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I'm thinking' of a woman who did evil in the sight of God. And her name was Jezebel.
The movie that got audiences warmed up for the worldwide release of GONE WITH THE WIND a few months after its release. Bette Davis was turned down for the role of Scarlett OíHara, so he got Jack Warner (the head of Warner Bros.), to get her a part that was similar. He delivered, and Davis got one of the juiciest parts of her career as Julie Morrison, a Southern belle who shamelessly flirts with her former, and recently married, fiancťe, and her ultimate redemption for her shameful behavior.
The film opens in New Orleans, 1852. Julia Morrison (Davis) is a spoiled and selfish Southern belle who is engaged to Preston Dillard (Henry Fonda), a man who works himself to the limit as a banker and is more times than none consumed with his work. When Preston is late for their own engagement party, Julia (who was late herself), scurries to the bank and orders Preston to at least uphold his promise to accompany her to a dress fitting for the Olympus debutante ball the following night. She goes alone, but while she is trying on the expected white dresses, she is more eager to wear a flaming red dress that is normally worn by infamous Vickers women. Much to the dismay of her Aunt Belle Massey (Faye Bainter), Julia has decided to wear the dress to the ball, something that would surly cause a scandal. When Preston learns of this, he is outraged that Julia would not bow down to tradition and publicly humiliate herself in such a manner. Julia is adamant about her attire and Preston gives in, and takes her to the ball. Of course, the second they walk in everyone has their eyes on them. But Julia feels uncomfortable about the whole thing, and wants to leave when they are the only ones on the dance floor. But Preston is standing his ground and continues to dance with her.
Once they return back to Juliaís mansion, she blames him for embarrassing her at the ball. But Preston, having enough of Juliaís egotistical ways, bids her a final farewell. Aunt Belle begs Julia to call for Preston, but she believes that heíll return to her in time. But Aunt Belle knows that he wonít, that he has had enough. No, he'll come back. Wait and see. And tonight, I think. If he does, say I've retired. And then I'm sleeping' late in the morning. Not to come around 'till afternoon tomorrow...
One year later, Preston has broken off the engagement and moved out of New Orleans. But there is news that he is returning, and Julia, after a year of disconnecting herself from friends and the outside world, couldnít be happier. Dr. Livingston (Donald Crisp), on a visit to the mansion, warns Aunt Belle that the rapid spread of yellow fever is spreading, and that it would be best for them to the countryside Halcyon plantation-estate to avoid contracting it. However, when Julia is informed of Prestonís return, she is ecstatic and believes that he has forgiven her and is going to ask her to marry him. However, Preston hasnít arrived alone, for his new wife Amy (Margaret Lindsay) is by his side. Aunt Belle is the first to learn of this, and knows that Julia has been frantically cleaning up the house and preparing herself to meet him once again. When Julia finds Preston, alone in one of the rooms, she bows down before him in an elegant white dress, begging his forgiveness. But than Amy walks into the room, and Julia is at first dumfounded. But only at first, for after she finds out about Amy, her old selfish ways come pouring back on, as she schemes to win Preston over once again. At a dinner later that night, Juliaís former love, Buck (George Brent), who Julia was flirty with even when she and Preston where together, begins to argue with Preston about North versus South to get him riled up. Prestonís younger brother Ted (Richard Cromwell) accuses Julia of leading Brent on for the time being only to satisfy her desire for Preston. Later on, Julia meets Preston in the garden and inquires about the marriage. When he makes it clear that he has no feelings for her, and that Amy is the love of his life, Julia makes it to be as if it was Preston who was the one who flirted with her. She also mocks Amyís ignorance of the South (Amy being a Yankee).
The sounds of cannon fire can be heard from the town nearby. It is believed that the blast of the firing will drive away the fever, with it being an airborne virus. Preston believes that the swamps should be drained, and Brent smugly mocks that it is a Yankee tradition. Preston is called into town by Dr. Livingston (Donald Crisp) to help with his patients with Yellow fever. Meanwhile, Ted and Brent continue to argue furiously, as Ted accuses Brent of being manipulated by Julia. Juliaís scheming to get Preston back goes terribly wrong as Ted and Brent decide the perfect way to settle this is a duel. Brent is killed in the duel, but before dying, admitted that he knew what Julia was up to. His blood is on her hands, and because of this, her guardians have disowned her, Aunt Belle and her husband, General Theo Bogardus (Henry OíNeill). In the films most memorable moment, Aunt Belle refers to Julia as being a Jezebel (a woman from the Bible whose scheming caused a man to die).
The Yellow fever is spreading like wildfire, and those who are infected who dare cross the parish boundaries are shot dead. No one is permitted to leave the plantation, and Julia invites her ready to leave guests back into her home (they opted to leave due to her disgraceful behavior towards Preston and Brent).
Panic ensues the streets of New Orleans. Homes are being burned and the dead bodies are being hauled off by the dozens in wagons. Those who are infected are forced to go to Lazarette Island, and old leper colony where the sick are sent off to die. Unfortunately, Preston has contracted the disease and is brought to Dr. Livingstonís home, and when Julia hears this, whisks away to help nurse him back to health. She sneaks over the barrier and cares for him as best as she can. Amy, Ted, Bogardus and Aunt Belle gets clearance from the governor to travel into New Orleans to see Preston, who is a disoriented state and is delusional. Dr. Livingston, by law, had to inform the proper authorities and Preston is scheduled to be brought to Lazarette Island. Amy demands that she be allowed to go with him, but Julia begs that she goes instead. She knows Preston no longer loves her, but she must redeem herself for her shameful actions, despite that she may die over there. Amy tearfully agrees, and Julia is permitted to go. The final scenes shows Julia cradling Preston in a wagon, surrounded by the dying as much of the town goes up in flames.
Being that the plot of GONE WITH THE WIND was making headlines for the better part of four years, people where eager to have an appetizer before the big event came. JEZEBEL bares resemblance to GONE, so people naturally came in droves to see the film, and was a huge box-office success. Though GONE is the more superior film, story-wise and technically speaking, JEZEBEL is still a wonderfully told story, and doesnít take up 1/3 of the day to watch (the movie clocks in at about one hour and fifty minutes).
In my opinion, this remains one of Davisís most admiral parts, as she goes into her best mode, spitfire. This performance won her a second (and final), Academy Award. Faye Bainterís performance won her a Supporting Actress Oscar (she was also nominated that year for WHITE BANNERS, and her performance her is what a supporting performance truly is (not a glorified leading performance). She is a woman who cares for Davis, but though her love for her is strong, she can disguise what she is and what she is doing to those around her. Davis is perfect as the scheming, spoiled southern belle, and though her transition from two-timing, self-centered stubborn woman to a woman who seeks redemption is inevitable, it is somewhat contrived and a little rushed.
This was director William Wylerís and Davisís first of three collaborations (they would team up for THE LETTER and THE LITTLE FOXES). The two do perform some of their best work here, and itís a shame that they fought like hell throughout their working together on their three films. Wyler was compromising, but Davis was demanding, and played out the character the way she wanted to. Wyler, being the director, wanted his wishes abided but Davis was never a woman to bow down at will. Nonetheless, Davis is riveting and Wylerís direction superb and firm. John Huston is also credited as one of the screenwriters of the film. Of course he would gain fame three years later for directing THE MALTESE FALCON.
The historic facts of the movie are also pretty tight, as thousands of people did die of yellow fever during an outbreak in New Orleans during 1853.
A great movie and great performances by everyone involved. A little trivia, Henry Fonda was expecting his wife to go into labor at any time (the baby would of course grow up to be Jane Fonda), so Henry tried to persuade Wyler to hurry and rush things. Of course he could not, and because of this he wasnít always on set, and Davis usually had to do their scenes together alone (with a close-up of her speaking or listening).
A must for die hard Davis fans.
My Grade: A-