Directed by William Wyler
Written by Clements Ripley, Abem Finkel, and John Huston (based on the play by Owen Davis)
Hollywood loves to copy what's successful, of course, and if it was ever any other way, it had probably stopped by 1920; but it hadn't occurred to me before that Gone With the Wind was so much of a success that it could spawn imitators before it even came out. Then again, it had been an absurdly popular novel. It could just be that the Old South was simply an attractive setting for historical fiction in the early 20th century, given that it barely had to be researched (it was, after all, American, in living memory, and plenty of people had been happy to mythologize it for you already), and it retained an inherent drama due to the fated eclipse of its civilization. Hence you could do all sorts of things with it, as long as those things all revolved around the same small slice of high-caste white slaveowners. It fell out of favor for good and obvious reasons as the 20th century marched on—I'm genuinely blanking on the last piece of major cinema (or major anything) that attempted to be about the 19th century South through the eyes of its rulers*—and I suspect that whatever function was served by these soap operas about tradition-clad aristocrats in decline has long since been filled instead by British dramas that don't (well, don't always) require you to have a Conversation About Race.
The whole genre (and its adjacent genres) have never really been my cup of tea, but here we have William Wyler in the 30s and 40s, doing three of them more-or-less in a row, all based on successful plantation-set plays, all three with the same leading lady, all of them well-built, and all starting with Jezebel in 1938. (The middle one is not set in the southern U.S.: The Letter is set on a plantation in Malaya. But they do all feel of a piece, perhaps more on account of the leading lady.) Then as now, it's the same general kind of middlebrow drama/well-made play/showy-central-performance type of thing as gets the attention of the Academy (which Jezebel in due course received); I really don't know if Wyler eagerly sought out that kind of recognition, or if he simply had good instincts for the game, but bouncing between Goldwyn and Warners before and after the war, he wound up with plenty of opportunities to attach his name to Oscar-anointed films.
The latter pair of Wyler's plantation movies (the other was The Little Foxes) are by no means Gone With the Wind knock-offs; but Jezebel does get very, very close, and arguably does ask you to compare it. Certainly, Bette Davis asks you to compare the two, in that she publicly expressed interest in being Scarlett O'Hara (but who didn't? Clark Gable may've expressed interest in being Scarlett O'Hara and it wouldn't surprise me), and, depending on the story you go by, Jezebel's jezebel, Julie Marsden, was either something like a demo reel for Scarlett or Warners' consolation prize for not managing to get her the role, with a similar bratty belle believing herself a breed apart even from her own breed apart, spending her young adulthood playing with men like dolls, and ultimately conscripted out of her plantation idyll and into an allegory, confronted with historical forces that demand she find the psychological steel she needs to face them. The little difference is that "Julie Marsden" is a lame name and "Scarlett O'Hara" is amazing. The more important difference, besides the "historical force" being something besides the Civil War, is that it's Bizarro Gone With the Wind, with the traumas that Julie faces (and she creates for herself and for those around her) eventually leading her to become a very-slightly-better person as opposed to a delusional, wild-eyed sociopath.
Unfortunately, this means that the one great thing Gone With the Wind has going for it as a narrative—the thrill of our heroine only transcending further into crazy monstrousness without anybody ever letting the air out of the balloon—is replaced with square moral instruction that comes off slightly abrupt and, even then, would doubtless come off substantially more virtuous if we still had the ability to enter the viewpoint of a white 1930s filmgoer, who probably would not immediately and queasily notice that Julie's big bid for redemption involves turning to her property and saying, "hey slave! help sneak me back into the plague city that you just narrowly escaped from and which we are prohibited from entering on pain of death." Oh, and as far as non-narrative points of recommendation go, it's also cheaper and in black-and-white. Most films were cheaper, of course, but the black-and-white actually winds up being something of a medium-sized deal. In the pro column: you could watch Jezebel twice—and eat a meal—in less time than it would take to watch Gone With the Wind once. Even if you fast-forwarded through the overture and intermission.
So let's go back to New Orleans in 1852, where we as yet only find a lot of people talking about young heiress Julie Marsden, including Buck Cantrell (George Brent), whom she has recently overthrown in favor of a new gentleman, young banker Preston "Pres" Dillard (Henry Fonda). Despite this, Buck bears no particularly hard feelings toward either party, and even sees fit to defend her honor against barroom slander in a duel, with Preston's own little brother Ted (Richard Cromwell) eager to serve as his second. Meanwhile, at the Marsden townhouse, where a party is being held in Julie's honor, waits Julie's increasingly-anxious aunt Belle (Fay Bainter, for unknowable reasons winning an Academy Award for Best Supporting Actress for this featured extra role). When Julie does at last arrive, she doesn't even bother dispensing with her smart riding outfit, and leaves again almost immediately, to go find Pres, who's still embroiled in a boardroom battle at the bank alongside Julie's guardian, Dr. Livingstone (Donald Crisp). Her sudden appearance and insistence embarrasses him in front of his fellow businessmen, but that's nothing compared to how she humiliates him at the Olympus Ball. Refusing to wear anything but the vulgar red dress she knows full well will cause scandal, she traps Pres when she asks if it's the dress that bothers him, or if he's simply afraid to defend her if (and when) she's insulted. He bitterly takes her up on that challenge, but turns it around on her, for when she can no longer bear the contemptuous glares, he forces her back out onto the dance floor for another song, all by themselves, and when they arrive home, Pres summarily announces that he never intends to call on her again.
She insists to her slave-handmaiden Zette (Theresa Harris) that Pres will come crawling back soon enough, and thus it is with some irony that we cut immediately to one year later, with Julie practically having degenerated into a reclusive old maid. Presently obliged to decamp from New Orleans to the Marsdens' Halcyon Plantation out of fear of the yellow fever sweeping the city, it's here that she gets a glimmer of hope as Pres returns to Louisiana after a year of business up North. She plans a grand homecoming party for him and his brother—and invites Buck along just in case the attentions of another male might prove useful to make Pres jealous—and Pres dutifully makes his appearance, but he's accompanied, much to Julie's horror, by Amy (Margaret Lindsay), his new, Northern wife. Womp womp.
And it goes from there, with the plague of "yellow jack" encroaching ever more upon the melodrama (this wasn't invention: in part due to a familiar-sounding hesitancy to close the city, New Orleans suffered so terribly in the yellow fever outbreak of 1853 that it was sometimes referred to as "the Necropolis"), with Julie desperate to extract some measure of vengeance on Pres and then just as desperate to atone for it. It is, fundamentally, a morality play about a highly desirable woman (it is probably the platonic ideal of the phrase "Bette Davis eyes," and she's arrayed in flattering up-dos and thematically-laden Orry-Kelly outfits that work like dynamite for her), and inevitably this desirable woman, having been given the power to lead men around by the nose, misuses that power until one or more of them die. Most of its strengths, then—and these strengths are considerable—lie simply in its women's picture indulgence of a villainous female protagonist behaving abominably, both in terms of her actual carelessness toward other humans and in her gleeful flouting of societal convention. I'm not enough of a scholar of 30s cinema to say if Davis truly earned her Academy Award for Julie against her competition. (Curiously, Bainter was up against her for a lead performance in White Banners.) But it's not an absurd idea, anyway; Davis presents a terrifically good bad girl, charismatically haughty and openly disingenuous, but with just enough innocence threaded into her performance that it's not entirely unbelievable that while she absolutely meant harm, she never really understood things could get quite so far out of hand, and therefore remains capable of shocking even her own conscience. I guarantee that some YouTuber with a dozen community college psych credits has either uploaded content regarding Julie's borderline personality disorder, or the movie's simply too irrelevant these days to drive enough traffic to make it worthwhile.
Either way, Julie's impulsivity and fuzzy logic offer Jezebel a driving tragic thriller tinge. For his part, Wyler clearly had fun putting together the set-pieces where this fuzziness resolves into nasty outcomes. For my part, I'm most impressed with a duel late in the film (not necessarily between the men you'd think) cut to a fateful ten-count that's a tense and obfuscatory bit of filmmaking, engineered to maintain a dizzy suspense even for long minutes after the bullets have been fired; nonetheless, one supposes Wyler was most impressed with himself for Pres and Julie's dance at the Olympus Ball, and the way he manages to make a cleared-out dance floor agoraphobic and claustrophobic all at once. Indeed, it's probably unfair of me to criticize it, but I will probably never be particularly amenable to any movie that makes color of paramount narrative importance, and then tries to get away with it in black-and-white anyway, and three years after Becky Sharp it's hard not to think of it as an insane miscalculation. (The black "red" dress Orry-Kelly used also and accidentally draws attention to the parallel scene in Gone With the Wind, which uses a black black dress for almost the exact same purpose, and in Technicolor it's a much more vivid moment.) Oh, and it's not necessarily "good," but it's worth mentioning the energetic silent film pizzazz of Wyler's vision of yellow fever coursing through New Orleans, which involves carts full of corpses and the giant optically-printed words "YELLOW JACK!" leaping out at your face.
All told, Jezebel is a solid 30s Wyler. However, his key contribution, besides giving Orry-Kelly free rein (Davis's outfits get rightful attention, but, you know, Fonda's Southern gentleman/pretty vampire stylings are likewise quite excellent), was helping Davis craft a performance of a contradictory character who has to retain at least some of our sympathy if the film's to be pulled off at all. Davis was superlative in her praise of her director, although he was inordinately hard on her, to the extent she credited the second phase of her career as a capital-A Actor to his tutelage. That seems extreme, given that channeling her intensity through craft had always seemed like the natural trajectory of her career. But, then, she also loved him: they had a relationship that appears to have lasted just long enough for Wyler to marry Margaret Tallichet later that year, who remained his partner till he died in 1981.
It is less successful as an allegory, despite frequent and sometimes-clumsy attempts to impose some sort of historical import on the proceedings, with the shadow of the future often creeping around the corners of a tale that at least keeps a toe in the Southern Gothic. It even works, in the swirl of symbolic personalities around Julie—Pres and Amy represent the North, and thus progress (Amy can barely contain her contempt for the "plague cannon" that disrupts the "miasma" causing the yellow fever), and Buck is a very fine stand-in for the doomed savagery of a South that's cloaked its rotten nature in appeals to tradition and codes of chivalry (Brent is easily second-best-in-show after Davis, with a rakishly self-amused, performative quality to Buck's very arch rendition of "Southern gentleman"). What Julie herself is, though, is a lot harder to pin down, and given that Jezebel is at heart that morality play, with some room left over for a character study of a woman whose main character traits are selfishness and pique, when it enters its symbolic mode it almost feels like an overlay intended to make it worthier of serious consideration. (I mean, it worked: it was indeed nominated for "Outstanding Production," i.e. Best Picture, and even if I'm not ecstatic about it, it surely didn't deserve to lose to what actually won, Capra's milquetoast and draggy You Can't Take It With You.)
It obviously doesn't help that its anti-Confederate stance winds up undercut, sometimes appallingly, by direction that never once feels like it has any opinion on slavery other than "sure, in 1853 Louisiana there would be slaves," and a script that apparently can't resist the temptation of making said slaves buffoonish comic relief characters. (Pres: "It feels haunted." "Uncle" Cato (Lew Peyton): "Haunted!" Pres: "By memories, Uncle Cato." Good grief.) It's rare enough that it doesn't define the film, but its finer qualities aren't so strong as to entirely overlook it.
*Does Gods and Generals, a film actively focused on the Civil War itself, really count?