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"Please let it be me that goes to him"
on 18 July 2005
Legend has it that Bette Davis was offered the lead in Jezebel because Warner Bothers refused to lend her out for Gone With the Wind. The decision proved to be somewhat prophetic because Bette went on to win the 1938 Best Actress Oscar for her role as Miss Julie Morrison, the spoiled, willful, and coquettish Southern Belle who unashamedly weaves a web of betrayal and seduction.
While Jezebel is most notable for Bette's fiery, strong-willed and multi-faceted performance, the film also serves as a wonderful period piece, a deftly written romantic melodrama that astutely portrays early 1850s New Orleans ante-bellum society. The world is industriously on the move, and the whole of the United States is undergoing profound change.
The abolitionist movement is gaining momentum and the South feels as though its slave-driven way of life is under threat. There are rumbling hints of war between the Northern States and to add to this, there's the constant threat and the continual scourge of yellow fever - an illness that people were convinced could be passed on through the air.
The movie begins as Julie (Davis) is courting Preston Dillard (Henry Fonda). Julie loves Preston but she's willful and young, and when she goes against his wishes and wares an inappropriate red dress to a local ball, she ends up embarrassing him and making a public spectacle of herself. Preston unceremoniously dumps her and she becomes an outcast, a wealthy recluse with only her kindly Aunt Belle (Fay Bainter) to keep her company.
When Preston eventually appears on the scene again with a wife, Julie decides to fight to get him back. She manipulates and connives, unleashing a series of catastrophic events involving her best friend and Southern gentlemen Buck Cantrell (George Brent), who also secretly loves her. Consequently, Aunt Belle labels Julie a "Jezebel" at the most crucial plot point. Julie is eventually humbled by her experiences and ends up giving of her time, energy, and health during the deadly Yellow Jack outbreak. She is able to overcome her shallowness and selfishness, eventually becoming almost martyr to the deadly disease.
It's easy to see why Davis won the Oscar for this role, and it's one of her very best performances. Yes, she's a "Jezebel" but perhaps in name only, because she's also a naively frail young girl, whose only real fault is that, she's impetuous and doesn't really think too much before she acts or opens her mouth. Of course, she pays a bitter price for this behaviour, but the beauty of the story is that she's able to redeem herself, and hopefully find true love again.
Jezebel is a must see for diehard Bette Davis fans. Admirers of period pieces will also get a lot out of this film. The best scene is when Julie stubbornly goes to the ball - realizing what she has done, she begs Preston to take her home, but he stoically soldiers on, making her dance much to the chagrin of the other party goers, determined to teach her a lesson and show her the error of her ways.
The costumes and the sets have been sumptuously recreated, however, the movie works best at portraying Southern life during the middle of the 19th century. It's a grand, sweeping, superbly acted film, and a splendid character study of a flawed woman, and it shows the young Bette at her vampish, coquettish, and sardonic best.