|Bette Davis in JEZEBEL|
by F LoBuono
Set in pre-Civil War New Orleans, Davis plays Julie Marsden, a strong willed Southern Belle of wealth and privilege. Henry Fonda is Preston Dillard, an influential and powerful young banker who is also Julie's fiance. Julie is a catch with a catch - she is beautiful and engaging. But, she is also spoiled and petulant.
Together, they are set to attend one of New Orleans' famous balls where all of the young, unmarried women display themselves in elaborate, antebellum white gowns when one day Julie appears at Dillard's office and insists that he leave his work and shop for a gown with her. Citing his busy work schedule, he declines. Julie is incensed and quietly plans her revenge for Dillard's slight. Instead of purchasing the delicate white gown designed for her, she decides instead to go for a hot, red number. This will teach him that she gets what she wants! Her seamstress is incredulous. She explains to Julie that wearing ANYTHING but virginal white is absolutely forbidden. If she insists on wearing the red dress to the ball she will risk becoming a social pariah. But, Julie insists that she will make her own rules when it comes to what she wears. She raves that her life is her own and she will walk the path the see chooses for herself - convention and tradition be damned! She is warned that if she persists in her defiance, there will be consequences.
When Dillard founds out of her plan, he is incensed! He threatens that if she does not honor the tradition and, therefore, the other women, she will pay a hefty social price. When he arrives at her home to bring her to the ball, he finds that she has ignored his warnings and is wearing the red gown. Others in their party beg her to change but she refuses. She is determined to have her way. Dillard accommodates her, letting nature take its course.
Of course, when they arrive at the ball, the couple is met with distrustful glares. The gossip begins immediately. When the time for the big dance arrives, they hit the floor together. Eventually, all of the other couples move away and actually leave the floor, abandoning them to dance completely alone. Julie realizes her folly and begs Dillard to take her away. He refuses, opting instead to allow her to bear the full brunt of her decision. When they do finally leave and arrive at her home, she slaps him for what she perceives as his insolence. He breaks the engagement and leaves the city.
When he does finally return to New Orleans, it is with a new woman - his Northern wife. Julie, who anticipated his return and, therefore, their romantic reunion, is devastated. She eventually finds her redemption by working as a nurse to help quell an outbreak of yellow fever that has affected most the city, including Mr. Dillard.
What I found most interesting about Davis' character was the fact that, at the time, her fierce independence was seen as a most unflattering liability. Another issue was that her attitude flew in the face of a time honored tradition and mocked the morals and ethics of the others on her level of society. It reinforced the idea that if you stand against the crowd, you do so alone. There was a certain level of righteous indignation on the part of her contemporaries, including her fiance. She was "redeemed" only when she sacrificed herself for the good of all - as a "proper" woman should. Her sacrifice is admirable, but it once again establishes the stereotype that women do not lead - they serve.
Now, the film is of a historical nature and looks to capture a bygone era - the Antebellum South. Director Wyler had to remain true to the scruples and morals of that particular time period. It was also made in 1933, not exactly the age when independent women where truly valued (although as an actress an individual, Davis did much to change that perception). Even the title of the film, Jezebel, taken from the bible, is synonymous with morally "difficult" women - at least as perceived by the men who write about them. I wonder if the film were made today, would the character of Julie Marsden still be seen as a selfish, self centered, petulant bitch or a true, free spirit who is determined to flaunt the rules and live her life as SHE sees fit?
Food for thought.