Jezebel (1938): “Triumph of Bitchery”

It’s hard to pick Bette Davis’ best film, but Jezebel will always be in the conversation.  Davis plays Julie Marsden, a headstrong southern belle living in 1850’s New Orleans.  She’s rich and beautiful and she knows it.  She’s engaged to Preston Dillard, played by Henry Fonda. 

She’s shrewish and obstinate—interrupting Pres at work and refusing to mind his orders.  But when she wears a red satin dress to a ball when convention mandates unmarried women wear white, she pushes Pres too far.  She wears the dress in a fit of pique to embarrass him, but ends up humiliating only herself.

Pres walks out on her, but Julie is confident he will return. 

A year passes and the plot thickens when a wave of yellow fever breaks out. 

I’d seen Jezebel twice before I viewed it for this blog.  I remembered Julie’s red dress, her stubborn pride, and the quaint southern customs.  The yellow fever subplot is critical to the film’s ending, but otherwise I didn’t remember the details.

But watching this time, during our own pandemic, every throwaway line about yellow fever sent shivers of recognition up my spine.

Our first inkling that something is amiss is a scene in a bar where men discuss the fever.  One says he takes a shot every time the death wagon rolls by, and that’s why he’s drunk.  Another says you can’t catch the fever if you’re drunk.  And yet another says that there are many more cases than reported because doctors don’t want to diagnose yellow fever and cause panic.

Buck Cantrell dismisses their concerns.  “Ain’t anymore yellow fever than this time last year.  You never hear fever talk in racing season, do you?  Why?  ‘Cause folks got something better to talk about.”

Sound familiar?

The part of Dr. Fauci is played by Dr. Livingston, the forward-thinking doctor who urges Julie and her Aunt Belle to leave New Orleans for their plantation.

He tells them, “The city’s not going to be so pleasant.  No parties, theaters liable to be closed as a precautionary measure.”

Julie doesn’t want to leave, dismissing the doctor as a fearmonger, but Aunt Belle remembers the last outbreak in 1830, and fears the worst.

In the end, they go to their Halcyon plantation

And finally, Pres returns—but with a Yankee bride.

Julie is devastated but not defeated.  She throws a party, scheming all the while to make Pres jealous and ultimately get him back.

She eggs on Buck Cantrell, who plays the part of an anti-masker. 

You see, it isn’t just the yellow fever that echoes today.  The film is set about a decade before the Civil War, but the country is already deeply divided between North and South.  When Pres returns after time up North with his Yankee wife, the cultural clash is on full display.

Each night, cannons boom across New Orleans.

Amy—the Yankee wife—asks why, and Cantrell tells her “It starts air currents to carry the fever away.”

Pres retorts, “They might better drain the swamps and clean up the city.”

“Is that what they do in Yankee land?” Cantrell sneers.

“They do.”

When Pres insinuates that the South might learn something from the North on handling the epidemic, Cantrell all but accuses Pres of betraying his Southern roots.

As the fever spreads, the lockdowns tighten.  Armed guards prevent anyone from going into or out of New Orleans.  We see a man shot dead for breaking the fever line.

They begin shipping fever patients off to Lazaret Island.  They won’t have a chance, and will die alone in filthy conditions, but they won’t spread the fever to others.

New Orleans descends into chaos.  Households lying about having the fever so they won’t be sent away, fires in the streets, wagonloads of dead and sick carried out each day.

When Pres passes out in a bar, the crowd disperses in fear.  No one will help the man they’ve branded a “yellow jack.”

Julie crosses the fever line in the dead of night to get to Pres, and takes care of him as he slips into delirium.

Pres’ brother is outraged when Dr. Livingston reports Pres’ condition to the authorities, thus condemning him to a death sentence at Lazaret Island.

Dr. Livingston defends his decision by asking, “Have you any idea what would happen to New Orleans if folks thought there was one law for the rich and another for the poor?”

We know all too well.

The film ends with Julie accompanying Pres to Lazaret Island.  She has convinced Amy—and the doctor—that she should be allowed to nurse him back to health or die trying.  She’s more equipped than Pres’ wife to deal with the slaves, the Creole language, and the down and dirty fighting for food and water that will be required for Pres to survive the fever and Lazaret Island. 

She convinces Amy that she needs to redeem herself for the wicked things she’s done in trying to steal Pres away from her.  His wife reluctantly agrees, and on one level the film ends on a note of self-sacrifice.

But…Bette Davis herself and director William Wyler make the ending more complicated than a simple redemption story.  For though Julie has likely sentenced herself to death, she will be the one at Pres’ side in the end.

She has won.

It is, as writer Edmund Goulding said, “the triumph of bitchery.”

And it’s marvelous.

Want more?  Click here for an index of all posts in this series, as well as source notes and suggested reading.

3 thoughts on “Jezebel (1938): “Triumph of Bitchery”

  1. Pingback: Golden Age of Hollywood Reference List | Melanie Novak

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