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Friday, January 4, 2013

JEZEBEL (1938)

Bette Davis didn’t realize what a lucky break she got when the London courts sided with her bosses, the Brothers Warner, in her contract dispute of 1936. Not that she was wrong in principle, as Olivia de Havilland would soon prove with her own fight against the expandable 7-year standard Hollywood contract of yore, but in practice. Because when she returned to Warners, tail between her legs, she found herself starting the greatest run of classic roles any actress ever got; nearly 20 classic roles in a mere 8 years. This was the first of three she made with director William Wyler, also having quite the run at the time. Davis, playing a sort of proto-Scarlett O’Hara, is Julie, a headstrong Southern belle, smart & desirable, but also willfully destructive, upending one Southern tradition after another (and every one a metaphor for virginity) until she drives away her forward-thinking beau, Henry Fonda, who is willing to bend just so far. When he returns, she’s ready to repent, but . . . is it too late? The production is quite resplendent for the cost-cutting Warner boys, but Wyler was on loan to the studio and knew he could push for it. (That included hiring the young John Huston to work on the script.) But everyone on this one seemed to know how good it was turning out, especially Davis who goes farther than any actress of the time would have dared, and does it without special pleading. Moving confidently from one killer set piece to another, Wyler gives extra attention to the magnificent ball sequence where the editing and shot selection are merely perfect; brilliantly abetted by one of Max Steiner’s best scores. A typically fine supporting cast out of the Warners’ stable is topped by George Brent. Yes, George Brent. Often a more interesting player away from his home studio, and something of a dull dog @ Warners, Wyler uses that slightly dense sensibility in Brent to highlight the gentlemanly, but clueless demeanor that will destroy him. The last scenes in the film remain a bit of a tough sell, but the momentum carries us thru.

SCREWY THOUGHT OF THE DAY: Racial sensitivities get a real workout in these Hollywood tales of the antebellum South. You hardly know which is more cringe-worthy, the fake golden glow of ‘darkie’ life on the ol’ plantation or the gloss of patronizing broadmindedness. (Just watch kindly, enlightened Henry Fonda offer his favorite house servant a Mint Julep.) And then, just when you’ve given up on any justice, along comes a scene like the one between Davis and Eddie Anderson as they plot together to steal into town, across the Yellow Fever line. The brief look at something approaching equality is thrilling . . . for a moment.

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