Tuesday, May 19, 2020

Accidental Quarantine Watch: Jezebel (1938)

Watched:  05/18/2020
Format:  TCM on DVR
Viewing:  First
Decade:  1930's
Director:  William Wyler

Y'all should know by now I like me some Bette Davis, and one of her early-career films you hear name-dropped a bit is Jezebel (1938).  In all honesty, all I knew about the movie before hitting Play was that it starred Davis, was a period piece of some sort, a melodrama of some sort, and featured cinematography was by Ernest Haller.   I figured on a big studio budget as Davis was, by 1938, a force.  But I didn't think much else about the production.

Given the year, I assume this was Warner Bros. pre-emptive answer to Gone With the Wind, which would arrive soon after and took so long in all phases of production, Warner Bros. had an opportunity to catch up and did so by adapting a screenplay with very similar themes.  Maybe I'm wrong, but the parallels of a romance about a spitfire of a girl in the antebellum south longing after a man she can't have and playing with a bit of a cad and it all ending badly has a certain echo to it.

The film stars, of course, Bette Davis, and in the role of the stand-up guy she's interested - Henry Fonda.  George Brent plays the wealthy gentleman vying for Davis' affections.

This movie begins in the world of New Orleans, almost a decade before the war and follows with upper-class slave owners with a southern code of chivalry that includes duels and gentlemen demanding satisfaction.  A good deal of the first act hinges on Davis' impetuous character, the conflict this is causing with her beloved and a scandal caused by her selection of a red gown to wear to a ball where unmarried women are supposed to wear white. 

By the way, the ball scene was kind of incredible, and a testament to both Ford and Davis.  I'd also argue, for Hollywood's constant saluting of those thumbing their nose at social convention, there's also something both true and impactful when a movies does demonstrate the incredible power of running up against the steel wall of convention and how we live with the fallout.

I'd argue that unlike Gone With the Wind, there's no suggestion that the Civil War ended a sort of Camelot and happened to sweep away a romantic life where everyone was once happy.  As the film progresses, though steeped in the trappings of the antebellum film with a host of characters portrayed as enslaved people going about typical 1938 servant business, things begin to pivot.  Ford's character returns from the North with a wife, and eyes opened as to what is happening above the Mason-Dixon Line.  Secretly, he takes a drink with one of Davis' trusted butlers.  While all the southerners take umbrage at current political events and talk of lynching abolitionists, bellowing about their way of life, Ford speaks ominously of how unsustainable all of this is.  Wyler allows for the large cast of plantation dwelles to be summoned to sing and dance - as would have been familiar to movie goers in this era - but undercuts the scene, crushing the tone and making the cast witnesses to Davis' character's fall.  Frankly, the film is more interested in the fatal flaws for the South than it is in any sort of direct condemnation of standard Hollywood roles, but in comparison to the back half of Gone With the Wind, it's at least not mourning a way of life. 

At any rate, the film winds up taking place during the Yellow Fever of 1853 in New Orleans - a thing I knew had existed through osmosis, but had not studied and which certainly had an unanticipated meta quality here in 2020.  Much of the action takes place outside of New Orleans at Davis' family plantation where she and others have retreated to escape "Yellow Jack".  But the final act of the film is a return to the city and the grim realities of both New Orleans' backward response to the epidemic and the ensuing death toll - all of which, you know, resonates.

This sort of melodrama isn't for everyone, but I quite liked it.  This film is just one of Wyler's huge number of very famous, well-regarded films, and the period in which this was made was just, seemingly him getting started (he's make movies for another few decades).  It doesn't have the sprawl and epic nature of Gone With the Wind, but it's also a tighter picture which doesn't bury itself in the episodic structure of the competition, ultimately giving the main character's arc maybe less scope but also maybe tightening it up for an ending that works and I'm surprised I haven't seen imitated.*

It's maybe not my favorite new-to-me movie, but I'm delighted to have seen it and get why it's in the discussion with classic film buffs.  It is beautifully shot on stunning sets, with impeccable costumes for dozens of characters at a time.  And the cast never feels anything less that first rate.  My guess is that it simply has vanished in the shadow of GWTW, but if you come across it sometime, give it a spin. 

*and, an ending that doesn't feel like the lead survived and went through all that and still came out the other side thinking "yes, but what about ME?"

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