Jezebel (1938)

“But you had to come back home, didn’t you? You had to come back to the country and the things you know, because you belong here! Nothing can change that. Pres, Listen… Can you hear them? The night noises? The mockingbird in the magnolia? See the moss hanging from the moonlight? You can fairly taste the night, can’t you? You’re part of it, Pres, and it’s part of you. Like I am. You can’t get away from us, Pres, we’re both in your blood. This is the country you were born to, the country you know and trust. Your country, Pres! Amy wouldn’t understand. She’d think there’d be snakes.”

‘Jezebel’, directed by William Wyler in 1938, is an American historical drama. Set in 1852 in New Orleans, Bette Davis plays Julie Marsden, a woman whose engagement to Preston “Pres” Dillard, played by Henry Fonda, is broken off when she wears a red dress to a ball in opposition to Dillard and to society. A year later, during an outbreak of Yellow Fever, Dillard returns, but just as she professes her contrition for her act, and love for him, he reveals he is now married. Marsden then schemes to break the new couple apart, but her actions lead to tragedy and a climax in which Dillard succumbs to the fever and, with Marsden, is quarantined to an island. It’s a film that revolves around the charismatic and striking performance of Davis, as she shifts between emotions and motivations as often as she changes dresses. For all this, and the Academy Award Davis won, what struck me was how the film focused, almost in the background, on the shifting tensions between the north and south of the country and on the feeling of the South as a foreign country. It’s like ‘Gone with the Wind’, a film made at the same time and that has a similar setting, but rather than the epic sweep of the more famous film, ‘Jezebel’ reveals the political and historical details almost as an aside. It’s telling that both movies end with fires, the later the burning of a city, ‘Jezebel’ with the camera focusing on a brazier as Marsden is transported to her quarantine. There is also the problematic depiction of race, but in ‘Jezebel’, this is (almost) balanced by the debate about abolitionism and by the feeling that the fever has struck as a kind of Biblical plague, punishing the Southerners for their sins. It’s a rich, textured film with an iconic central female performance, but one that rewards deeper digging into its subtexts.

Would I recommend it? Yes – the obvious double bill would by ‘Gone with the Wind’, but I’m going to suggest ‘Madame de…’, directed by Max Ophüls in 1953, a French film that has a similar arc, including a duel and a scheming lover.


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