Jezebel (William Wyler, USA, 1938)

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Bette Davis’ recompense for having missed out on Gone With the Wind; one of her greatest hits; a legendary performance that’s still the gold standard for screen acting. The film’s themes – the conflict between North and South, the battle of the sexes, the constraints of societal morays on individual identity and expression, the price women pay for over-stepping those limits – all are expressively explored. William Wyler directs with great fluidity — the camera always seems to be craning, gliding, moving in, accenting – and in depth. Yet, it feels restrained – or rather, right: it never feels too much.

Watching the film is an immersive experience, as if one is drifting into a cloud of pure emotion, probably lifted there by Max Steiner’s score. The realm of feeling – complex, understandable, contradictory, ours – feels right on the surface of the film; on its skin; and communicated from there to our own. It’s almost a great film. What stops it from being so in my view is all the happy-clappy slaves singing their joy at the Halcyon plantation. This is by no means the worst offender in its time. In fact one can argue that there’s a context in which it can be seen as liberal and progressive. But it does offend current eyes and ears, at least mine.

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Davis wins and Fonda puts down his ‘stick’.

And yet here is also Davis’ Julie, one of her most popular and celebrated performances, goading Pres (Henry Fonda), challenging his masculinity, confronting convention, proud, arrogant, spoiled, then humiliated and suffering. She’s great, a witch – we don’t know how she achieves what she does; how she communicates such complexity so clearly — and completely bewitching in all her legendary moments: getting off her horse, choosing the red dress, the ball sequence, goading Pres with his ‘stick’ in a phallic battle she wins, the humiliation of her attempts to win him back, her final self-abnegation at the end. A must for anyone interested in great screen acting.

Orry Kelly’s costuming is better than Walter Plunkett’s for Gone With the Wind

The first of three Davis films directed by Wyler, the others being The Letter (1940) and The Little Foxes (1941)

José Arroyo

 

 

2 thoughts on “Jezebel (William Wyler, USA, 1938)

    […] Letter was Davis’ second outing with William Wyler and is, along with Jezebel, an essential film for fans of […]

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    […] genius’. Whilst Judith Traherne is far from Davis finest creation — she’s better in Jezebel and The Letter, amongst many others —  she is definitely a star of fire and genius in Dark […]

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