Cinema Classics: “Jezebel” (1938)

Today’s Cinema Classics spotlight is devoted to another film that is airing on Turner Classic Movies this weekend as part of the TCM Film Fest: Special Home Edition.

The tale of a fiery Southern belle looking for love around the time of the Civil War quickly became one of the most memorable films of all time when “Gone with the Wind” was first released in 1939. But most people may not know that one year earlier, a very similar story had been told in a different film: “Jezebel”, a drama directed by William Wyler starring none other than Bette Davis in a role that could be easily mistaken for Scarlett O’Hara.

The film is set in 1850s Louisiana, and centers around Julie Marsden (Davis), a spoiled and independent Southern belle who inadvertently ruins her impending marriage by wearing a red dress to a ball where unmarried women were expected to wear white gowns, which she does merely because her fiancée Preston Dillard (Henry Fonda) would not go dress-shopping with her. But her trick ends up being more devastating than she thought, and she realizes this as she enters the ball and is met with scornful stares from everyone present. Julie begs Preston to let her leave, but he forces her stay and endure it. In the film’s most powerful scene, the two start to dance, and all the other couples slowly drift off the dance floor, until eventually Julie and Preston are left dancing alone.

After the ball, Preston breaks his engagement with Julie. He leaves, but Julie is too proud not to think he won’t come back. He does return, a year later, to help the doctor (Donald Crisp) contain an outbreak of yellow fever. Julie, now wearing the white gown, begs Preston for forgiveness, but does not know that he’s brought someone with him: his wife, Amy (Margaret Lindsey), who is from the North. Still determined to win Preston back, Julie devises a scheme to make him jealous, but her plans end up having unforeseen consequences.

George Brent, Bette Davis, and Henry Fonda in “Jezebel”

This film has often been referred to as the black-and-white “Gone with the Wind”. It is also said that Bette Davis did not win the role of Scarlett O’Hara because she had essentially already played her in this movie; or that Davis decided to do “Jezebel” because she didn’t get the chance to play Scarlett, depending on who you ask. But regardless of all those comparisons, Davis is a perfect fit for the role of Julie, and gives one of the greatest performances of her career. She brings such an authenticity to every aspect of her character, from Julie’s care-free attitude in the beginning to the maturity she finally shows in the end. It is no wonder that Davis won that year’s Academy Award for Best Actress.

Davis easily out-performs every other actor in the movie, but the rest of the cast is still great. Fonda is appropriately restrained as Preston, and Fay Bainter deserves recognition for her performance as Julie’s aunt Belle Massey, which won her the Oscar for Best Supporting Actress.

But other aspects of the film are equally noteworthy. The steamy Southern setting enhances the passionate emotions the characters display, as does Max Steiner’s Oscar-nominated score. And then there are the wonderful costumes designed by Orry-Kelly, which are brilliantly used to illustrate Julie’s different emotional transitions: the red gown (you can visualize the red so well, despite the film being shot in black and white), for example, showing her boldness and independence, and the white one she wears afterward revealing her desire to repent.

This film easily could have, and maybe should have, won the Academy Award for Best Picture of 1938. Though it was beat by the wonderful Frank Capra comedy “You Can’t Take it With You”, it is an essential film, worth viewing if you’re a Bette Davis fan, a “Gone with the Wind” fan, or just a fan of classic films.

“Jezebel” will air on Turner Classic Movies on Sunday, April 19th at 6:00 AM EST. Runtime: 104 minutes.

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