1938 / Best Actress / Best Picture / Best Supporting Actress

Film #36: Jezebel (1938)

One of the positive aspects of writing this blog is getting to learn more about the film stars of yesteryear. One such star is Bette Davis who I primarily know due to that song about her eyes and to be fair they are quite startling.

Jezebel was the film for which Davis won her second Best Actress Award having previously triumphed with Dangerous several years earlier. In the film Davis plays Julie a strong-willed Southern Belle living in New Orleans who is to be married to Henry Fonda’s banker Pres. Julie likes to be different riding around on a horse that Pres doesn’t want her to and wearing red to a ball that she should wear white to. The scene at the ball is very effective indeed as Pres forces Julie to dance in the dress and we can see how uncomfortable she feels. Pres and Julie separate and he goes up North returning a year later with a new wife. Julie then tries to egg on new admirer Buck to quarrel with Pres but he has to leave to help his Doctor friend deal with the outbreak of yellow fever and Pres’ brother ends up duelling with Buck and fatally shooting him. Pres eventually has to go to an island when he himself is diagnosed with yellow fever and Julie convinces Pres’ wife that it should be Julie that goes with him and not her. The end of the film sees Pres and Julie leaving for what is essentially a leper colony.

Davis more than justifies her Best Actress win in this picture playing a character that no man dare get involved with. From the minute she rides in on her horse we know that she means trouble and she is a free-thinking woman especially for the time the film is set (1850). She owns every scene she’s in and even makes Henry Fonda look inferior which is a hard task. By the end of the film you wonder why anyone would want Julie as one of her men is shot dead and the other is on his death bed. Apart from Davis’ performance the most striking thing about Jezebel is the score which is always seems to imply some kind of danger or some scheming of Julie’s. The supporting cast are all adequate but there is no standout this is almost a one woman show and a very effecting film however I think audiences at the time preferred the light-hearted You Can’t Take It With You to this very dark and ultimately depressing tale, another great character study from William Wyler.


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