Saturday 24 February 2018

Movie Review: Jezebel (1938)

A melodrama and romance set in the deep south, Jezebel features a captivating story and an unforgettable central character.

New Orleans, 1852. Julie Marsden (Bette Davis) is a young and headstrong woman from a rich family, engaged to banker Preston Dillard (Henry Fonda). Julie is not beyond using eligible bachelor Buck Cantrell (George Brent) to make Preston jealous. When Preston misses a date due to a business meeting Julie feels particularly snubbed. She plots to cause a scandal at a social event to force him to prove his commitment. Preston calls her bluff, causing her great embarrassment. Tired of her antics he breaks off the engagement and leaves New Orleans to New York.

A year later an epidemic of yellow fever is sweeping through New Orleans, while talk of an impending civil war begins to dominate social circles. Julie is delighted to hear that Preston is coming back to town, and she plans to apologize for her past behaviour and win back his love. She organizes a welcome party at the family's Halcyon Plantation, but when Preston arrives, a bitter surprise awaits Julie.

Directed by William Wyler and co-written by John Huston, Jezebel is based on the 1933 Owen Davis play. The film is a compelling cinematic experience, Wyler comprehensively breaking free of any stage constraints and delivering a visually rich 103 minutes. The pacing is brisk and the energy level high, thanks in large measure to the main character of Julie Marsden. She is substantively ahead of her time, extending the feisty southern belle convention towards a streak of rebellious female independence that would only emerge in broader society more than 100 years after the film's setting.

And Julie is brought to life by Bette Davis in one of her defining performances. Davis earned the Best Actress Academy Award as she runs across the full spectrum of emotions. Julie is never far from cold, conniving and calculating, but she can also be anxious, giddy, playful, excited, seductive and crestfallen. Helped by Wyler's clever shot selection, Davis nails every transition, perfectly marrying her passions to the story's shifting societal and personal dynamics.

The plot is filled to the brim with issues and events. In addition to the romance, Jezebel features helpings of business, politics, and even a pistols-at-dawn duel. The yellow fever epidemic emerges as a major sub-plot in the final third, and Wyler does not shy away from showing the impact of a rampant deadly virus in an urban area.

The dialogue is crisp, and the exchanges short and sharp. The lavish sets are complemented by a series of stunning gowns worn by Davis. Many of the secondary characters make meaningful contributions, including Donald Crisp as a doctor and Preston's friend and mentor, Richard Cromwell as Preston's brother, and Fay Bainter as Julie's aunt.

Julie's stubborn impulsiveness is both her charm and her flaw, and her unique spirit propels Jezebel into a captivating orbit.

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