Wednesday, November 12, 2014

William Wyler | Jezebel

an intimate conversation about a man
by Douglas Messerli

Clements Riley, Albern Finkel, and John Huston, screenplay, based on a stage play by Owen Davis), William Wyler (director) Jezebel / 1938

Everyone remembers William Wyler’s 1938 film, Jezebel, for Bette Davis’ masterful performance (she won her second Oscar for the movie), and in particular for the bright red dress she wears to the ball celebrating the eligible young women of New Orleans—this, despite the fact that the movie was filmed in black-and-white. Although Davis’ character, Julie Marsden, has decided on the red dress—despite the requirements that all young women appear in white—to stand out from the others and, it appears, to punish her fiancĂ©, Preston Dillard (Henry Fonda), for putting his banking business ahead of their planned shopping trip, she is so shunned at the event that her usual disdain for what others think forsakes her. Ready to flee the the event, she is forced by Dillard to play out the dance; and when the event is over, so is their relationship.
     Indeed, so dramatically compact is this series of events, which represents approximately the first third of the film, that we might almost perceive this sequence as a movie unto itself. But to do so would be to miss the point of the picture. For Jezebel is not just a film about a high-spirited and independent-thinking woman—although those issues are of crucial importance to the entire film—but is an indictment against a whole way of thinking that Julie represents. As a member of the Southern patrician class, Julie, like her alter-ego Buck Cantrell (the dashing George Brent), waltzes through life with entrenched values that are unable be swayed by others. If Cantrell uses his in-bred sense of privilege to dismiss (and even kill) those men around him who speak against his values, Julie uses that same sense of superiority to manipulate the men courting her, gradually teaching and inculcating within them not only the values of her world—values, which as we witness in the incident of the red dress, she is only too ready to dismiss—but forcing them to bow before the shrine to femininity that she has manufactured for herself. Julie is not so much an individual, despite her spirited expression of self-will, but an institution, a representative of the Southern Belle—always a dangerous figure in literature and film, perhaps even in reality!
    If Cantrell shares her closed and archaic values, he is unwilling to publicly express his independence from them. He refuses to take Julie to the ball, not only because she is dressed in red, but because she is already committed to Dillard. Like all the others, he too refuses to accept her as a partner in dance. The only time he allows himself to be used in her personal machinations—in the purposeful taunting of Dillard and his Yankee wife, Amy (Margaret Lindsay), over their Northern thinking patterns—results in his death. But that too, after a meaningless gun duel between himself and Dillard’s brother, Ted (Richard Cromwell), is a complication of his doomed cultural perspective.
     In Julie’s contradictions, in her insistence upon the old order while simultaneously refusing to behave by its precepts, she is not only marvelously unpredictable—always the perfect role for Davis—but is immensely powerful. In a world in which men and women behave only according to tradition, her self-motivated willfulness sets her apart, while marking her as a figure not only of power but of danger, a woman who not only can manipulate those around her but destroy them. As the writers make clear, however, it is just such values and the possibilities of manipulating those who hold them that dooms the South in the years ahead.
     Unlike the movie for which Davis had just been passed over, Gone with the Wind, Jezebel chooses not to focus on the inevitable North-South war but plays out an even grander struggle between human will and fate. Fate, hovering over every frame of Jezebel, metaphorically exists in the very land itself: an over-heated, below sea-level country plagued with mosquitoes, the then unknown cause of the Yellow Fever outbreak of 1853.

     Cases of the fever began to appear in May of that year, but were ignored because the numbers were similar to the quantity of annual outbreaks. But by June, when the cases increased, the city council had still failed to act and had adjourned. By July, with the increase of extremely hot weather and rains, the fever grew into plague-like dimensions. Believing that the major cause of the disease was the lack of ozone in the air, heavy cannons were ordered to fired off at regular intervals to purify the air by the Board of Health. Barrels filled with tar were burned throughout the city after sunset. Both of these incidents are portrayed in the movie without explanation.
     Most of the sick were sent away to the Leper Island, since authorities believed that contact with the sick spread the fever. The fever killed as many individuals as the Great Plague of London: in all, 7,849 people.

     It is within this context that we witness the major actions of Wyler’s film. Once Dillard, the man whom Julie still loves—despite and, in her warped view of reality, perhaps because of his marriage—falls ill, this forceful woman suddenly comes into her own, working with her servant as opposed to merely overseeing his labors in order to return to the city, circumventing roadblocks by journeying via boat through the swamps. If previously she sought to dominate and control Dillard, she now transforms herself into a Florence Nightingale-like nurse, sitting up throughout the night to care him, placing wet towels upon his forehead and applying drops of water to his lips. It is far more sexy than their earlier attempts to kiss.
     The arrival of Dillard’s wife, brother, her aunt and others does not deter her, but Dillard’s doctor-friend (Donald Crisp) has already reported the illness, still obedient to tradition and the rules like those of his ilk,—even though we know his science was mistaken. Amy’s sudden decision to travel with him to Leper Island, however, almost changes everything, revealing her to also be a strong woman, willing to give up her own life to succor her husband. And at the moment Julie is finally forced to face the fact that she has met a woman as forceful as she is.
    The stand-off between the two women on the staircase of the Marsden mansion is the focal-point of this near operatic melodrama. If Ernst Lubitsch is a director of doors, as I argued (see my essay on his film Angel), Wyler might be described as a director of staircases—a central place of action or movement in nearly all of his films. The director poses these two feminine forces in a significant placement, the pure and innocent Amy higher than the guilty, plotting, and now imploring Julie. Julie hopes to convince Amy that she should accompany Dillard instead of his wife, who has no knowledge of the conditions she will encounter or of the culture (evidently involved with knowing ways to cajole the needed help from the Blacks) of the South. She will be more able to help Dillard, Julie argues, than the well-intentioned wife.
     Amy, no longer playing the polite innocent, however, recognizes that in her plea Julie is also attempting to conquer and control Dillard even upon what may be his death bed. And, accordingly, she demands to know whether or not her husband still loves Julie. The interchange is a tense one, for even we are not certain whether Dillard still loves Julie, despite his obvious loyalty to Amy. This scene represents why Wyler was so often described as a “women’s director,” for it portrays quite an exceptional encounter between the women—what we might describe as an intimate conversation about a man—that generally does not exist between two straight men. (Just such a conversation between men, in fact, would likely have resulted in a challenge to duel within the context of this film.) And Julie’s answer, after her opening statement, “We both know the answer to that question, don’t we?” is somewhat shocking, for if Amy is uncertain, so too are we; even if she is lying, Julie’s insistence that Amy still remains at the center of Dillard’s life frees Amy to give over her husband to Julie’s care, and, just perhaps, represents the first unselfish act of Julie’s life. In that admission, moreover, Julie bows to a woman, for the first time in her life, who has more power than her.*
     We still don’t quite know, as Julie joins Dillard on the wagon to what we can imagine may certainly be death, whether the woman is seeking a perverse kind of revenge against Amy, or whether, having truly met her match, she is now attempting to “cleanse” her life, as she expresses it. The fact is that, whether or not Dillard survives, Julie has stolen at least his body from Amy even in the process of admitting her defeat. And the final ending credits leave us with one of the most open-ended of films of the period. A  few years later, Lee would surrender to Grant, but the values that Lee expounded, would not entirely be laid to rest until at least a century later, the remnants of which exist even today.

Los Angeles, November 12, 2014
Reprinted from World Cinema Review (November 2014).

*Julie has previously bowed to a man (Dillard), but throughout the film she is nearly always positioned above and in front of the women figures. Although nothing is truly altered in possessing the information that both Davis and Wyler would have had—that Margaret Lindsay, within Hollywood circles, was recognized as a lesbian—the intensity of the two actors’ relationship on the stairs is subtly fraught with issues of sexuality, power, and liberation in way that is as meaningful as perceiving, I would argue, that Cary Grant, while performing in films like Bringing Up Baby and My Favorite Wife, was actively gay.

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