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Tuesday, December 9, 2008

A Closer Look At Jezebel (1938) Part I

Director: William Wyler
Starring: Bette Davis, Henry Fonda

Maybe I’m weird, but I’ve never been inclined to see Bette Davis as the villain of Jezebel. I don’t know that I’d go so far as to call her a hero, but at the very least she’s a victim of rigid societal rules and expectations which guarantee that no matter what she does, she’s bound to lose in some way. William Wyler’s film is interesting on a number of levels, but particularly in its exploration of the fuzzy morality which makes the oppression of entire sections of the population feasible. The picture it paints of a woman’s place in the world is bleak, but it deftly illuminates the often fraught relationship between women and “society.”

The film begins on a theme which will inform the rest of the story: Antebellum Southern chivalry. When Julie’s name is brought up in a bar as a way of teasing Buck Cantrell (George Brent), Buck takes offense to it, deeming it disrespectful. Buck challenges his rival to a duel in order to defend Julie’s honour, though he later admits that as far as he’s concerned the duel has nothing to do with Julie and everything to do with the fact that he just generally dislikes his rival. This is the first glimpse we get of “chivalry” as a means of healing wounded male pride disguised as protecting the delicate sensibilities of women, but it won’t be the last. This first scene also establishes the general opinion that Preston Dillard (Henry Fonda) will need to keep “a tight rein” on Julie, his intended bride. When we first meet Julie, she’s riding a colt that hasn’t yet been broken. The implication of this is pretty clear: like the colt, Julie is wild and must be broken before she can be of any proper use.

Preston and Julie are an on-again, off-again couple who are currently on and engaged. Julie’s headstrong ways, however, are a constant stumbling block and their battle of wills comes to a head the night of the annual Olympus Ball. It is customary for all unmarried women to wear white to the ball, but Julie decides that she will wear red. Preston reluctantly escorts her to the ball and, as expected, her dress creates a scandal. People literally shrink away from her as if she has a contagious disease. There’s an interesting shot in this sequence, as Preston and Julie dance, where Davis, who is wearing a low-cut dress which leaves her shoulders bare, is framed in such a way that it appears as if she’s wearing nothing at all. She might as well be naked, she’s so indecent to the people around her. Mortified, Julie wants to leave but Preston insists that they stay, thus prolonging Julie’s humiliation. Afterward he leaves her and goes to New York to attend to business. A year later he returns to find a chastened Julie, who declares herself ready to submit to his will and judgment. There’s just one problem: he’s returned married to Amy (Margaret Lindsay), a New Yorker. Julie, however, isn’t deterred and is convinced that his marriage is only a small obstacle impeding their reunion, which she believes to be inevitable.

The relationship between Preston and Julie is closely tied to and influenced by the traditions of chivalry, which the film shows to be very contradictory in nature. Time and again the concept of a woman’s honour is invoked in order to justify bad behaviour towards women. Preston’s friend, Dr. Livingstone (Donald Crisp) decries the lack of “respect for Southern womanhood” in Preston’s generation by telling him that the only way to deal with a difficult woman is to beat her then buy her some jewellery to put her in her place. Following this conversation, Preston pays Julie a visit, making sure to bring a cane, which he abandons when he sees her. As the scene progresses, she puts him in his place and remarks as he leaves that he “forgot [his] stick.” It’s a scene of emasculation which suggests that a man who can’t “control” his woman isn’t really a man at all. Julie’s desire to think for herself, which means undermining the traditions and conventions of her society, is not just a sign of her “badness,” but also a reflection of Preston’s weakness.

The key scene in the film, the one which solidifies Julie’s badness, is the duel between Buck and Preston’s brother, Ted (Richard Cromwell). With some prodding from Julie, Buck and Preston spend an evening circling around each other, setting the stage for a fight. When Preston is called into the city to tend to business matters, Ted steps in to take his place and he and Buck agree to a duel. Julie, realizing that things have gotten out of hand, tries to talk them both out of it, but both stubbornly insist on following through with it. When all is said and done and Buck ends up dead, Ted rails at Julie, placing the blame firmly at her feet. What is actually a matter of obstinate male pride is chalked up to Julie’s “evil” streak. Buck and Ted are given multiple opportunities to walk away from this fight, both of them know that the reason behind it is fraudulent and contrived, and yet they’re determined to go through with it and this is Julie’s fault. Despite the fact that as a woman in 1852 she has no tangible rights and whatever power and influence she has rests precariously on her ability to live up to societal expectations, she’s held responsible for the actions of two independent men.

Even though the film endorses patriarchal norms by structuring its story around the tried and true formula of an unconventional woman who overreaches and is punished and ultimately redeemed, I think that in the final analysis, the film is on Julie’s side. Yes, she is penalized for her initial refusal to conform and for her later manipulations, but her redemption directly arises from her disobedience. Sneaking across the fever lines, she returns to New Orleans to tend to Preston and then accompanies him to the island where fever victims are being sent, an island populated by lepers. It isn’t simply a moment of redemption, it’s a moment of incredible courage in which her contravention of the rules is presented as admirable.

Since this has run on a bit long and there’s still so much I want to touch on, I’ve decided to split it into two parts. Tomorrow my focus will be on the film’s problematic treatment of race and how it ties in to the film's view of gender relations.


The Rush Blog said...

It’s a scene of emasculation which suggests that a man who can’t “control” his woman isn’t really a man at all. Julie’s desire to think for herself, which means undermining the traditions and conventions of her society, is not just a sign of her “badness,” but also a reflection of Preston’s weakness.

Preston Dillard was no weak man. He was no Ashley Wilkes. And the fact that he rejects the doctor's advice to use a can on Julie says more about his strength than anything. I find it disturbing that you would regard his decision not to use the cane as a reflection of his "weakness".

Norma Desmond said...

The post is one part of a close reading of the themes and subtext of the film and the sentence that you're quoting is part of an examination of the way that the film uses certain signifiers to code the primary male and primary female characters in certain ways in order to express meaning. It has literally nothing to do with my personal feelings about the characters. I find it disturbing that someone who writes about film could so completely misunderstand the point of a post which ends by referring to "the film's view of gender relations."