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Seasons of Bette: Jezebel (1938)

Editor's Note: A huge thank you to my trusted right hand woman in Old Hollywood love. Anne Marie is filling in for this particular edition of "Seasons of Bette" (a sidebar series to "A Year With Kate" as we investigate Bette's Oscar roles whenever they appear in Kate's timeline. I'll be back next week to talk "Dark Victory" - Nathaniel.


After an iconic film for Kate this week, we have an Oscar-winning, career-defining film for Bette Davis as well! Jezebel could have been easily dismissed as another Gone With The Wind wannabe, pining after a romanticized Antebellum New Orleans where the women were lace and steel and the men fought for honor instead of money. It would be high melodrama, except for the contributions of two people: Bette Davis and William Wyler. The subtle theme played beneath the movie is Honor: who has it and who insults it and whether a good action is defined by it motivations or its method. At the heart of the story is Julie Marsden, a Southern debutante whose actions, good and bad, are motivated by love and vanity.

Once again, Bette’s character is gossiped about before she even appears onscreen... [More]

In the first scene, the mere mention of the name “Julie Marsden’” sparks a duel between two gentlemen. In the next scene Julie is finally introduced via a dramatic entrance astride a spirited colt, late to her own engagement party. She bursts into the party in her riding clothes, alternately shocking and charming her guests, and by extension the audience. She’s a sparkling, vain, iron-spined lady. S

he will tease you. She’ll unease you, just to please you. She’s got Bette Davis eyes...

Julie Marsden is one of Bette’s more nuanced performances. Davis brings her innate fire, tempered by subtlety and emotional range unseen in her previous vamp roles like Of Human Bondage and Dangerous. Davis, like Julie, has a tendency to go too far too fast, and the result could mean uneven acting choicese. The temperance of her performance is thanks in large part to her first time collaboration with William Wyler, one of the few directors Davis is said to have admired. Wyler forces Davis to turn her frenetic physical energy inward, channeling the angry outbursts of Mildred and Joyce into the flashing eyes and quick gestures of Julie Marsden.

Preston Dillard, Julie’s fiancee, shares her unconventional views, though not her vanity. Henry Fonda as Preston is a perfect foil for Davis, especially after her previous milquetoast leading men. Preston is the epitome of silent and strong; he doesn’t bend to Julie, though he is charmed. Often, Preston acts as a solid rock against which Julie’s various tempers crash.

The crowning achievement of the first act is the infamous red dress at the Olympus Ball, a product of Julie’s vanity and petty jealousy towards Preston. Julie’s sudden decision to forego maidenly white to wear the red dress is emblematic of her petulance. Though Preston and her Aunt Belle beg her not to be foolish, Julie can’t see beyond the game she’s playing until it’s too late. When they get to the ball Julie gets her first taste of shame and realizes the mistake she’s made, but Preston’s honor is now at stake and he forces her to stay. Though the film is black and white, the humiliation radiating from Davis and the quiet fury of Fonda render the gown a vivid scarlet.

The film could have ended there, with the heartbroken Julie learning a painful lesson in humility and declaring something along the lines of, “With God as my witness, I’ll never wear scarlett again!” However, thankfully the film continues as Preston leaves New Orleans and returns a few years later with a Northern wife in tow. Julie’s speech to Preston upon his return is Bette in top form. Julie is once again making a grand gesture, only you wouldn’t know it from the stillness in her voice and movements. All her energy is channeled through her eyes. Then, when Preston’s wife is introduced, you get the very real idea of how lethal “shooting daggers with her eyes” can be. 


Of course, there’s more happening in New Orleans than just Julie’s love life. Soon, Yellow Fever strikes the city, catching Preston in its wake. Here is where the story starts to lose me, though not because of Davis’s performance. Ultimately, Julie makes a plea to Preston’s wife to allow Julie to tend to Preston at the Yellow Fever colony offshore. This is supposed to be Julie’s Unselfish Sacrifice, cleansing her of her past sins and purifying her love for Preston through this grand action. But Julie’s done nothing but grand, impulsive actions over the course of the film. She’s simply trading her red dress for a martyr’s robe. Still, Julie gets her big action, because the only thing more dramatic than a Southern Belle is a Hollywood movie.

There are very few film performances that I think unequivocally deserve the Oscars they win. Bette Davis’s performance as Julie Marsden is one such winner. A year later a Brit would take home Oscars gold for playing another headstrong Southern belle, but only a fool would try to compare Julie Marsden and Scarlett O’Hara. There are rumors that Davis only got Julie Marsden because WB pulled her from Gone With The Wind. That’s not quite true - the timeline is off. As for Julie Marsden and Bette, I think her Aunt Belle said it best: “Maybe I'll love her most when she's meanest, because I know thats when shes lovin' most.”

Next Up: Dark Victory (1939) on April 11th and a special  Hit Me With Your Best Shot to celebrate Davis's deadly performance in  The Letter (1940) on April 15th. (She had a lot of consecutive Oscar nominations in this period)

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Reader Comments (15)

I'm not too much a fan of JEZEBEL's second half, either. Where the first half felt like period appropriate sexism, the second half felt unduly cruel towards her for not having even done anything particularly wrong.

I did, however, make this once...


April 3, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterGlenn Dunks

I'm so sad I wasn't able to do this one but the time was short. THANK YOU. It's fun how there's that throughline though of people totally gossiping about her in all three of her first oscary roles. it's preparing you for an entrance and you have to have a star to make all the talk seem justified.

and that she is of course.

April 3, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterNATHANIEL R

Great post! I can even pardon the Kim Carnes reference because, although Carnes's song is not worthy of Davis by far, on the most basic level the lyrics are spot-on, and you're right that so much of Davis's performance in Jezebel radiates through her eyes. I appreciate your point about Wyler forcing Davis to internalize her energy and express it more subtly. Skirting the edge of sexism here (ho ho), I know Davis was a notoriously feisty actress to work with and think that Wyler was one of the few directors who could tame her petulance (or, rather, redirect it) to get a grand but nuanced performance that fit with the rest of the film. And speaking of vanity, I once heard an anecdote about how "Forty-Take Willy" so piqued Davis's vanity that she stopped after one take, broke down, and said that she could no longer go on without knowing that there was something Wyler liked about her performance. After the next take, Wyler gave her a sardonically exaggerated round of applause: "Bravo, Ms. Davis! Bravo!" She then told him he could go back to the way he was before. I suspect they understood each other after that. Do you know if that actually happened? I hope so!

April 3, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterAdam

Perhaps my favorite Bette Davis performance, certainly top 5 (it's a tight race between this one and The Letter, All About Eve, Now Voyager and In This Our Life).

Whenever I look at photos like the two above, I can't help imagining Davis and Fonda as Scarlett and Ashley. Blasphemy, I know, but there it is. (I watched Jezebel long before I saw Gone With the Wind or any other Viven Leigh performances.)

April 3, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterPaul Outlaw

Hey Film Experience fave Holly Hunter just joined a huge franchise,well done girl.

April 3, 2014 | Unregistered Commentermark

Mark -- Those a tragic news.

I had quite a ball last Christmas watching it for the first time. I do like the whole yellow fever plot. She gets atonement by treating leprous! It's so over the top! Love it.

P.S. Fay Bainter was a such a classy actress.

April 3, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterPeggy Sue

peggy - cosign. i once watched WHITE BANNERS with Nick and we had such fun because Bainter is a gem.

April 3, 2014 | Registered CommenterNATHANIEL R

A favorite film. The scene with the red dress at the Olympus Ball: Fonda's insistence upon "defending her honor" and finishing the dance, the looks and glances as she walks in, her agonized recognition that her gesture has misfired--perfection! To the favorites noted above--THE LETTER, ALL ABOUT EVE, IN THIS OUR LIFE, NOW VOYAGER--I would add A STOLEN LIFE and BEYOND THE FOREST ("What a dump!).

April 3, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterRachele

Bette's great here, although I prefer her work in Dark Victory over this. While she was always enjoyable on screen, even in her early films in material she hated, Wyler definitely was able to mold her expressiveness to hers and the film's benefit and reign her excesses in. I'm with the general consensus that the film loses steam after the Olympus Ball sequence and the ending in particular felt anticlimactic. Part of that might be that Margaret Lindsay is pretty pallid competition compared to Bette. Sure Pres might have found Julie trying but it's hard to believe he'd go from that firecracker to a woman who practically vaporizes from the screen. In their big confrontation Bette just wipes the floor with her.

Still there's the awesome Fay Bainter as Aunt Belle, she has no trouble holding the screen against Bette. The film has Spring Byington too who competed that year against Fay in supporting for You Can't Take It With You.

It's interesting to see Bette paired with Hank Fonda one of the rare occasions, along with Cagney, Bob Montgomery, Claude Rains, E.G. Robinson and Spencer Tracy, when she had a male costar that she couldn't bulldoze right over but whose screen presence matched hers. Errol Flynn radiated star quality but their chemistry was oil and water and their films always suffer from it. It's a pity she was never paired with other strong men like Gable, Cary Grant or Gary Cooper but matching two major stars from different studios was rare then, as Bette said they had their pictures and I had mine.

April 3, 2014 | Unregistered Commenterjoel6

@rachele & joel6:

Dark Victory is probably tied for fifth place or at #6 among my favorite of her performances.

April 3, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterPaul Outlaw

joel - the co-star thing is so interesting. it's a pity that more of the great male actors don't consciously seek out working with the super strong actresses their own age but usually they're content to work with whatever younger and pretty thing the studio wants.

this is veering off topic to modern times but i always think of Bull Durham. I just firmly believe that that level of chemistry would not have happened for Kevin Costner ever unless it was an actress as formidable and age appropriate as Sarandon.

April 4, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterNATHANIEL R

Nathaniel's right, and quite often, when paired with a truly charismatic co-star, it brings out the best of the male actor as well. Think Julia Roberts and Richard Gere.

Back to Jezebel, I quite like this movie. As a whole, I like the movie and performance probably the best of the 30s movies that Bette made. I realize some others might have stronger turns from Bette, but this is a real A list project.

April 4, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterDave in Alamitos Beach

I always assumed we weren't supposed to accept Julie's sacrifice at the end as any sort of meaningful gesture. She's so desperate to regain her standing with Preston that she'd give up her life just to try to turn back time. It's not like anyone tries to stop her too hard from leaving for certain death and never ever bothering them again. They're glad to be rid of her.

April 4, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterRobert G

Anne Marie, another wonderful writeup. This is really the first time where everything came together for Bette: terrific role, top director, prestige project, strong supporting cast. She ties Leigh for most deserving Best Actress winner of the 30s. This was the first of her five consecutive nominations for lead actress, an unbelievable feat achieved only by one other lady--Greer Garson.

The scene you mention where she learns Pres is married--that is some brilliant piece of screen acting. And her body is nearly completely still. It's those soulful eyes that tell the entire story.

April 4, 2014 | Unregistered Commenterbrookesboy

Adam, I saw Bette tell that story in an interview on YT. Must be true! Just great.

April 4, 2014 | Unregistered Commenterbrookesboy

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