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USA 1938
Directed by
William Wyler
113 minutes
Rated PG

Reviewed by
Bernard Hemingway
4 stars


Set in New Orleans just a few years prior to the Civil War, Jezebel was Warner Bros' peace offering to Bette Davis for her losing the opportunity to play Scarlett O'Hara in the not dissimilar Gone With The Wind. Whilst the outcome is not as good as Selznick's tour de force it still is a strong film with Davis in the kind of role she excelled in  - a willful woman whose headstrong intransigent nature betrays her heart's desires.

Davis plays Julie Marsden, a New Orleans belle soon to be married to handsome young banker Preston Dillard (Henry Fonda) but loses him due to her petulant behaviour when she scandalises society by wearing a red dress to the premier annual ball.  He goes North and when he returns, with his Yankee wife (Margaret Lindsay) in tow Julie tries to win him back but her plans go wrong. When Preston comes down with yellow jack fever, Julie finally gets a chance to show her real love for him.

Davis won an Academy Award for her performance (as did Fay Bainter for her portrayal of Julie’s supportive Aunt Belle) which is first class but the entire production is top drawer, from the lavish costume design to Wyler's masterful direction. Although somewhat oddly Fonda does not essay a Southern accent he is well cast as the sensitive but rather stuffy young man to whom career and a properly compliant wife are the world.  George Brent on the other hand is rather good as a typical Southern ass to whom being a gentleman means living for social protocol and Donald Crisp is in his usual form as the solicitous Dr. Livingston who, like Preston, is a reformist.

Based on a play by Owen Davis S,r the script (John Huston is credited as a writer) is intelligent, its portrayal of the manners and mores of antebellum Southern culture forming a rich backdrop to the main drama.  It does however seem improbable that Preston would bring his wife back to a New Orleans in the grip of a pandemic or for that matter that everyone would rush back to town from the plantation to be at Preston’s side, and the film’s ending is a bit too piously airy-fairy to satisfy but Jezebel is nevertheless tip-top Hollywood melodrama of the period.




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