by Scott Winfield Sublett
A reliable escape from the current horror show of life in these United States is the streaming of old movies, and a zeitgeisty choice is the 1938 Bette Davis vehicle Jezebel, a mesmerizing melodrama that climaxes with an epidemic. No, really – you want to see this epidemic.
Jezebel was Jack Warner’s revenge on David O. Selznick, who didn’t cast Warner Brothers contract players Bette Davis and Errol Flynn, perfect casting, in what the following year would become the most successful movie of all time: Gone With the Wind. Jezebel shared with GWTW not only the moonlit, magnolia-scented antebellum milieu, but also the same cinematographer, Ernest Haller, and composer, the stirring Max Steiner, of whom Davis once said, “Damn that Max. He always gets to the top of the stairs before I do.” (She also said, “Max knows more about film drama than any of us.”) Jezebel furthermore had John Huston dialogue and direction by William Wyler (The Best Years of Our Lives, The Heiress), peerless when it came to two things: staging scenes and eliciting star performances. Jezebel would be Davis’s second Oscar.
Completely overshadowed today by GWTW, Jezebel was a big hit, and is the more interesting film. Sure, Scarlett O’Hara was a revelation to a generation of submissive Southern females shocked to see a Southern woman unapologetically go for it. Audiences love characters who know what they want and break rules to get it. Scarlett was nothing if not that, but her spoiled willfulness is simply the entitlement of wealth and beauty. On the other hand, Bette Davis’s “Miss Julie” (the echo of Strindberg’s perverse heroine is unmistakable) was complex, and perhaps even a pathological narcissist—her imperious ruthlessness a cover for self-hatred, insecurity and abandonment issues, and her scope of action magnified by wealth and privilege. She’s an interestingly sick woman whose psychology is startlingly reminiscent of Donald Trump.
Some movies are so moment-to-moment suspenseful that foreknowledge of plot developments doesn’t spoil the pleasure. That’s true of most of Hitchcock and Ozu, and of Jezebel, too. Plot secrets will be spilled farther down this column, but the movie will still be well worth streaming, not only to see how an epidemic of the 1850s was viewed in the 1930s, but also how something as close to the bone to us today as an epidemic, viewed through the lens of Camp, is simultaneously dramatically engrossing and distant enough to be not only bearable but pleasurable. Jezebel works both as melodrama and Camp. Not laugh-out-loud Camp, but you smile and rejoice at its aesthetic excess. “I’ve been to Paris France, and Paris Paramount. Paris Paramount is better,” the incomparable Ernst Lubitsch once said, unembarrassedly embracing the vulgar artifice of Hollywood’s Golden Age. People went to the pictures to escape The Great Depression, and the stylization on the screen made even scary things divertingly unreal. Hence, the over-the-top beauty of Jezebel, stuffed with expensive antiques, gorgeous Orry-Kelly dresses and graceful mise en scènes. A nice switch from the soup kitchen next door.
Watching Bette Davis, you’re fully in the story while at the same time being constantly aware of the actress’s performance. It’s different from “Brechtian distancing,” which (supposedly) makes the audience pay attention to the message by reminding them that it’s just a play, an artificial construct, so don’t sluttishly lose your hearts to mere narrative: in Brechtian distancing you remain critically engaged (again, theoretically) because when an actor breaks the fourth wall, directly addresses the audience, reminding you it’s play, that Brechtian distancing interrupts your pleasure. Camp, conversely, reminds you of artifice by giving you a superfluity of it. “Camp,” wrote Susan Sontag, is “seeing the world as an aesthetic phenomenon…not in terms of beauty, but in terms of the degree of artifice, of stylization…” Davis’s fierce, dense, over-the-top acting is, of course, Camp in the classic sense of the word: gorgeously over-aestheticized, too much of a great thing, full of conviction but also of conscious choices, choices, choices, most conspicuously Davis’s frequently eccentric inflections of the dialogue.
There’s a lot to forgive about the movie, mostly to do with race. The scene where Miss Julie leads the field slaves in song, to distract her dinner guests from one of her more evil ploys, is cringy because the slaves are a little too happy. Julie’s domestics are dignified, loyal, solicitous and, in the house style of Warner Brothers (think of the saloon singer Sam in Casablanca four years later), permitted to interact with white characters in a way that is at least somewhat familiar and personal. Warner was the most progressive studio of the day and Wyler was a passionate liberal, so one may assume that the attitudes in Jezebel were the best that could be had at the time, and at least the slaves aren’t portrayed as quite the clowns and morons they are in Gone With the Wind. And despite the necessity of selling the film in the South, Wyler sneaks in a moment where a character from the North reacts with a look of horrified disgust at the servile position of the blacks.
When yellow fever hits – it dominates the second half of the film – Wyler has the superimposed words “Yellow Jack” practically jump off the screen in a way that makes you wish the movie were in 3-D. It’s a German Expressionist stylization one wouldn’t dare try today. The epidemic gets so bad that the infected are to be sent to hellish Lazaret Island, quarantined with the lepers.
“Why, it ain’t civilized to condemn Christian people to Lazaret Island,” says Miss Julie’s Aunt Belle. “They won’t have a chance at all.” Wyler doesn’t stint on the horror of an infected society in chaos. Hard drinking, riotous frenzy, smoke, fire, and the cannons booming to dispel the “miasma” that causes the fever. Horse carts and gurneys of dead and dying flow, stately, down the filthy, torchlit street, all so magnificently staged by Wyler that, even watched in the midst of a pandemic, you can’t look away. The ugliness is beautiful. Just as Hitchcock’s aestheticization of murder tames it, puts it in its place as just an
other narrative element, making the moment subservient to the overall story (think of Strangers on a Train, with the strangling reflected in cat’s eye glasses), so does Wyler make nightmarish beauty.
Then, Pres (Henry Fonda), the man Miss Julie loved but, thanks to her own bullheadedness, lost to a “washed out little Yankee,” gets the fever. Bette braves the armed sentries and the swamp to break the fever line and reach New Orleans so she can nurse him. He’s to be sent to the island like everyone else because, as Donald Crisp as the family doctor intones, “Do you have any idea what would happen to New Orleans now if folks got to thinking there was one law for the rich and another for the poor?”
Julie implores Pres’s Yankee wife for the right to accompany Pres to the island to fight for his life – to redeem herself with one, noble act. “Of course, it’s your right to go, you’re his wife,” Miss Julie says. “But are you fit to go? Lovin’ him isn’t enough. If you gave him all your strength, would it be enough? Amy. Amy, do you know the Creole word for fever powder? For food and water? How to talk to a sullen, overworked black boy and make him fear you and help you? Pres and your life will hang on things just like that and you’ll both surely die…I’ll make him live. I will. Whatever you might do, I can do more. Cause I know how to fight better than you.” In the end, there’s Bette, chin up, seated on a cart amid the dying with an erectness that bespeaks her training and determination as the slowly clattering hooves pull them toward horror, maybe death, certainly redemption – or is this just Miss Julie’s way of winning in the end? Pan to the street in flames. If it’s Camp, why are my cheeks this damp?