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