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!

Dodge City (1939)

A Rootin-Tootin Good Time!

***This Review Contains Spoilers***

A Texas cattle agent witnesses the brutal lawlessness of Dodge City, Kansas and agrees to take up the job of sheriff to clean the town up. If that doesn’t sound like the most stereotypical summary of a western then I don’t know what does. 1939 was the year in which the western went from a B-movie genre to getting the big studio treatment almost overnight and as a result, the inclusion of just about every western trope in Dodge City almost feels slightly comical. We get a train, a stagecoach, cattle drives, a saloon brawl, dancehall girls, an evil gang terrorising the locals, the “new sheriff” in town, a schoolmarm, lynch mobs, a crusading newspaperman, poker games, herds of bison, a climactic shootout, rock and roller, cola wars, I can’t take it anymore! Perhaps the only elements which are missing are a fight with Indians and big ol’ saguaro cactus (geographically inaccurate I know)

Errol Flynn transitions well to the role of a cowboy as Irishman Wade Hatton (“Thirty years ago, my father met my mother at the Londonderry fair” – excuse me, no true Irishman calls it Londonderry). Dodge City was the 5th of eight pairings of Flynn and Olivia deHavilland in which she plays feisty frontierswoman Abbie Irving. The magic is still there with any scene in which they are alone – you can tell these two really are in love, and like in The Adventures of Robin Hood, deHavilland is given many a memorable, brightly colored costume change throughout the film. Abbie’s brother Lee (William Lundigan) on the other hand is one of the biggest twats in screen history. A spoiled, trouble-making, tantrum-throwing drunkard who carelessly fires his gun into the air which causes a cattle stampede that leads to his untimely death. However, I don’t quite get why Abbie resents Wade for his involvement in Lee’s death as he ultimately got what was coming to him. None the less, Henry Travers perfectly sums up the situation – “Women’s logic and emotions are often very confusing”.

Dodge City is a story of morality and civilization – another chapter in how the west was won. The bad guys of Dodge City lead by Jeff Surrett (Bruce Cabot) are essentially gangsters, murdering for business interests, running gambling clubs and threatening the press. However, once Wade becomes the sheriff and begins cleaning up the town of its crime and degeneracy, my libertarian alarm bells start going off as he restricts gambling, gun rights (is he violating the 2nd Amendment by decreeing “No firearms permitted north of Front Street”?) and introduces taxes (at least his barber recognizes they are a necessary evil). 

Dodge City may have the best bar fight ever committed to screen. One spurred on by post-civil war tensions as the Confederate half of the saloon sings (I Wish I Was in) Dixie’s Land and the Yankee half retaliates with Marching Through Georgia before dozens of men cause utter fist-fighting destruction, destroying ever corner of the saloon and even falling through walls and multiple floors as they pummel each other. The beginning of the scene in similar to that from Casablanca (which Curtiz would also direct) in which the Germans at Rick’s Place start singing Die Wacht am Rheinin in front of the French of whom retaliate by singing the La Marseillaise.

The film’s score by Max Steiner sounds awfully similar in parts to that which Steiner would compose for Gone With The Wind, released 8 months after Dodge City. Even some of the shots present in the film are reminiscent of the scenes in Atlanta from GWTW. From the beautiful artwork in the title screens to the grand 3-strip Technicolor encompassing many scenic horizons, Dodge City is a visual delight (it’s just a shame the DVD copy of the film suffers from some colour bleeding). The film’s climactic shootout on the train, however, lets the film done slightly as the cuts back forth between the location and a studio set fail to convincing match each other.

Errol Flynn and Alan Hale once again make a great duo and Hale even receives his own comedic spotlight moment when he wanders into a temperance union known as the Pure Prairie League, only to find he’s the only man among a group of older women. Likewise in an interesting twist to convention, it’s Alan Hale and not Errol Flynn who takes out the film’s main villain played by Bruce Cabot. I’m just disappointed Ann Sheridan’s part in the film is barely beyond a cameo despite being third billed. She performs several songs as a saloon singer but has no impact on the plot – did she have any deleted scenes? I could also do without that cutesy little kid (Bobs Watson), although to be fair at least he has a major role in the progression of the plot. Regardless of any minor shortcomings, any film is worth it when it has earned its right to culminate in the most endearing of cinematic images, the hero riding off into the sunset.

The Return of Doctor X (1939)

The Return Of Doctor X is a movie with very little value to it aside from the anomaly of being Humphrey Bogart’s only horror/science fiction film in which he plays the titular Dr Maurice Xavier, a.k.a. Marshall Quesne (pronounced “caine”). Dr. Xavier is essentially a zombie-vampire, a doctor who was sentenced to the electric chair after trying to see how long babies could go without eating (gruesome even for today, let alone 1939), only to be resurrected by a proto Dr Frankenstein, Dr Francis Flegg (John Litel) and is kept alive by regular injections of Type One blood. I do love the Karloff-like design of the character with his pale, white face, punk rock style hair with the white streak and a rabbit which he carries around with him (I’m making this my future Halloween costume). The Return Of Doctor X is a rare instance in which Bogart played a subservient character, of whom is quite Peter Lorre-esque with his tragic and pathetic demeanour, while his unnatural body movements and limping call back to Karloff’s Frankenstein’s Monster. The film’s climax does, however, venture into more traditional Bogart territory in which Xavier partakes in a gangster-style shootout. Bogart is a consummate professional who doesn’t phone in the role regardless of how much he was known to detest it. Just contrast him to his master played by John Litel, of whom the movie gives him somewhat of an arc in which he eventually regrets his actions playing God, he is a much more generic bad guy.

According to the audio commentary for The Return Of Doctor X featuring director Vincent Sherman (of whom went on to do better work in his career), the film had a troubled production with the original script going in one direction and then being significantly altered during filming. This is evident when watching the film’s trailer of which the majority of footage featured is not in the finished picture not to mention the film’s as various credit errors (Wayne Morris is billed as Walter Barnett but is referred to as Walter Garrett in the film). Likewise, the film oddly gives the “All persons fictitious” disclaimer full-screen treatment before the opening titles, whereas it’s usually in small print at the bottoms of the credits. What was the studio worried about?

It’s Alive!

The premise of The Return Of Doctor X has potential with its mix of vampirism and reincarnation but with the exception of Bogart, the mystery yarn fails to flesh out the story or characters (although I do find it interesting that the movie has to explain the more recent scientific discovery of blood group types, whereas today this is common, layman knowledge). Wayne Morris might have worked at the title character in Kid Galahad but he’s no leading man material in the role of a go-getter reporter from Wichita. The Return Of Doctor X is a typical example of the Warner Bros B-movie product of the late 30’s/early 40’s – the film is by the numbers and has no real flashy moments. Worst of all, it is masquerading as a sequel to the two-tier Technicolor, pre-code gem Doctor X, however, there is no connection between the two films. Many would point to The Return Of Doctor X as an embarrassment in the career of Humphrey Bogart, however I would point to it as another example of how great an actor he is as he brings so much life to an otherwise average film when he’s on-screen. Boris Karloff made a career playing roles like this, why should Bogart’s attempt at playing a monster be looked down upon?