Jezebel (1938) – A Dated Story with Wonderful Acting from Bette Davis

I watched this movie for Bette Davis. Also, the costumes. I was told this was the first quintessential American women’s picture with its story and I was curious. So, I watched it.


In 1852 New Orleans the socialite Julie Preston is engaged to banker Preston “Pres” Dillard who refuses to dance to her tune and every wish. So she decides to wear a scandalously red dress to the Olympus Ball, the height of the season, where every other unmarried woman will be wearing white. She is scandalised and Pres leaves for the North. Time passes and he comes back. Julie wants his forgiveness. But shock! He has a wife! And Yellow Fever is spreading in the city!

Jezebel 1.jpg

Before we get to any acting. Yes, this movie treats slavery with as much delicacy and unquestioning as Gone With The Wind. The slaves are all happy and content with their lot. Ugh! At least they have character and aren’t just props, but it really sours the watching experience. There is one point where a character questions slavery, as if to compensate for the lack of it anywhere, but it goes by really quickly. The slaves sing and everything is happy! See? All is right! Why are some good old films so problematic? Oh right! Racism! And plane tone-depth approach to history that would condemn them as well as their contemporaries. So yeah, don’t take this movie as gospel on history and you shouldn’t take Gone With The Wind as one either.

For the people at the time this must have been their overture of a movie about the South before Gone With The Wind came out. Southern Belle’s and all that were rage since the book had come out and it was going with the trends. A sure success at the box office at the time.

Premiering a year before Gone With The Wind and has some of the same plot elements. Two suitors, one woman. The woman herself is a schemer and goes against social convention. In a way this was Bette Davies’ compensation for not getting the role of Scarlett O’Hara, a role which David O. Selznick never considered her, even though she had a history of playing complicated women. Davis herself was a Yankee, and a proud one, so her pulling this role off without so much of a scandal is short of miracle. But then again Gone With The Wind got most of the flack for not casting a Southerner, but a Brit in Vivien Leigh. In the end it all worked out for the both of them as they both got their respective Oscars for it.

Bette Davis puts on a wonderful performance as Julie Preston. Not so much as for the scheming, but for the softness and stronger moments for her character. Her character gets the usual treatment scheming women got in the 1930s, they died to compensate for their sins. But the ending is an ambiguous one, leaving room for so many fan fictions to take over.

The two men, Henry Fonda as Preston Dillard and George Brent as Buck Cantrell do an admirable job. But they are character’s whom you cate very little for, especially Dillard who is very wrong kind of suitor for Preston and only her “scheming” and quick thinking can smoothen the situation of a romantic relationship that is far from ideal by todays’ standards.


So yeah, give this a watch if you feel like it. If only for Bette’s acting. But don’t expect anything grand or spectacle worthy or a questioning of morals in the period. This movie was a quick cash grab and it shows in the writing. But Bette is worth the watch, or just the clips on YouTube. As well as the costumes which look nice on screen.

Even though this is hailed as the quintessential American women’s picture, it’s still very much a man’s world and a woman is punished, not given her happy ending, except the tragic kind in this. Oh well, Gone With The Wind didn’t do any better a year later except in Technicolour and spectacle, so there’s that.

Thank you for reading! 

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