Movie Reviews

Movie Review – “Jezebel” (1939)



You know, sometimes all you need is one little piece of historical evidence to understand why a film is created. While I watched 1939’s “Jezebel,” I couldn’t understand what this southern belle drama with Bette Davis was trying to achieve until I learned something crucial after watching the movie – “Jezebel” was made entirely from scratch as a way to compensate Bette Davis after she failed to the get the lead role in “Gone with the Wind.”

Now everything makes perfect sense. The time period, the racial tension, the elaborate outfits and gowns, the dramatic almost operatic performances from Davis and Henry Fonda. All of it is a way of trying to give Bette Davis the same experience she would have got from “Gone with the Wind.”

Full disclosure – I’ve never seen “Gone with the Wind.” I realize this probably takes a few points off of my film buff card, considering it is regarded as one of the greatest films of all time and still holds the record for highest grossing film ever when adjusted for inflation. But I am always hesitant to watch any film over three and a half hours long, and this particular film is closer to four hours. At that point, the film is more of a chore to sit through than anything else. I plan to watch the whole film before the end of the year, but I’m in no particular hurry to do so. But my point is that I don’t have a frame of reference to compare “Jezebel” to, other than similar Bette Davis films like “Dark Victory.”



The film takes place in New Orleans shortly before the start of the civil war, as the spoiled southern belle Julie (Bette Davis) decides to make herself stand out among her fellow socialites in any way she can. This is often met with shock and scorn, much to the dismay of her fiancée Preston (Henry Fonda), who doesn’t want anything to do with her after she wears a red dress to the big ball.

At first I was tempted to write this film off as another melodrama for the sake of melodrama, much like “Dark Victory” or to prove Bette Davis’ acting ability, but there’s a certain sense of charm and class to “Jezebel” that clues you in to why these trivial things were life-or-death matters back in the 1850s. The cold dead stares of everyone at the ball, all of them retreating from the happy couple like they have the plague, casts a bigger cloud over this film than all of the southern accents throughout this film. This really does feel like a world fueled by chivalry and class, and failure to live up to these standards has deadly consequences.

Overall, “Jezebel” is a fine little film that was made as a way to keep Bette Davis happy after not scoring possibly the role of a lifetime. It has that southern charm that only a film set in New Orleans can offer while building a nice world for itself. Davis does a fine job as always, while Fonda seems a bit lost and confused in this performance. Nothing too special about this one, except to see a different type of historical American drama.

Final Grade: C


1 reply »

  1. If you google around a bit, you will see that the rumor that the film was created to compensate Bette Davis for not getting the role of Scarlett O’Hara has been pretty much trashed, so that view of why the movie was created does not appear to be accurate. I find the movie fascinating, though, for many other reasons. First, watching Bette Davis play a strong willed woman in a 1938 movie set in 1854 New Orleans is fascinating. She is basically ripped apart by “genteel society” because she has the gall to wear a red gown to an event where all other single women wear white, and be stung with, “How dare she!” ‘s. She wears the red gown because she gets pissed at fiancé Hank Fonda character for not showing up at their engagement party, and then not keeping their date to watch her try on a white dressing gown for the event, because he wants to argue about railroad loans at a bank he had some role in, and now she wants to get even with him. The Bette Davis character is portrayed as awful for this, which leads to some inane dueling by men, which leads to the second thing I find fascinating about the movie. The Henry Fonda character is mostly a total jerk, who would likely be seen as something of a thoughtless creep in today’s world, but is praised as some wonderful prize in the movie. He seems to be constantly mad at everyone over trivial remarks, and this is seen as evidence of his manhood. What is fascinating to me is how much things have changed both since the 1850’s and the 1930’s in the way we look at relationships. Seeing the insanely sexist nature of the society is pretty interesting, and realizing that this was apparently regarded as tolerable in the 1930s is itself rather fascinating. Third, I find the characterization of slavery pretty fascinating, too.There is a LOT of obvious racism. But there are also some slight efforts to go the other way, at least based on 1930s Hollywood standards. The comparison of this to Gone with the Wind is also a bit interesting.The most likable moment of the Henry Fonda character is when he asks to share a toast with a slave. It’s not much, but within the theme of the movie it’s something. Also, the singing slave scenes are worth seeing, and kind of lovely in a way, if you briefly put aside their being portrayed as all jolly cuz some white guy they likely never knew has returned to the plantation. But that is what makes the thing fascinating: to see how this was treated in a society decades away from seriously contemplating the need for coming to terms with its racism. Fourth, the characters and their interactions are kind of interesting, if a bit confusing. I had to watch the movie a second time to try and understand why people reacted the way they did to one another. It’s not altogether sensible. I actually liked the George Brent character much more than the Henry Fonda character, and cannot comprehend what exactly the Bette Davis character was doing pining for the other guy. I had to pay attention to what the hell the men were saying that led to their duels, cuz a lot of it was pointless and dopey. I’m not sure, but I think it was the script more than the acting that made this hard to fathom. People just kept having to overreact to trivial comments. Jeez, if these people had to deal with the internet, they’d all be killed off way faster than the yellow fever hits them! That, then, is the last thing I’ll say about what was interesting to me in seeing this movie: the way we’ve all changed in how we react to things others say, how much we’ve been obliged to handle rude comments, how extraordinarily times have changed in how people interact with, and react to, one another. Of course, it’s a movie, not a documentary, so I can’t imagine it is in anyway accurate about 1850’s New Orleans. But it is accurate in terms of what seemed real to people in the 1930s about the 1850s. That is what’s interesting, that they could still imagine a world like this, find it real, regard it as proper and elegant in some way, assuming they did. The layers of how society is viewed, how it changes, what it does to alter the way sexes interact, races interact, can all be glimpsed in this movie, as you watch scenes in ever beautiful New Orleans played by fascinating actors, with some lovely music.

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