSUASION". Ironically, a good number of the white minor characters - namely men - seemed to be stuck in some kind of "Southern gentlemen" cliché from stories set in the Old South. You know the type - he wears a wide planter's hat, while either holding a glass of booze, a cigar or both; while discussing duels or putting down Yankees. This was especially apparent in one of the film's first scenes at a saloon, inside the famous St. Louis Hotel.
There is also one scene, earlier in the film, that left me scratching my head. It featured Preston Dillard at his bank's board meeting, discussing the possibility of constructing rail lines through New Orleans and throughout Louisiana. I realize that the other board members' negative reaction to Pres' support for the railroad was suppose to be a sign of the South's backwardness and unwillingness to accept the advancement of technology. But I found this hard to accept. The movie began in 1852. During this period, the state of Louisiana was already expanding the railroad throughout the state. Nor was the South adverse to accept technological advances, as long as its elite profit from it. If the region - especially the Mississippi Valley - was willing to use steamboats to ship their cotton and sugar to the North, why not railroads? One mode of transportation was just as good as the other. And Southern planters certainly had no qualms in using Eli Whitney's invention of the cotton gin to become the number one producer and exporter of cotton in the first place. So, this scene seemed a bit unreal to me from a historical point-of-view.
I have two other problems with "JEZEBEL" that I consider aesthetic. One of those problems featured the film's production designs, supervised by Robert Fellows. I had no problems with the production designs for New Orleans' French Quarter. I had a big problem with the production designs for Julie Marsden's plantation, Halcyon. At least the exterior designs. In the scene that featured the arrival of Julie's guests, Halcyon's front lawn and the exterior designs for the house resembled a large house in a Southern suburb, instead of a plantation house. I did not expect Halcyon's exteriors to resemble some clichéd Southern manor. But it seemed quite clear to me that Fellows, along with art director Robert M. Haas and the film's art department did not put much thought in the plantation's exterior design. Quite frankly, it almost resembled a facade constructed in front of a matte painting, on the Warner Brothers back lot.
I certainly did not have a problem with most of Orry-Kelly's costumes for the film. But I had a problem with one in particular . . . namely the infamous Olympus Ball "red gown":
I realize that in the movie, the gown had been originally created for one of New Orleans' most infamous courtesans. And I did not have a problem with the gown's full skirt, which accurately reflected the movie's early 1850s setting. But that bodice . . . seriously? A strapless ballgown in 1852? I do not care if the gown was originally created for a prostitute. No such ballgown existed in the 1850s. The gown's bodice struck me as pure late 1930s. The ballgown is practically schizophrenic as far as historical accuracy is concerned. And I am surprised that so many film critics and movie fans have failed to realize this.
Surprisingly, there is a good deal to admire in "JEZEBEL" . . . actually a lot. Many critics have compared it unfavorably to "GONE WITH THE WIND", due to the latter being a historical drama. Somewhat. Well, aside from its use of the New Orleans 1853 Yellow Fever Epidemic and the U.S. sectional conflict of the antebellum period in its narrative, "JEZEBEL" is not what I would describe as a historical drama. Which is why I find the movie's comparison to "GONE WITH THE WIND" rather questionable. Besides, the movie is basically a character study of one Julie Marsden, an orphaned Louisiana belle who also happened to be the owner of a plantation called Halcyon. Screenwriters Clements Ripley, Abem Finkel and John Huston structured the film's narrative as a three-act play - which is not surprising considering its literary source. All three segments of the film - "The Dress", "The Duel" and "The Fever" - served as different stages in Julie's tenuous relationship with Pres Dillard. But the best I can say about "JEZEBEL" it is a well-balanced mixture of character study, melodrama and a touch of historical drama for good measure. I can honestly say that "JEZEBEL" was not some uneven mixture of genres.
There is something about "JEZEBEL" that I found rather odd. On one level, the whole movie seemed to be about how a willful and over-privileged woman finally received her comeuppance after causing so much chaos and even tragedy in the lives of those close to her. Yes, Julie Marsden was a selfish and rather childish woman who believed the worlds of others - especially Pres Dillard - should revolve around her. After all, it was her petulant reaction to Pres' refusal to accompany her on a shopping trip that set their break-up in motion. But I must admit that I was surprised to find some aspect of the film's narrative that questioned the 19th society that demanded Julie remained in her place, as a woman. Yes, she was selfish and childish. But she possessed a bold personality that seemed unfit for conforming to society's rigid rules. In a way, I could not help but wonder if some of her attempts to do what she wanted had sprung from some kind of frustration at being expected to remaining below the glass ceiling. Surprisingly, one example was the character Preston Dillard. As I had pointed out earlier, "JEZEBEL" featured the usual "happy slaves" clichés in its portrayal of the African-American characters. But it also used the Pres Dillard character to criticize the South's dependence on slavery. Pres denied more than once of being a follower of abolition. Yet, his criticism of slave labor, his respectful attitude toward slaves like Uncle Cato, his decision to live in the North and his support for technological advances in transportation and an improved sanitation system for New Orleans seemed to hint otherwise.
A better example of the film's criticism of 19th century Southern society came from the film's second act, "The Duel". Yes, I felt contempt at Julie's efforts to humiliate Pres and his new bride Amy by manipulating her former beau, the hot-headed Buck Cantrell, into goading them. And I also felt disgusted when her manipulations led to a duel between Buck and Pres' younger brother, Theodore "Ted" Dillard. This proved to be especially ironic due to the close friendship between the pair. But what really disgusted me was not only did Julie eventually realized she had went too far and tried to prevent the duel; both Buck and Ted knew that Julie had manipulated them into that duel and her reason behind her action. Yet, those two morons insisted upon carrying out the duel. For face. I was especially disgusted with Buck and his blind adherence to this "gentleman's honor" nonsense. Buck and Ted's insistence upon carrying out their duel, despite knowledge of Julie's role in it, seemed to be a harsh criticism of a society that encouraged such duels. This is pretty rare for a Hollywood film made before the 1960s, let alone the 1950s.
Despite a few quibbles, I was very impressed by the production and art designs for "JEZEBEL". Red ballgown aside, I thought Orry-Kelly did an exceptional job with the film's costumes. The Australian-born designer's costumes came very close to reflecting the fashions of the early 1850s - not only for women, but also for men. I was also impressed by the production and art designs that also did an excellent job of reflecting the film's setting - 1852-1853 Louisiana. The exterior designs for the Halcyon plantation may have been a bust, but I cannot say for the other exterior and set designs. This was certainly the case for the exterior designs for the New Orleans French Quarter scenes, as seen in the image below:
I simply found them exquisite. This artistry was on full display, thanks to the movie's long opening shot that introduced movie fans to New Orleans circa 1852. And we can thank both director William Wyler and cinematographer Ernest Haller for this memorable scene. And this was just the first. Another creative sequence from Wyler, Haller and the film's art designers featured a montage that introduced movie audiences to the film's third and final act - the Yellow Jack epidemic.
I did not have a problem with the film's performances. In general. But as I had stated earlier, I found some of the performances for minor white planters and black slaves a bit over-the-top. One of those over-the-top performances came from Donald Crisp, of all people, who portrayed Dr. Livingstone - Pres Dillard's mentor. I thought Crisp took the whole Southern gentleman cliche just a bit too far. I was also a bit troubled by Theresa Harris' portrayal of Julie's maid, Zette. It seemed a bit too cliched in my opinion and I wish that William Wyler had reined in her performance a bit. Harris had better luck portraying another maid in the 1941 period comedy, "THE FLAME OF NEW ORLEANS". There was one more performance that failed to impress me and it came from Margaret Lindsay, who portrayed Pres' Northern-born wife Amy. How can I say this? Would one consider a limp and underwhelming character like Amy as another literary trope? At least for a story set in the mid-19th century? I could say that Lindsay was a bad actress, but I find this hard to accept, considering her performance in the 1940 melodrama, "THE HOUSE OF THE SEVEN GABLES".
Fortunately for "JEZEBEL", it did feature some very solid performances. Eddie Anderson gave a pretty solid performance as Julie's competent stable hand, Gros Bat. Matthew "Stymie" Beard struck me as equally solid as his young son, Ti Bat. Spring Byington was amusing as Julie's slightly snobbish neighbor, Mrs. Kendrick. Margaret Early gave a lively performance as the former's daughter, Stephanie Kendrick. Henry O'Neill was pretty solid as one of Julie's guardians, General Theopholus Bogardus. But I did not find him particularly memorable. Lew Payton gave excellent support as Julie's major domo, Uncle Cato. And Richard Cromwell really impressed me as Pres' younger brother, the intelligent yet temperamental Ted Dillard. But there were two supporting performances that truly impressed me. One came from George Brent, who I believe gave one of the best performances of his screen career, as the uber-macho Buck Cantrell. One, his grasp of a Lower South accent really impressed me. The actor also managed to convey the glimmer of Buck's intelligence behind his masculine posturing - something that made the rupture of his friendship with Ted Dillard rather tragic. The other impressive supporting performance came from Fay Bainter, who portrayed Julie's other guardian, Aunt Belle Massey. Bainter did such an excellent job of conveying the character's tiring efforts to make Julie conform to society's rules, especially those for women. Bainter made Belle Massey's struggles so apparent that when Julie's manipulations led to the Buck-Ted duel, Bainter gave that infamous "Jezebel" speech with a superb performance that may have sealed her win as Best Supporting Actress Oscar.
I have read a good number of reviews for "JEZEBEL". And for the likes of me, I cannot understand why Henry Fonda's portrayal of banker Preston "Pres" Dillard was dismissed as either wooden or weak. I find the contempt toward the character rather mind-boggling. I even came across an article in which the author could not decide which male character was this film's Rhett Butler - Pres Dillard or Buck Cantrell. Was that why so many had dismissed Fonda's character? Because he was no Rhett Butler? I hope not. Personally, I found Fonda's performance spot on as the intelligent, yet beleaguered Pres, who finally decided that he had enough of Julie's antics. Fonda's Pres Dillard wooden? I beg to differ. Fonda did an excellent job of conveying Pres' emotions throughout the film - whether it was his initial passion for Julie, a combination of confusion and exasperation in dealing with Julie's childishness, his determination to save New Orleans' citizens in dealing with a potential pandemic, any lingering physical attraction he might feel for Julie following his marriage, and his anger. Like his younger brother, Pres had a temper, but he controlled it through a very intimidating stare that left others unwilling to confront or challenge him. It is a pity that he was never acknowledged with an acting nomination for his performance.
Bette Davis, on the other hand, more than deserved her Best Actress Oscar for her performance as the spoiled Julie Marsden. What can I say? She was superb. She would probably be the first to thank William Wyler for his direction of her performance. And perhaps the director deserved some credit for guiding her performance and eliminating some of her bad habits of exaggerated behavior. But Wyler could only do so much. The talent was there - within Davis. She recognized that she had a first-rate director on her hands and did everything she could to give a stellar performance as the bold, yet childish and vindictive Julie. And Davis knocked it out of the ballpark with some of the most subtle and skillful acting of her career.
I realized that I have not discussed the movie's most famous scene - namely the Olympus Ball. I can see why so many critics and moviegoers were impressed by it. The film's production manager had scheduled one day for Wyler to shoot it. The director shot it in five days and created a cinematic masterpiece. Each moment was exquisitely detailed - from Julie and Pres' arrival, the other guests' reaction to Julie's dress, Pres' insistence that the band begin playing, the dance, the manner in which the other guests slowly pulled away from couple . . . I could go on. But what really made this scene for me were Davis and Fonda's performances. Between Davis expressing Julie's growing unease and humiliation and Fonda conveying Pres' intimidation of everyone in the room, it was easy for me to see why these two, along with Wyler, became Hollywood icons.
I cannot deny that "JEZEBEL" had its problems - including some of its production designs, one particular costume, and the inclusion of Southern character stereotypes - especially African-American slaves. But . . . I cannot deny that when push comes to shove, "JEZEBEL" is a well-written melodrama and a character study of a complex woman. The movie greatly benefited from a pretty damn good script written by Clements Ripley, Abem Finkel and John Huston; an excellent cast led by Oscar winner Bette Davis and Henry Fonda; and superb direction from the likes of William Wyler. I never understood why "JEZEBEL" had to exist within the shadows of "GONE WITH THE WIND". It is more than capable of standing on its own merits.