Jezebel (1938)
Jezebel (1938)

Genre: Romantic Drama Running Time: 1 hr. 44 min.

Release Date: March 26th, 1938 MPAA Rating: Not Rated

Director: William Wyler Actors: Bette Davis, Henry Fonda, George Brent, Margaret Lindsay, Donald Crisp, Fay Bainter, Richard Cromwell, Henry O’Neill, Spring Byington, Janet Shaw




n New Orleans in 1852, at the St. Louis Hotel, a tipsy old gossiper picks a fight with Buck Cantrell (George Brent) and Ted Dillard (Richard Cromwell), who won’t stand idly by as a woman’s name is mentioned in the bar. With pride and reputation at stake, a duel is scheduled for the following morning at 10:00. The woman in question, Julie Marsden (Bette Davis), has a party in the evening, to which she’s late, causing further dismay among her prim and proper guests, many of whom object to the young woman’s failure to change out of her riding dress (Oh, the scandal!). The celebration is for a looming marriage between Julie and Preston “Pres” Dillard (Henry Fonda), a banker at the venerable Dillard and Sons, who happens to be Ted’s brother.

When Pres is unable to attend the party due to an important directors’ meeting, concerning his latest proposition for a $10 million railroad investment, Julie goes directly to the bank to retrieve him for a promised dress-fitting appointment for the much-awaited Olympus Ball. When he refuses, she storms off, fussing over his prioritization of work. As is typical for Julie, she needs to be the center of attention – and when she’s not, she whips up some drama so that she’s back in the spotlight.

“Julie, how long must we go on like this?” Pres is in love with the hotheaded young woman, but she continually tries his patience. When Julie refuses to wear a traditional white gown for the ball, it’s just one more instance of troublemaking that he momentarily tolerates. Julie’s sense of love is less discernible, as she seems far more interested in whether or not someone might say something about her ignominious crimson attire, thereby forcing Pres to defend her honor. What she presumes will attract attention instead garners humiliation and, ultimately, Dillard’s decision to break off the engagement. “He’ll come back,” Julie reassures herself, but he disappears for more than a year, returning only when a yellow fever scare engulfs the town.

“I declare!” Based on the play by Owen Davis Sr., “Jezebel” is steeped in thick Southern accents, glamorously laced and ruffled attire, lavish parties, high society propriety, and Davis’ large, expressive, moist eyes. Her performance is sensational, conveying a wealth of emotions with nothing more than penetrative glances and longing gazes. When she’s confronted by the harsh realization that Preston didn’t come back for her, as he’s now married to New Yorker Amy (Margaret Lindsay), her blood boils, though she masks it with feigned pleasantries and ploys to regain her man. Beating “Gone with the Wind” to theaters, “Jezebel” shares a number of themes and character designs (as well as with “Wuthering Heights”), yet the focus on the titular role gives “Jezebel” an identity of its own.

Politics, the rise of abolitionists, contrasting values between the North and South (leading toward the contentions of the impending Civil War), plantation life, and old-fashioned customs that contribute to personal tragedies (chiefly with a profound gun duel) are all present, though it’s Jezebel’s struggles with relationship wins and losses that carry the most impact. Even the historical backdrop – primarily with the paranoia, death, and destruction from the yellow jack epidemic – are no match for Davis’ fiery persona. The story might not hold its relevance over the years, but there’s an undeniable, redemptive quality to the ambiguous finale, which is once again made grander by Davis’ star power.

– Mike Massie

  • 7/10