Bette Davis’ Julie Marsden is a clear attempt by Warner Bros. to preempt and deflate the upcoming Gone with the Wind mania. Like Scarlett O’Hara, Julie is a headstrong woman, willing to flaunt the rigid conventions of the pre-Civil War South (New Orleans this time, instead of Atlanta). Unlike the more well-known 1939 picture, Jezebel is not an idealized tribute to the antebellum South. Instead it uses the strict social rules of that time and place to think about the true definition of courage.
Engaged to weak-willed Preston (Henry Fonda), Julie pressures the lovesick young man to support her often scandalizing decisions. After Preston breaks an engagement with her to help her choose a dress, she commits to her most egregious escapade when she chooses a flaming red dress to wear to the Olympus Ball. This causes pearl-clutching and hand-wringing throughout her family. Unmarried women, you see, never wear anything but white to the Olympus Ball. Julie’s aunt (Fay Bainter) begs her to reconsider, but she refuses; she will teach Preston a lesson.
She bullies Preston into acquiescence after he refuses to take her by questioning his manhood, courage, and honor. Isn’t he, she asks, just afraid someone will insult her and he would be forced to defend her honor in a duel? Apparently Preston is fed up with Julie’s manipulations and, when she begins to get cold feet as they approach the ball, he forces her to go in. And when everyone stares at her, refusing to dance on the same floor as her, he forces her to continue dancing on the empty floor, wanting her to experience all the consequences of her actions first hand.
This caprice is the last straw for the long suffering Preston. His break with Julie plunges her into a depression as she realizes she treated the man she loved much worse than he deserved and, maybe more importantly, she can’t always get what she wants through sheer force of will. But whatever positive changes his departure caused in Julie, his return with a new fiancée brings out the old manipulative woman, claws and all. Her actions however, playing one admirer off another, leads to a tragic duel.
Though this sounds like a fairly sappy love story, it is actually an unusually thoughtful film out of Hollywood. Director William Wyler uses this conventional melodramatic narrative to explore the fine line between courage and cowardice. How easy it is, Wyler tells us, to mistake one for the other. Sometimes the most courageous-looking act can be inspired by cowardice, and the most cowardly inspired by courage. All the men who scramble to defend Julie’s honor fight in pointless duels, one of the many silly ways men have been showing off their masculinity throughout history. To refuse to fight, to refuse to take part in an inane ritual that proves nothing except its participants are slaves to appearance rather than what they know to be right, would mean being branded a coward. Taking part in the duel would mean he is actually a coward while being considered manly and brave.
It’s an interesting dichotomy that is never – and probably never can be – resolved. Even the motivation of Julie’s final, selfless act that will probably result in her death is unclear. Is her decision proof of her undying love for Preston or is it a way to stick it to his new fiancée and everyone else who ever doubted her? It isn’t clear to us and, I would venture to guess, she probably doesn’t know herself.
Jezebel is both entertaining and thoughtful with a fine performance by Bette Davis. In many ways the movie is superior to the misguided tribute to the South we will see in Gone with the Wind next year. There is no glorification of the antiquated system of chivalry that demanded men fight in duels for the smallest perceived insults. Jezebel condemns any system that supersedes a man’s right to make his own decision, one of the many flaws of the antebellum South that Gone with the Wind glosses over or ignores. (Most egregiously, of course, would be its depiction of sugarcoated slavery.) Jezebel verges on greatness (though it settles for being very good) for its skillful melding of thoughtfulness and entertainment. It deserves to be remembered as more than the second film for which Davis won the Academy Award. It stands well on its own accord.