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.

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The Lady Eve (1941): “I Need Him Like the Axe Needs the Turkey”

#24 Golden Age of Hollywood Series

There are many good films, fewer great films, and fewer still that are masterpieces.

The Lady Eve is beyond even a masterpiece—it is a perfect film.

If I had a magic wand, I wouldn’t change a thing in writer/director Preston Sturges’ crown jewel of the screwball comedy.  I wouldn’t eliminate any of Henry Fonda’s falls, or soften Barbara Stanwyck’s revenge.  I wouldn’t add in explicit love scenes or four-letter-words forbidden by the production code.

And I’d cut off the hand of anyone who tried to change one word of Preston Sturges’ sparkling script.  It delights in making a fool of Henry Fonda and using innuendo-laced dialogue to subvert every rule of the censors.

The setup is simple enough:  Jean Harrington (Barbara Stanwyck) and her father (Charles Coburn perfect in his supporting role) are card sharps out to fleece the rich but naive Charles Pike, an absent minded scientist who studies snakes and is a reluctant brewery heir.

Charles doesn’t have a chance against Jean’s conniving, but the trick is on Jean when she falls in love with him.  

Thus far it’s a standard romantic comedy plot, though there is nothing standard in Barbara Stanwyck’s tough girl melting in the face of love performance.

Before she can confess and go straight, Charles discovers her duplicity and calls off their engagement.

And here’s where things get interesting.

Jean’s heart hardens right back up—or does it?—and she crafts a revenge plot of bold brilliance and exquisite simplicity.  She’ll don a fancy wardrobe and a British accent and convince him she’s Lady Eve Sidwich, his perfect mate.  And then once she has him on the line, she’ll dash his illusions about the lovely and virginal Lady Eve.

It’s impossible to pick the best moment in the movie.  Every scene is a present unwrapped before the audience to reveal a brilliant cut diamond of humor, wit, and star power.

The film opens with Jean bonking Charles on the head with an apple, a moment loaded with the biblical implications of temptation.

Then there’s the iconic scene of Jean scoping out Charles in her compact mirror and giving a mocking play-by-play of the fortune hunting women who strike out with the shy bookworm.  Stanwyck plays it with just the perfect dose of cynical amusement.

Charles meets Jean

There’s Jean seducing him in her cabin with the description of her ideal mate, falling in love during a moonlight walk, and Jean cheating her father at cards to keep him from cheating Charles.

Jean ends the first act crying with heartbreak and begins the second vowing her revenge with the line, “I need him like the axe needs the turkey.”

She orchestrates an invitation to the Pike mansion as Lady Eve and completely befuddles poor Charles.  Her brazen confrontation is better than the best disguise.

Charles meets the Lady Eve Sidwich

On top of that, you’ve got Charles ignoring his manservant who correctly insists, “it’s positively the same dame.”  And a wayward horse who keeps interrupting a tender moment Charles has planned with Eve.

And then there’s…oh, watch it yourself, why don’t you?

And then tell me if you find a false note.  I sure didn’t.

Writer/director Preston Sturges wrote the part specially for Stanwyck after working with her on Remember the Night.  Jean Harrington was based on the antics of his own mother, and being raised with a woman even remotely like Jean Harrington meant that Preston Sturges lived a colorful life and was full of stories.  Stanwyck, Fonda, and Sturges all reported having a blast on the set of The Lady Eve, and I think that playfulness shines through in the finished film.

Stanwyck hadn’t done comedy before.  She typically played gold diggers, or tough young girls pulling themselves up in the world by the force of their will.  The Lady Eve opened up a whole new genre for her, and she was ultimately nominated for an Oscar for her screwball comedy Ball of Fire, made the same year. 

She’s great in Ball of Fire, but The Lady Eve is in another league.  It’s a cut above the other comedies of the 1940s, and a cut above the comedies made today.  She lost the Oscar that year to Joan Fonatine in Hitchock’s Suspicion.  There’s no shame in losing to Fontaine, but I have my own suspicion that if she’d been nominated for The Lady Eve she would’ve won.

By 1941, Stanwyck was proving herself one of Hollywood’s most versatile actresses.  She’d been hard as steel as Lily Powers in the pre-code Baby Face, break-your-heart vulnerable in Stella Dallas, and laugh out loud funny in The Lady Eve and Ball of Fire.

She already had a career that would cement her place in Hollywood history.

Yet she was cruising toward her most famous role at ninety in a state with a speed limit of forty-five miles an hour.

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