Friday, February 15, 2013

Friday's Old Fashioned: Jezebel (1938)

For the first 5-10 minutes of “Jezebel” we find ourselves in the midst of an 1852 New Orleans soiree where essentially every reveler is talking about the one person who is not present. That person would be Julie Marsden (Bette Davis), the requisite unruly southern belle who is engaged to a man who wants to cart her away – egads! – to the persnickety north. Finally Julie arrives at the soiree after a day of riding her beloved mare and to helpfully demonstrate her immense streak of stubbornness she refuses to change out of her riding clothes to meet and greet the many guests. But that ain’t the half of it.


Julie’s fiancĂ©, Preston “Pres” Dillard (Henry Fonda) is set to escort her to the Olympus Ball. She wants him to set aside his banking duties for but an afternoon to dress shop with her. He can’t break away. She hatches a scheme. She will wear a red dress. See, unmarried women are EXPECTED to wear white to the Olympus Ball. Not wearing white without the necessary finger bling is a fashion sin akin to white after labor day, Bjork’s swan dress and an American tourist in Paris rocking the fanny pack all mixed together and set off with a smoke bomb. Miss Julie (and that’s what everyone calls her – “Miss Julie” – thereby evoking the Strindberg character), however, is a rebel with a self-seeking cause. Damn these antebellum customs.

The Olympus Ball is marvelous illustration of old-fashioned cinema as Pres escorts Miss Julie, social pariah, to the dance floor and as they glide into a waltz, the floor clears, as if the couple is stricken with yellow fever (which we will discuss later). It’s one cinema used to be all about – working on a broad canvas but still cutting right through to intimate emotion. The majority of us have not worn unwed red to the Olympus Ball, but the majority of us have our own version of wearing unwed red to the Olympus Ball.

This flashed me back to a conversation I had with my friend and fellow cinephile Rory a few months ago over breakfast when I confessed I had not seen anywhere near enough foreign classics, primarily because when it comes to classic cinema I prefer…….”Gone With The Wind,” Rory said, finishing my thought. Yes. Exactly. Melodramas and costume epics and sweep……I like sweeping cinema. Cinema these days just doesn’t have enough sweep. This, I think, is because sweeping cinema tends to connote soap operas and when people think of soap operas they think of “The Bold and The Beautiful” as opposed to "The Bad and The Beautiful", not realizing there is a huge difference. And “Jezebel”, rest assured, has more on its mind than just the evening gown competition.

The mention of “Gone With the Wind” is crucial. The story of “Jezebel” bears many similarities to the landmark opus released but one year later. In fact, studio head Jack Warner’s specific intent was to get “Jezebel” into theaters before David O. Selznick’s “Gone With the Wind.” He succeeded, of course, and while it would be easy to therefore claim “Jezebel” was just an attempt to cash in on all the southern thunder “Gone With the Wind” was then generating, well, it must be noted that “Jezebel” was based on a play by Owen Davis, Sr. which debuted on Broadway (it was a flop) three years before Margaret Mitchell’s novel. Besides, while the characters of Miss Julie and Scarlett O’Hara share similarities, they also diverge in significant ways.


They were both ahead of their time (resembling the era in which the films were made more than the era in which the films were set, which is fine), willful, defiant. Miss Julie wearing red to the ball is, in fact, no different than Scarlett, when she's supposed to be in mourning, dancing with Rhett at the charity bazaar. They both embrace romantic myths even as their ultimate actions work to dispel them. But there is, no doubt, a rougher edge to this Miss Julie. Look at the poster – those eyes rolled back up into Bette’s head. It drips wickedness, but Davis’s performance maintains that classic southern hospitality even as she employs it like a weapon. Not for nothing is the film’s title Jezebel, the princess who was the power behind the throne of Ahab. (Scarlett, on the other hand, was named “Pansy” in Mitchell’s book until just before it went to print.)

She is a fierce manipulator and when Pres, who broke off their engagement after the Red Dress Scandal, returns home to help defend against a yellow fever epidemic with wife Amy (Margaret Lindsay), a progressive northerner whose accent is more London Times than Times Picayune, she deploys her vile charm to pit her southern suitor Buck Cantrell (George Raft) against Pres. This unleashes a subtle Civil War several years early as we realize Pres’s attitudes have changed up in the north “country” (and this is how they refer to the north and south, as separate countries) and so “Jezebel”, still functioning as a love quadrangle, pokes holes in the value system of The Old South.

Fonda’s stoicism is well-suited for the role. His character is consumed by pangs of regret in his heritage and a sadness that Miss Julie made him let her go. And that conveniently and immediately brings us right back to Bette Davis who took home her second Best Actress Oscar at the age of 29. She wields her power like a magnetic Jezebel until her power-wielding goes astray and worse comes to worst. She asks forgiveness by rolling up her sleeves and realizing the color of her dress matters not at all.

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