Contrary to Popular Opinion: Jezebel, or, The Fashion Faux Pas of Doom

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This entry is part of the Contrary to Popular Opinion blogathon, hosted by SisterCelluloid and MoviesSilently.

Since I can’t discuss what I dislike about this film without revealing huge spoilers, please proceed only if you’ve already seen the film or you don’t care about spoilers.

There are so many reasons why I should love the 1938 film Jezebel.

Can’t get much better than this cast: Bette Davis, Henry Fonda, George Brent, Fay Bainter, Margaret Lindsay. Both Davis and Bainter won Academy Awards for their roles as Best Actress and Supporting Actress, respectively.

It’s directed by William Wyler, who, in my opinion, is unfairly looked down upon by modern critics because he is not considered an “auteur.” But to me, he is one of the great directors of Hollywood’s Golden Age.

One of the screenwriters is John Huston: I mean, come on.

I love historical dramas, even problematic ones like Gone with the Wind. Of course, since Jezebel is set in the antebellum South, like Gone with the Wind, it shares some similar problems, i.e. racism in its depiction of African American characters and the institution of slavery.

Also like Gone with the Wind, Jezebel is generally beloved, and considered one of the great films of the 1930s.

I totally loathe it.

With Gone with the Wind, I don’t overlook the inherent racism of the story, but I do manage to grit my teeth through it because there are many other things about it that are great.

I can’t do that with Jezebel. I grit my teeth through nearly every moment of it. Not only do I not find it a great film, I find it a shallow one with an embarrassingly flimsy plot. It is also absolutely preposterous when it comes to character motivation.

Legend has it that Warner Bros. offered Bette Davis the role in Jezebel as compensation for losing out on the role of Scarlett O’Hara. Polls showed Davis as the nation’s first choice for that role, though David O. Selznick never seriously considered her for it.

Set in 1852 in New Orleans, the story depicts the contentious “love” story between Julie Marsden (Davis) and Pres Dillard (Fonda). (You’ll see why I put love in quotes in due course.) In true Southern belle fashion, Julie is headstrong and spoiled. Pres is upstanding and serious. It’s as if Scarlett got Ashley to agree to marry her.

(It’s NOT any similarity to GWTW that offends me about the movie, really. But in that way, it is kind of similar–which I’m guessing was deliberate.)

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The story opens with their engagement party, with neither of them in attendance. Pres is working at his bank, where he’s trying to convince town leaders to takes steps to avoid another Yellow fever outbreak. In other words, doing Important Man Stuff. Julie is late because she’s, you know, like that.

She shocks the guests by not changing out of her riding habit and into her party dress.

Pay attention, now. This is known as FORESHADOWING. Because this story is all about wearing the wrong dress for the wrong occasion.

Seriously.

We learn that Pres and Julie were engaged once before and broke it off. Some people just never learn, it seems.

They immediately start fighting again. You see, the next day Julie expects Pres to drop all his Important Man Stuff and accompany her to her dress fitting for the Olympus Ball.

Seriously.

So in retaliation for his refusal to do her bidding, Julie devises the “perfect” revenge: instead of wearing the virginal white all single girls are expected to wear to the ball, she will wear red. And not just ANY red. While we can’t see the shade due to the B&W photography, the reactions of the other characters tell the story: the dress she chooses is WHORE red.

Because. . . that will teach him not to blow her off when she wants him to take her dress shopping?

Even Julie’s ex-suitor Buck (Brent), a duelist and all-around scoundrel who picks fights every other day over itty-bitty slights, refuses to accompany her to the ball in the red dress. Scoundrel he may be, but he still lectures her about the inappropriateness of her dress. (Part 2 of the revenge plot was to go with a guy who routinely fights duels. Kind of dumb, huh? That’s more foreshadowing, by the way.)

Julie’s Aunt Belle (Bainter) and guardian try to convince her change her dress. Pres commands her to change her dress. From the way they carry on, you’d think she was planning to turn tricks in the middle of the ballroom. She refuses to change, but Pres agrees to take her, anyway.

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Once they arrive at the ball, everyone in attendance acts like Julie has smeared cow dung all over her body. Julie immediately realizes her error and begs to be taken home.

Pres not only refuses to take her home, he forces her to take a turn around the ball room to greet people. As more and more of them make excuses and slip away before she can give them any of her red dress cooties, Julie begs again to be taken out.

Instead, Pres forces her on to the dance floor. In a moment that I find almost hilarious in its absurd melodrama (I actually LOVE melodrama, but this is too much, even for me) all the other couples slither off the dance floor, looks of utter disgust on their faces.

Does he stop then?

No. He forces her to keep dancing, even as she continues pleading with him to let her leave.

Finally, everyone is so shocked and mortified the orchestra stops playing. Pres insists the musicians start again.

Now, I’m sure there are people who would say to me, “But, Debbie, that’s the way it was in those days. Even wearing a red dress could ruin a girl’s reputation. Flouting convention came with dire consequences back then.”

Yes, I know that.

It’s not how the other characters behave that ticks me off so completely.

It’s Pres’ behavior that makes me want to kick the screen in.

Because he’s supposed to be the HERO. Instead, he’s revealed as a total zero.

I can understand him being frustrated with her immaturity. I can’t understand his studied cruelty, his decision to completely humiliate her, his insistence on slut-shaming her, especially since she had already realized her mistake.

He could just as easily taken her home and broken off their engagement privately. Instead, he not only publicly humiliates her, he makes himself look like a jerk–although being a man, he can weather that far better than she can.

The worst part is, instead of acknowledging that Pres is a zero, the story still insists we look at him as a hero, and Julie as a villain for not knowing her proper place as a woman.

Julie certainly still sees Pres as her hero. She believes he’ll come back crawling to her. Her aunt tells her to go after him and beg his forgiveness, because this is a time when women have to beg men for forgiveness after men act like asshats.

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Sooo. . . a year passes. Pres has left New Orleans in the pursuit of Important Man Stuff. Julie stays home and becomes an exemplary housekeeper (i.e. she drives the slaves even harder to keep the place in perfect order). Yellow fever breaks out again. Of course, no one listened to Pres about draining the swamps and cleaning up the litter to keep the fever from coming back.

Soon comes the news that Pres is returning. Julie is ecstatic and ready to win him back because even a year’s reflection (and total silence from Pres) has not taught her that the guy just isn’t worth it.

After moving to their plantation to escape the epidemic, Pres shows up.

WITH HIS NEW WIFE.

Now I ask you: suppose your ex showed up AT YOUR HOUSE with his NEW WIFE expecting you to PUT THE TWO OF THEM UP AS GUESTS–you’d be, like, MAD, right? Screw Southern hospitality–you’d tell him to drop dead, right?

Not in this movie.

Of course, no one tells Julie this bit of news until AFTER she dons a virginal white gown and gives a pathetic, groveling speech to Pres, humbling herself to him in every way possible.

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Once again, Julie is humiliated by this creep. Instead of thinking, “Phew! Got out of that one!” she starts scheming how she’s going to get him back, even though he’s married.

I keep screaming at the screen: “Why? WHY DO YOU WANT THIS CLOWN BACK?”

Her big plan? Act a little more lively during the dinner conversation.

You’d think she was flashing bare boob all during dinner the way the other characters react. Pres later makes a comment about her behavior, stating that prostitutes and great ladies often act the same.

I remind you again, folks, this guy is supposed to be the hero. Hey, man, who asked you to come back to your old girlfriend’s house with your wife? Where do you get off calling her a tramp, you man-tramp?

The one good thing about this movie is a diseased-ridden mosquito gets Pres for his misogynistic crap.

If only it had ended there.

Instead, Pres leaves the plantation and goes back to town (because going back to a plague-ridden town is SUCH a good idea). Now, Pres and Buck facing each other in a duel over some imagined infraction during Julie’s participation in the dinner discussion would have been idiotic enough. Instead, it’s Pres’ kid brother Ted who challenges Buck to a duel, even as Ted grouses that Julie had been “egging him on” (i.e. talking to him).

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Why do they fight? I’m not exactly sure. And of course, it makes even MORE sense when inexperienced Ted kills “survives a duel at least once a week” Buck. (Before the duel, he tells his second that he’s not going to aim to kill the kid. This story is just chock full of geniuses.)

Somehow, all this becomes JULIE’S fault. Aunt Belle gives a speech quoting from the Bible about Jezebel. Because, apparently, just by breathing and existing, Julie has caused all this destruction. Not the sexism and arrogance of the men who fought the duel.

Oh, but before all this, Julie and the plantation slaves have a sing-along to show how joyful slaves were to be slaves back then. (Julie keeps making cracks to Pres’ wife Amy about their customs and traditions–after she has continually defied the customs and traditions.) And the dinner conversation was all about how abolitionists are all traitors who need to be hanged.

Lovely group of people.

So when’s the Yellow fever going to get them all and put us out of our misery?

Pretty soon, it seems. You can tell because the words “YELLOW FEVER” flash across the screen several times over scenes of panic in New Orleans.

(Did William Wyler REALLY direct this film? Sometimes I wonder.)

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Now we come to the most absurd part of the story. When they start forcing Yellow fever victims to be quarantined on an island where they exile lepers, Julie insists on accompanying the sick Pres. At first his wife (Margaret Lindsay) insists she will go, but apparently, she’s the only character in this story who isn’t a complete moron. She eventually relents, and let’s Julie “redeem” herself by going with Pres to the leper island.

As the cart takes them off to quarantine, the Max Steiner music swells, because Julie has finally learned her lesson–or has she? Looks to me like she got her man in the end. He’ll likely be dead, but she got him. Only problem is, she’ll probably end up dead, too.

All because she wore the wrong color dress. Making it the most costly fashion faux pas in history.

Give. Me. A. Break.

Please check out the other wonderful and contrarian posts in this blogathon by clicking here:

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21 thoughts on “Contrary to Popular Opinion: Jezebel, or, The Fashion Faux Pas of Doom

  1. I LOVE this review. I think it’s my favourite of all your posts.

    I adore Bette Davis, and I really like her performance in this film, despite the “oh puh-lease” script. But I’m so glad to learn that you didn’t like Henry Fonda’s character. I really dislike this cruel character and I have NO idea why Bette would waste so much effort on him – only to ride off in the wagon with him to die of yellow fever? It really is asking too much of an audience.

  2. Saw Jezebel a while ago and only really remembered the dance, the red dress, and Fonda coming back to NO with a wife, and that cart ride to the island for Yellow Fever victims. Fonda doesn’t strike me as “manly” enough for this role. I know Davis was supposedly given this role to make up for the fact that she didnt’ get Scarlett O’Hara in GWTW;both films have some similarities. Still, I think if a more rugged guy had been selected to play Pres, perhaps it would have come off better? Fonda, while a good actor, to me doesn’t seem too physically strong.

    1. You might have a point. After all, Rhett does some awful things to Scarlett, but maybe because he’s played by Clark Gable, we’re more willing to forgive him.

      Though I think Rhett is a much more well-written character–he’s not written as a typical hero who’s right just because the story says he’s right.

  3. I have to say that I love Jezebel. I didn’t understand why the hoopla was about after my first viewing, but I’ve seen it numerous times since — about three in the last few weeks alone — and I just love it now. That being said, I thought your review was HILARIOUS. It literally had me laughing out loud and I loved every word. Your writing is first-rate, and I look forward to exploring the rest of your blog. (Incidentally, how do you feel about film noir? I’d love for you to contribute to my bimonthly newsletter, The Dark Pages. LMK!)

    1. Thank you! I’m so glad you enjoyed the post even though you’re a fan of the movie.

      Several of the posts in this blogathon were for movies I adore, yet I couldn’t help laughing at people pinpointing their flaws/inconsistencies.

      I am a big fan of film noir! Sure, I’d be interested in contributing. Thank you so much for asking! Let me know if there are guidelines and how I should submit.

  4. Hysterical review. I never did get the appeal of his character either. I totally bought that she would continue to love the jerk—we all have certainly seen enough people do that to buy the realism. But what’s weird is that we’re supposed to like the guy. How? I did love Davis in it though. That made it worth the viewing, disturbing as its message might be.

    1. It’s sad, but true–many people love someone who is bad/wrong for them. If that had been the point of the story, I would have found it more believable/interesting. It just seemed absurd to me that she had to make herself worthy of him, when in my view, he was pretty worthless.

      I picked this movie to review for this blogathon because it’s so well acted and beautiful to watch. Other movies I dislike are more of a chore to sit through. So even though it’s something I don’t like, Davis/Fonda/Wyler & Co. still make it bearable on some levels.

  5. I loved reading this review, I’ve always been a bit on the fence with this film and I certainly appreciated your points. And I can’t believe I didn’t pick up on the costume foreshadowing, I’ve always thought in terms of the 3 Ds: dress, duel, disorder (perhaps dull should be in there too!!) I actually didn’t realise Bette Davis was offered the role as compensation for Scarlett. This film certainly falls at an interesting point in her career, it’s better than a lot of her early films but not as good as the ones that came after.

    PS – I can’t find a bad word to say about dreamboat Fonda 😉

    1. Thank you! LOL at the “3 Ds.”

      This movie does seem to be a turning point in her career. Even though she had won an Oscar before, it was thought to be a “consolation” Oscar because she was snubbed for Of Human Bondage.

      I like Henry Fonda! Just can’t stand this particular character.

  6. So my interest was piqued at the notion that one discusses major public health concerns at banks. I guess back in the day with no iphones what are you gonna do…

    I guess I’ll watch this puppy for the red dress and fast forward through the happy household help bits

    1. YES, it is funny that they were talking about public health concerns in a bank! I’m guessing it wasn’t just civic concern on Pres’ part. They were probably looking to finance the public works to drain the swamps, etc.

      Thanks for stopping by and commenting!

  7. I always thought that Henry Fonda’s character was the wrong one, but I like the movie. However your review is very funny! Still if you allow me, I would like to add that as the site imdb.com informs: “The old rumor that the role of Julie was offered as compensation to Bette Davis when she lost the opportunity to play Scarlett O’Hara in …Gone with the wind (1939) is completely false, since the role of Scarlett had not yet been cast until long after Jezebel (1938) had been filmed. The play was purchased for Bette Davis in 1937, two years before … Gone with the wind (1939) hit the screens. David O. Selznick was furious at this decision, seeing it as Warner Brothers’ deliberate attempt to sabotage his Civil War epic. For that reason – and contrary to what legend said – he refused to even consider Davis for the part of Scarlett O’Hara”. Paulette Goddard was to whom was offered the role in Reap the Wild Wind in compensation that she lost the the role of Scarlett. Sorry my english, it is not my first language.

    1. Thank you for filling in on the history of Davis’ casting in the movie. I was a bit skeptical of the story.

      If I’m remembering correctly, they went so far as to do costume tests for Paulette Goddard as Scarlett O’Hara, but I had no idea she was given the part in Reap the Wild Wind in compensation. Funny how stories get twisted over time.

      Thanks for commenting, and your English is great! 🙂

      1. Poor Paulette she did a lot of tests to play Scarlett including testing the men to play Ashley, and the women to play Melanie. You can see the tests in the youtube: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6xmfLHXiAhA
        Or write Gone With The Wind Tests. She was the favorite of George Cukor who was very impressed with her, but Vivien Leigh happened.

  8. Loved this review! Isn’t it sad that Henry Fonda’s character is MORE unlikable than his straightforward villain role in Once Upon a Time in the West? Goodness gracious, someone certainly had it in for the heroine. In any case, thanks for joining in!

    1. Glad you enjoyed it, Fritzi! I was thinking the same thing–that I much prefer Fonda as a deliberate baddie than this passive-aggressive clod.

      Thanks for co-hosting the blogathon!

  9. Haha, this review is fantastic! Hilarious breakdown. I remembered this film having a very eye-roll-y plot, but it’s way worse and more bananas than I remembered. Bette is so great though.

    I always wondered whether the dress costume was really red!

  10. I had checked out this movie expecting to enjoy it… yeah, that didn’t happen. When it was over I was like, “Well that was a waste of time!” The only thing I enjoyed about it WAS the dresses (which always look beautiful in black and white).

    Well thought out post!

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