Jezebel (1938)

There's a key difference between Julie and Scarlett, the two manipulative women from epics about the civil war—separated by only a year in their release: the difference being that I don't think that Scarlett can help it. Much like the "Gone with the Wind" protagonist, Julie (Bette Davis) seems to get her kicks by making the men squirm as she controls situations better than a puppeteer. She takes and gives just enough to have everyone eating from her hand, anything less is unacceptable. For whatever reason, the Civil War is a perfect time to showcase horrible women so in that way "Jezebel" could seem like a flimsy copyright free version of Margaret Mitchell's book.
At the movie's beginning, we are to assume that Julie is the talk of the town...since everyone can't stop talking about her, that's reason enough to believe them. They chit-chat, in a bar of all places—gasp—about the romantic doings of the girl. After much loud talk and period piece references, we get catapulted over to a party that Julie has thrown herself. Cousins, aunts, uncles, and friends arrive all very prim and proper, happy in the traditions of New Orleans.
The northern manners are considered vulgar and modern, they are spurned. Imagine everyone's surprise when Julie shows up late to her party wearing her riding clothes—gasp! Not having time to change, Julie relies on her charm and faux bubbly personality to win people over. The Southerners smile at her face and throw daggers at her back when she's gone...the gossip has never been more disgusting or more truthful.
The man who Julie is engaged to is Preston Dillard (Henry Fonda). This is actually the second time that they have been engaged, the first time didn't seem to work out; yet Julie's claws had sunk deep enough into Preston's skin that it brings him back for more. He's a successful and honest banker who is in a very important meeting when Julie comes to fetch him so he can watch her have a dress fitting. He tells her he's sorry and to run along.
That is not a good answer. She storms into the bank and her manipulation begins. She lies and flirts, bats her eyes and scowls, pulls every trick out of her bag to make him suffer and suffer her does, but he sticks with his job.
Going off to the dress fitting, Julie decides that she will buy a red dress—gasp!—instead of a white one. She will wear it to a ball where everyone will be. You see, it's just not normal for an unmarried girl to wear anything but white at a ball—Julie will appear like a harlot.
But she wants to make her fiance suffer so she buys the dress anyways.
It's this dress that makes everything fall apart.
Preston is told that he should beat Julie with a stick and that she'll love it, he considers it for a long time but never carries through with this thought. Still, there is an underlying misogyny to the picture that is never overshadowed by the redemptive nature of the ending.
Bette Davis is conniving and fun, but my main problem lies with how the movie handles the situations. A red dress is scandalous enough to ignite and entire town's gossip and a slap on the face becomes way much more. It's a movie about the times it was made, yet it feels very much like a 20th century take on the 19th century. At one point a character ever screams out "It's 1852. It's 1852!" just in case we were in doubt about anything.
Broiled for us is Southern tradition which is showcased as pig-headed and ignorant.
The emotion of "Jezebel" is what is surprising. It's a fascinating work in character growth and despair; but beyond that, it gets a little too odd and too melodramatic for its own good.

Score: ★★½

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