Jezebel is populated almost entirely by unsavory characters, foremost among them the woman of the title.
Her true name is Julie (Bette Davis), an impulsive belle in 1852 New Orleans playing mind games with her banker fiance Preston (Henry Fonda). (Not that Preston is a catch; when an older colleague suggests he beat Julie for interrupting a shareholders meeting, Preston takes the advice to heart—stopping just short of physical abuse.) For Julie’s part, she tweaks social convention by drinking bourbon and arriving at her engagement party late, in riding clothes. The way she flounces about, eager to embrace traditional gender roles when they suit her, you get the sense such behavior is more out of a bratty bid for attention than any sort of principled stand.
Eventually Julie goes too far, at least in Preston’s mind. At an annual ball, she insists on wearing a “saucy” and “vulgar” red dress instead of a conventional, virginal white one. Director William Wyler (The Best Years of Our Lives, Roman Holiday) stages the ball as a grand confrontation. Julie proudly walks in, swinging her shoulders in the red dress while all the other women move aside, like the parting of the white sea. But as the evening goes on and everyone refuses to speak to Julie, her bravado weakens and she asks Preston to leave. Instead, he calls her bluff, forces her to keep dancing, and then ends things for good after bringing her home.
Jezebel picks up a year later, with Preston away in New York City and Julie sequestered on a family plantation outside of New Orleans, where the wealthy have fled due to an outbreak of yellow fever. As the class divide becomes starker, Jezebel’s depiction of the various enslaved characters bears more scrutiny. Julie’s personal attendant Zette (Theresa Harris), the butler of the house Uncle Cato (Lou Payton), and Ti Bat (Stymie Beard), a boy who runs errands for the family, all exist only in relation to the white characters’ concerns (they’re not given inner lives of their own). Yet they still have significant roles to play in the narrative at hand, and Wyler’s camera is unusually attentive to their presence in the frame and the work they’re being called to do.
Chastened by Preston’s abandonment and alone on the plantation, Julie promises to “humble myself before him” when news comes that he’s planning to visit. She even dons a white dress (a gorgeous gown that makes her look as if she’s surrounded by delicate frosting). But Preston—in another boorish move—shows up with a wife, Amy (Margaret Lindsay). It’s then that Bette Davis comes into her own, eyes glaring and nostrils flaring. After an awkward meeting with Amy—in which a dumbstruck Julie can’t decide whether she should look at Amy, Preston, or neither—Julie gathers herself and hisses: “I’ve got to think, to plan, to fight.”
One of Julie’s more jarring tactics involves summoning all the enslaved people on the plantation and leading them in a song in front of Amy, who had previously expressed abolitionist sympathies at dinner. Another involves buttering up Preston’s rival, Buck (George Brent, charming at first but eventually revealed to be a venal Southern apologist), and goading him into a duel. All sorts of tragedy and melodrama ensue; it turns out money doesn’t make one immune to yellow fever after all.
Eventually—spoilers ahead—Preston falls deathly ill and Julie offers to accompany him to the lepers’ island where the sick are being quarantined, risking her own health. Claiming only she could negotiate the Southern customs necessary to keep him alive, she promises to nurse him until he improves and then return him to Amy. The question remains: does Jezebel see this as Julie’s redemption (“Help me make myself clean,” she begs Amy) or her punishment? Either way, my gut tells me this is all part of her plan. Yellow fever or not, there’s no way Amy is seeing Preston again.