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Jezebel (1938)
Half angel, half siren, all woman.
Director: William Wyler

In 1850s Louisiana, the willfulness of a tempestuous Southern belle threatens to destroy all who care for her.

Jezebel (1938)

Suffrage, Suffering

I’m fickle, I admit, about context and films. Sometimes I watch them as they come to me today, and sometimes the other way around, as they (I imagine) appeared in their original context. This one is the rare project that prompts both.

I’m seeing it 67 years after it was made. It was made 84 years after the period depicted, so there’s nearly as much time between me and it as there is between it and its story. Only 17 years before it was made were women able to vote! Bette Davis was already in puberty before her sex was enfranchised.

So not only was Bette a “difficult” woman, like the character she played, but her countrymen were just as dim about “tradition” as the dolts in the film. So when Julie defiantly wore that red dress — and why not? — it had to hit a chord in 1938 that has no meaning at all today. All we see is a truculent character instead of a deep film archetype. And that business about the double forgiveness, first in the white dress and later in the leper colony (!) and certain death… that must have resonated with heavy ambiguity in its time.

Oh well, what that means is that instead of being a film that transports you to another dimension, it prompts you to go there by other means.

I have a database of movies where directors direct actresses with whom they are making love. This is one is an interesting case. It is ordinary in the sense that the director made her look more beautiful than she ever did elsewhere. But it is unique in that she was sleeping with the director though both were married to others, and in the process cheated on him with the fellow (Brent) who plays the Confederate dolt. One could nearly say that the story is about his character, not Bette’s.

Watch how the Jezebel uses him against the banker, while her puppeteer Bette was using his puppeteer (Brent) against the puppeteer of them both (Wyler).

Posted in 2005

Ted’s Evaluation — 3 of 3: Worth watching.


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