Jezebel (1938)

I Do Believe I’ll Give Room Service A Jangle And Have Them Send Up Some Étouffée

***This Review Contains Spoilers***

The antebellum south of the United States often makes the perfect setting for stories of decadence and doom as history has shown it wasn’t going to last. The Spanish moss hanging in the moonlight, the sounds of mockingbirds in the magnolia to the grand sweeping plantations and even the occasional utterance of Cajun French conjures a world which one can become lost in, but one of which it’s iconic architecture would later become associated with the dark genre of southern gothic in its future state of disrepair. This is the world present within the costume drama Jezebel, of which there are plenty of costumes and plenty of drama.

Bette Davis stars as the headstrong and manipulative southern belle Miss Julie Marsden. Contrary to the film’s title, the character is not actually called Jezebel. Rather this is the name given to her by her Aunt Massey (Fay Bainter) following Miss Julie’s less-than-stellar behaviour. The name is derived from the biblical figure present in Kings I and II, in which Jezebel is portrayed as an evil queen who engages in idolatry and leads men astray. In modern vernacular, a Jezebel is a woman who is regarded as sexually immoral or manipulative. Miss Julie Marsden resides within the upper class of New Orleans circa 1852, a world in which etiquette, dignity, good manners and dress codes are absolutely paramount and taken extremely seriously (“Punctuality is the politeness of kings”). Take the latter dinner scene at the Halcyon plantation (sounds like a ship from a science-fiction movie), tension is gradually created from the gentlemen’s political disagreements as the mood becomes increasingly passive-aggressive yet never is a voice raised. Miss Julie on-the-other-hand is a woman who likes to do as she pleases and gets a kick out of shocking people. From her character’s introduction, Miss Julie chooses to break the rules of the game by arriving at her own party late and wearing inappropriate clothes while shortly afterwards, the symbolism employed by her walking through the city bank to get her fiancé Preston Dillard (Henry Fonda) is on stark display.

The main driver of conflict in the first act of Jezebel is over an infamous red dress which Miss Julie chooses to wear to the Olympus Ball. The expectation of southern society being that only unmarried girls wear white but Miss Julie rebuffs this with her current year argument, “This is 1852, dumpling. 1852, not the dark ages”. No one in the film outright says it, but this is a whore’s dress, one which women wear in the gambling halls, steeped in the colour of both sexual sin and menstrual blood, not appropriate for a young, virginal woman of the upper class. Jezebel was made under the Production Code and the closest anyone gets to making the aforementioned connection is Julie’s rebuttal to Preston’s horrified reaction to the dress, “Are you afraid somebody will take me for one of those girls from Gallatin Street?”. I do find some unintentional humour is derived from the fact that so much hubbub is made from this dress being red, yet the movie is black & white (reminds me of that colourblind gag in Tim Burton’s Ed Wood), however in reality the dress in question was actually bronze. Miss Julie comes to regret her decision to wear the red dress to the ball, but Preston makes her go through with it, forcing her to live out the nightmare she has created. Speaking off moments which straddle the line of the production code, when Preston takes the cane up to Julie’s room to supposedly thrash her, the scene appears to linger on that thought. As Julie tries to play mind games with Preston she glances at the cane four times (with the camera even lingering on it for a mid-shot) as though she’s half expecting him to use the phallic device. As a result, the scene has an almost erotic vibe to it. 

The young and dashing Henry Fonda stars as Preston ‘Pres’ Dillard. As common with many of Fonda’s roles, Pres is a man of great dignity and integrity without ever coming off as being obnoxiously righteous (“I think it was Voltaire who said I disagree with everything you say, and I will defend to the death your right to say it”). A southern-born man with a great love of his homeland, Pres Dillard has adopted the attitude of the northern states and is not content with the quo of the south, desiring civic improvements with railroads and sanitation and although he never outright says it, likely to curry public favour, it’s clear he is an abolitionist. In one key scene, he asks the slave Uncle Cato (Lew Payton) to share a drink with him, to which Cato obliges but only if he takes the drink to another room. Pres even later comes to marry a northern woman in the form of Amy (Margaret Lindsay), a woman who doesn’t have the domineering and rambunctious personality of Miss Julie. As a result of these transgressions, Pres is come to be seen as a traitor and the Uncle Tom by his fellow southern men, in particular Buck Cantrell (George Brent). 

Buck Cantrell is very much the opposite of Pres. The film’s metaphor for southern interests, the man’s foolish gallantry ends up costing him his life in a duel over a petty disagreement. I hadn’t previously thought much of Brent as an actor but his Clark Gable-like swagger in Jezebel makes him a real show stealer while his interplay with Davis really helps bring out the best in him (the virgin Buck Cantrell vs. the chad Preston Dillard, only joking, both are chads in their own way). The north vs. south dynamic as portrayed through the characters of Pres and Buck (9 years prior to the American Civil War) excludes Jezebel as being part of the Lost Cause narrative even if the film does portray slaves as being content with the status quo. The film does offer one of its funniest comedic moments to one of the black actors with his repeated utterance of “yessum” at Mrs. Kendrick’s (Spring Byington) orders upon their arrival at a party. 

Following the film’s first act, Jezebel portrays an America going through a pandemic of yellow fever (or yellow jack as it’s often referred to) as well as being split along ideological and political lines, now doesn’t that sound familiar? In a powerful scene, Pres faints from yellow jack in a bar and all the other men back away from him as fast as they can and cover their mouths, except for Dr. Livingstone (Donald Crisp) who goes over to Pres and asks for one of the men to help him, none of whom are brave enough to go anywhere near the fallen Pres (Livingstone is no social distancing soy boy). Likewise, Livingstone reports Pres as a fever patient to the authorities, resulting in him being taken away to a colony for the unlucky infected known as Lazarette Island, justifying his actions by stating “Have you 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”. Crucially, in an earlier scene during a blink-and-you-miss-it moment, Pres slaps a mosquito in his hand accompanied by a spike in the music just as this occurs. Is this how Pres caught yellow jack? I’ll let you decide.

Jezebel is often compared to fellow antebellum tale Gone With The Wind and parallels between the two are evident, albeit superficial:

– Julie Marsden /Scarlett O’Hara fall for Preston Dillard/Ashley Wilkes, neither of whom can deal with her behaviour.
– Preston/Ashley decides to marry Amy/Melanie, whom is less hassle.
– Julie/Scarlett corners Preston/Ashley in the garden/smoking room and tries to
convince him of her love.
– Julie/Scarlett lives with her disapproving Aunt Belle/Pitty Pat.
– Julie/Scarlett uses Buck Cantrell/Charles Hamilton to try and make Preston/Ashley jealous.
– Julie/Scarlett wears a red dress to a ball/party and scandalizes herself.
– Julie/Scarlett realizes too late that she is responsible for her own lot (Preston dying/Rhett Butler leaving).
– Julie/Scarlett is determined to make good (escorting Preston/getting Rhett back).

It is worth noting that Jezebel as a property actually predates Gone With The Wind, with Jezebel first debuting on stage in 1933 while Gone With The Wind was first published as a novel in 1936. Could the stage version of Jezebel bared any influence from Gone With The Wind and could the film version of Jezebel have taken any influence from the novel of Gone With The Wind?

Director William Wyler holds one of the most impressive resumes in Hollywood history and Jezebel is another showcase of his craftsmanship, in particular, the extravagance on display in the Olympus Ballroom scene. The magnificent set is shown in 360 degrees from multiple camera angles and it’s clear that big bucks have been spent on this production. Reportedly Wyler would do upwards of 40 takes on individual scenes in Jezebel and when you get results such as the manner in which Davis effortlessly lifts up the end of her dress with a riding crop, it appears the agony was worth it. It is also worth noting as a humorous error in geography emanating from the film’s set design; notice how the bar seen throughout the film has stairs going downwards from its street-level entrance. This is not advisable in New Orleans with the city being below sea level.

Bette Davis is an actress I could never bring myself to consider a personal favourite of mine but her ranking as the American Film Institute’s 2nd greatest American female star of all time is hard to argue against. I do prefer her in other films such as Kid Galahad or comedies including Its Love I’m After or The Bride Came C.O.D. in which she presents a more endearing side to her persona. Whereas in films such as Jezebel she is much more cold-hearted and presents the dark side of the feminine form, but there’s no doubt she played these roles to the utmost degree of acting prowess. Miss Julie Marsden was a spoiled brat who had no sense of when and when not to pick her battles, and ultimately got what she deserved. Jezebel concludes with Miss Julie convincing Amy not to go to Lazarette Island with Pres, but rather allowing herself to go instead. The film bills this as the redemption of Miss Julie by displaying a sense of grandeur along with Max Steiner’s sweeping music (which in itself is quite moving), but just how selfless is this act? Is Miss Julie truly trying to repent for her actions by making such a sacrifice and risk catching the disease or is she just trying to make a bold, last-ditch effort to win back Pres in the off chance of his survival? It is up to you my friend, the viewer to decide. Now time to bring this review to a conclusion as this flower is wilting!

Don Juan (1926)

The OG Playboy

***This Review Contains Spoilers***

The opening credits of Don Juan self proclaim the film to be “A Warner Brothers Classic of the Screen”. Well, this self-gratification didn’t aid the film over time as Don Juan has gone down in history more so for its technical achievements over artistic merit, being the first film with a synchronized pre-recorded soundtrack with additional sound effects using the Vitaphone sound-on-disc system (likewise some film fans might recognize Don Juan for footage used in the opening credits of Start the Revolution Without Me from 1970). As a result, viewers can watch the film with the same soundtrack as heard by audiences back in 1926 – not a new score or modern re-recording of the original. The synchronized sound effects themselves don’t add much to the film, nor are they well synced although this was new technology in 1926 so I can’t blame them.

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Don Juan is, however, a good swashbuckling romp in John Barrymore’s attempt to out-Fairbanks Fairbanks. Barrymore is a magnificent figure of a man, pausing every now and then to let everyone get a good look at his iconic profile. Contrary to the likes of Douglas Fairbanks or Errol Flynn, the titular character is less of an escapist fantasy but more of a tragedy in the classic tale of a man whose lust for women is his undoing; arousing from his own mother’s infidelity and his father’s response to such – there’s more implied sex than you can shake a stick at. But this is still a romantic swashbuckler at the end of the day (reportedly with the highest kiss count in film history at a whopping 127), and the film ends with the most classic of romantic images, the man and woman riding off into the sunset, perhaps not as cliché or worn out in 1926?

In classic Cecil B DeMille style, Don Juan is a film of biblical morality but is never a preachy one at that. At the beginning of the film, Juan is courted by sultry women amongst displays of decadence when he is still a child. However, in adulthood, Juan eventually comes to find redemption in Adriana della Varnese (Mary Astor) as the first woman he legitimately falls in love with and must rescue from the clutches of history’s infamous, sadistic Borgia family. The wide-eyed Mary Astor is the face of innocence and virginal purity if there ever was one, as we even see her unconscious body laid down next to a statue of the Virgin Mary just to hammer the point home.

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Among the film’s supporting players includes Willard Louis as Juan’s amusingly effeminate and theatrical attendant Pedrillo. It would make sense to have a gay attendant guide his many affairs when they arrive at Juan’s residence and reassuring each one that she is “the love of his life”. Don Juan also features Myrna Loy in one of her earliest screen appearances. There’s no real meat to her role as Mai, Lady In Waiting as she part takes in background scheming, but it’s great to see her at such an early stage in her career in a number of close-ups and lingering shots as well as many costume changes.

My one major downside to Don Juan is that I’m left wishing for more action, only getting some in the final 20 minutes with a sword duel and a Conte of Monte Cristo style prison escape. At least the film’s money shot does not disappoint, Don Juan’s dive on top of the stairs and onto his foe. It’s filmed in one take with no editing trickery nor does a stunt double appear to be used.

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Don Juan is an example of the excess and opulence present in many silent-era films from the grandiose sets to the never-ending wardrobe of costumes (even all the women still have contemporary 1920’s makeup despite its 15th-century setting). In the words of John Hammond – “We spared no expense”. Watching these movies on a TV at home (or dare I say from a dodgy corner of the internet) really doesn’t do them justice.

Gone With The Wind (1939)

The Great American Movie

***This Review Contains Spoilers***

GWTW

The Great American Movie

So it’s about time I finally got around to reviewing the big cheese itself, the towering achievement of American cinema, those four glorious syllables – Gone With The Wind.

Gone With The Wind testament to how much filmmaking had changed in just 10 years from the beginning of the talkie period. From the astounding cinematic shots such as the long take of the bodies of fallen soldiers lying in the streets of Atlanta to those red Technicolor skies which I could stare at all day to the huge matte paintings which are hard to distinguish from real sets – it’s a world to get lost in (I can even ignore the very clear continuity error at the beginning of the film in which it goes from dusk back to early evening to dusk again). Even those opening titles themselves are breathtaking, let alone for a time when opening titles where comprised of basic on-screen title cards.

Gone With The Wind is a film with a fascinating history as it’s backdrop. The pink elephant in the room however for many modern viewers is the troublesome historical image of the American South both pre and post-antebellum, whether just or unjust. The emphasis on the Wilkes family marrying their cousins doesn’t help things but the real but the real point of contention is the dreaded “R” word, racism. To dismiss Gone With the Wind as a racist film is such a reductive argument, especially when certain commentators liken it to The Birth of a Nation, a film which shows black members in the House of Representatives eating fried chicken. To actually watch Gone With The Wind and study it closely, the way the film examines the racial issues is more 3 dimensional than popular critique contends.

Gone With The Wind is told from the point of view of slave owners who don’t see anything wrong with owning slaves (nor is it ever made clear if the plantation owners start paying their former slaves following the end of the Civil War). The slave owners are a product of their time which the movie doesn’t pass judgment on. Only one line of dialogue in the film deals with the question of morality when it comes to slavery in which Ashley responds to Scarlett’s use of prisoners for labour which implies Ashley sees nothing wrong with slavery providing the slaves are treated well;

“Scarlett, I will not make money out of the enforced labour and misery of others”

“You won’t so particular about owning slaves”

“That was different; we didn’t treat them that way”

I find by far the most interesting aspect of race portrayed in Gone With The Wind is the stark contrast between the black carpetbaggers (northerners who came to the south following the war who were perceived to be exploiting the local populace) and the recently freed slaves who are still childlike, dim-witted and happy to help out their masters of whom they are dependent on. The first black carpetbagger seen in the film is a sharply dressed, liberated northern black man traveling with a white accomplice but more significantly, in a scene not long after this Mammy (Hattie McDaniel) sneers at a pair of African-American carpetbaggers who are wearing fancy suits, smoking cigars and laughing. Mammy, who just had to beg for money along with Scarlett, looks down upon these black men having the time of their lives. While the phrase is not used in the movie, these individuals would be referred to in many quarters as “Uncle Toms”, perceived sellouts to their black brethren. The appearance of independent, well to do black men from the North goes against the narrative of Gone With The Wind being a racist film. I’m not qualified to comment on the historical accuracy of Gone With the Wind or how well it portrayed the time and place it depicts but there’s too much nuance within the film’s depiction to simply shout “wasis!” rather than having a more productive conversation or what the film did or did not do right. To quote the late, great Roger Ebert, “A politically correct “GWTW” would not be worth making, and might largely be a lie.”

The film’s opening prologue and the scenic shots of Tara could be seen as Confederate propaganda with its Utopian presentation of a world alongside the opening prologue which reads;

“There was a land of Cavaliers and Cotton Fields called the Old South. Here in this pretty world, Gallantry took its last bow. Here was the last ever to be seen of Knights and their Ladies Fair, of Master and of Slave. Look for it only in books, for it is no more than a dream remembered, a Civilization gone with the wind.”

Yet if there’s any authorial or filmmaking intent to propagate Confederate lost cause mythology (historical revisionism that the Confederacy’s cause during the civil war was a just and heroic one) it is countered by much of the film’s content. There’s no explicit condemnation of slavery or the confederacy but does the movie have to do this? The biggest so called Uncle Tom in Gone With The Wind is Scarlet O’Hara herself for doing business with the northern carpetbaggers in order to save Tara and rise above poverty. What makes Scarlett O’Hara a character I can empathize with? By many accounts, I shouldn’t as she’s bratty, entitled and manipulative, yet you can’t help but admire her desire to survive and make better of herself despite what onlookers might say (her gumption as Margret Mitchell describes it). Scarlet is shown to have little interest in the southern cause (as does Rhett Butler). This is memorably symbolized in the shot in which war has just been announced as everyone runs frantically through the foyer of Twelve Oaks and Scarlett angrily walks by them as if they aren’t even there. Really the one cause Scarlett is dedicated to is that set of her family of Irish immigrants who came to America and accomplished the American Dream of owning land (“Land is the only thing in the world worth working for, worth fighting for, worth dying for”).

Then there’s my boy, Rhett Butler; the cinematic embodiment alongside Han Solo and Indiana Jones of masculinity and individualism (and what an introductory shot!). Men want to be him and women want to be with him. A man out for himself and a realist doesn’t really believe in the Confederate cause and is by far the most self-aware character in the film. In a defining scene Rhett points out how the south isn’t equipped for war while the other southern gentlemen are blinded by illusions of grandeur and he’s not afraid to call them out on it, while remaining a gentleman the whole time and even removes himself from the meeting after the other gentlemen feel insulted by his comments. Even when Rhett joins the Confederate Army near the end of the war as he describes himself as having a weakness for lost causes, he’s still self-aware of how foolish his actions are. Just before Rhett leaves Scarlet at the carriage after escaping from a burning Atlanta, the film treats us to what I consider the greatest kiss in film history with its layers on intensity; melodramatic dialogue, sweeping music, and the blood-red sky.

Rhett’s actions do however lead to one scene which gets many viewers in a tussle; Rhett’s drunken marital rape of Scarlett after she refuses to have sex with him (not to mention Scarlett is seen the following the morning have enjoyed the experience!) I don’t believe however the film at all rewards or gratifies Rhett for his actions and subtlety condemns it. Not only does Rhett show remorse for his actions the following morning, but the rape is also the final act which leads to the destruction of a marriage which was already on shaky ground.

Leslie Howard’s Ashley Wilkes on-the-other-hand is in many ways the counterpoint of Rhett Butler as the tender, effeminate, proud southerner (with a transatlantic accent, go figure). Ashley is a romantic who is crippled by his nostalgia for the old south. Ashley spends most of the film listlessly adrift through the harsher realities of the reconstruction era. Unlike Scarlett, he has no goals or ambitions for the future. All he can do is remember the elegance of his life as it once was and wish that he could return to those old days. Rounding out the film’s four main cast members is Olivia de Havilland in her undersung performance as Melanie Wilkes, crossing the line of being saintly without ever being sickly. Did she know about Scarlett and Ashley or not? Was she really a saint, or just naive, or perhaps exceptionally wise? Perhaps Melanie knew she could trust Ashley while seeing that Rhett was the right man for Scarlett by trying to promote their relationship. Scarlet is the sister Melanie always wanted with each of them possessing qualities the other lacked, especially during their bond over joint survival during and after the war. Scarlett saved Melanie’s life and Melanie kept her cool under fire in a way that earned Scarlett’s private (though reluctant) admiration. She also did not hesitate to do hard work she never would have had to touch before the war. She was, therefore, more valuable to the family’s survival than Scarlett’s two sisters. Now if only I could do without Prissy (Butterfly McQueen), one of the most cowardly, unlikeable characters ever – and that nails on chalkboard voice! Thankfully Scarlett gives her a good slap! Gone With The Wind is one of few films in which every character, no matter how minor is significant in their own way, with Star Wars or The Ten Commandments being one of few other films which achieve this.

Queen Christina (1933)

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Garbo Reigns!

***This Review Contains Spoilers***

The costume drama, a genre I struggle with; wealthy, upper-class people with problems and conflicts I just can’t summon any interest in. However, there is a handful which I do manage to enjoy and Queen Christina is one of them; what is it about Queen Christina which makes it compelling? The craftsmanship of the underappreciated director Rouben Mamoulian is certainly a factor but ultimately I believe it all comes down to the fascinating individual at the center of the film.

Queen Christina is the role Greta Garbo was born to play, the androgynous, unconventional Swedish film star as the androgynous, unconventional 17th Century Swedish Queen.  Christina is one of the great gender-bending characters in film history, referring to herself in masculine pronouns to having what could be mistaken as the body of a man; just look at those incredibly broad shoulders Garbo possesses when they are exposed. In the opening to Queen Christina her confidant Axel Oxenstierna (Lewis Milestone) speaks of how Christina was brought up as a boy in order to prepare her for the throne. This does raise the question; do positions of power require a sacrifice of feminine virtues? If the role was reversed of a king dressing and living as a woman, just how powerful and noble would such a king come off? Likewise while it is a likely possibility of Christina being bisexual, the girl on girl kiss she shares with Countess Ebba Sparre (Elizabeth Young) never struck me as a particularly romantic kiss and more of a sign of friendship, however, Christina speaking of the two of them going to the county for three nights would certainly imply otherwise. Yet even if you’re the biggest tomboy in the world like Christina, there still exists in her the desire to be a woman with her proclamation to love interest Antonio (John Gilbert) “that it had been so enchanting to be a woman. Not a queen, just a woman in man’s arms”.

The fascinating figure of Queen Christina goes beyond her disregard of social norms. She is a figure of great intellect with her values of personal freedom, the quest for knowledge, self-improvement as well as spending the few spare moments she has reading books (“One can feel nostalgia for places one has never seen” – so true). As a Queen she has a great sense of national pride and has a fierce devotion to the individual citizens of her county; a romanticised depiction of a world leader many of us wish was more of a reality.

The one portion of Queen Christina which puts realism to the side is that in which she escapes from her palace to the country in order to get away from the strain of being a ruler. I enjoy the trope of a public figure in power sneaking out disguised as a commoner as seen in films such as Roman Holiday or The Shoes of the Fisherman. What is hard to shallow however is everyone Christina meets on her escapade including future lover Antonio and the alumni of the inn she spends the night mistaking her for a man. I know it was unusual back then for a woman to ride on horseback, carry a sword and pistol and go to a tavern to drink but she still clearly has the face of a woman. Regardless I can overlook this lack of realism as it doesn’t impair my enjoyment of the film.

John Gilbert shows in Queen Christina that he was an effective presence in talkies (contrary to the popular belief that his failure to make the jump from silent to talkies destroyed his career). I don’t find him quite great but he is good enough. After a night of lovemaking with Antonio, Christina compares the experience to how God must have felt when he created the world; yep, she went there. The ending of Queen Christina on the other hand in one which inspires even if everything is not tied up in a neat bow. It is a tragedy in one sense but with one of the greatest uses of close up in film history of Garbo’s expressionless face looking out to sea, the viewer gets to write their own ending.