“This is 1852, dumplin’, 1852, not the Dark Ages!”

Jezebel (1938)

Airing 12:15PM EST

Aside from the superb All About Eve, my favorite Bette Davis film is Jezebel. Some critics consider this film a kind of poor man’s Gone With the Wind, as the two movies share similar themes, but Jezebel does not fade in the shadow of the better-known film. This is due, in large part, to Davis, who throws herself into this role with an abandon that marks some of her best performances and, in fact, this movie brought Davis the second of two Oscars for Best Actress, after her win for 1935’s Dangerous (which was considered by some a “consolation” Oscar to make up for Davis having not been nominated for her tour de force performance in 1934’s Of Human Bondage–though, interestingly, Davis was a write-in candidate on the ballot that year, and the Academy would later announce that she had won enough votes to place third behind winner Claudette Colbert and Norma Shearer).

Davis stars as Julie Marsden, a headstrong young woman living in New Orleans in the decade before the Civil War, engaged to a young, proper banker named Preston (Pres) Dillard (played by Henry Fonda). Pres finds Julie’s impulsive nature to be embarrassing, yet intriguing, but when she decides to wear a scarlet dress to a ball at which young women are expected to wear virginal white, Pres can no longer accept Julie’s willfulness, ending their engagement and leaving for the North. When Pres returns a year later, Julie aspires to win him back, but finds that Pres has married a Yankee, Amy. Events come to a head as Julie, in her jealousy, incites a duel, leading to the death of one of Julie’s suitors, and yellow fever takes over the city. As Pres becomes infected, Julie seeks redemption for her behavior in the midst of turmoil and tragedy.

The production of the film was mired in drama. Davis, unused to director William Wyler’s perfectionism, had difficulty in initially adjusting to his filming style, but later declared that he had helped her produce some of her best on-screen work. Their working relationship later gave way to a blazing love affair; Davis would one day label Wyler the love of her life, and she was devastated when filming–and their affair–ended. Davis also dallied with co-star Fonda, who was expecting the birth of daughter Jane Fonda at any moment; that brief affair ended with a phone call from Fonda’s wife. Also adding to the tension: Wyler and Fonda had previously both been married to actress Margaret Sullavan (best known as Klara in The Shop Around the Corner). Thankfully, none of this potentially disastrous romantic unrest is ever evident on screen.

The film includes excellent supporting turns by George Brent as Julie’s ill-fated beau, Buck, and the beautifully understated Fay Bainter as Julie’s cautious Aunt Belle. Richard Cromwell, Spring Byington, and Margaret Lindsay round out the cast. But Davis is the undisputed center of the action, and she deftly carries the movie with her fiery, heartfelt portrayal of a woman ahead of her time.

Depending on the source, it has been said that Davis was offered the role of Julie as compensation for having lost the role of Scarlett O’Hara. In truth, Davis turned down the role of Scarlett because her casting would have been part of a package deal in which Errol Flynn would play Rhett Butler. Knowing Flynn could not possibly portray the character properly, Davis rejected the offer.

Nonetheless, the character of Julie–and the film itself–share some similarities with Gone With the Wind, something bitterly pointed out by that film’s producer, David O. Selznick (conveniently forgetting that the play upon which Jezebel was based was produced before Margaret Mitchell’s novel). Both Julie and Scarlett are proud, stubborn heroines; neither is immensely likable, and both women toy with the affections of men to the point of producing conflict and death. But Julie reaches a level of growth that Scarlett never quite convincingly achieves, a depth of character that Mitchell’s creation sorely lacks.

In the end, the similarities between the films are superficial, at best, and each has its respective strengths. Jezebel does not come close to the epic grandeur that marks the latter production, but it is just as affecting a film. The story is strong; the performances, stronger still. When you watch Davis riding out of town at the end of the film, head held high as she moves toward certain death, it is just as stirring a moment as any in Gone With the Wind.

If you miss this great film, the restored and remastered DVD is available for a great price over at Movies Unlimited this month.

Oscar checklist:

Wins: Best Actress (Davis), Best Supporting Actress (Bainter)

Nominations: Best Cinematography, Best Score, Best Picture

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