Since Warner Bros. rushed "Jezebel" to beat "Gone with the Wind," it's probably going to be forever known as the Southern costume drama that ISN'T "Gone With the Wind."
That's a shame, because "Jezebel" is a wonderful movie in its own right -- it's a smaller, more intimate story about a love triangle, and a girl who loves more than is good for anyone. Bette Davis sweeps away all the other actors in a brilliant performance, right up to the cliffhanger ending.
Julie Marsden (Davis) is a fiery, rebellious Southern Belle, who flouts the propriety that her stuffed-shirt fiancee Preston (Henry Fonda) clings to. But then she shocks everyone by showing up at a white-gown ball in bright red, and Preston breaks it off for good. A year later, he brings his Northern wife Amy (Margaret Lindsay) to New Orleans.
Julie is shocked and angry, and immediately begins planning to somehow win Preston back to her, because "I'm part of you!" But her plots slowly unravel when a friend of Preston's is killed in a duel because of her, and Preston himself is caught in a yellow fever plague.
It's hard to see why anyone compares "Jezebel" to "Gone with the Wind" -- it doesn't pretend to be epic, and it's a simple love triangle with a very different conclusion. What it does have is a lot of passion and fire, and an anti-heroine that isn't seen very often even in modern movies.
This movie is just soaked in the South, to the point of oversaturation. Mint juleps, hoop skirts, and magnolias in the moonlight. Fortunately it has some solid directing as well as atmosphere, such as the scene where Preston whirls the red-clad Julie onto the dance floor. As they sweep into the center of the room, all the other dancers quietly sweep to the edges.
Bette Davis deserved every gleam of her Oscar for this role. Her Julie is spoiled, reckless and a tad amoral, but she's always likable for her passion, wildness and love of freedom. She doesn't mean any harm to anyone, but she's truly desperate for the man she loves. Her last few scenes in this movie -- especially the desperate plea to Amy -- are simply magnificent.
Fonda doesn't fare quite as well as the stuffy Pres, and it's hard to see why Julie adores him. But the supporting cast is quietly excellent, such as Fay Bainter, George Brent, and Lew Payton in an uncredited but quietly graceful performance as the butler Cato.
Rather than a Southern epic, "Jezebel" is only about one woman, who learns about the nature of real love in the worst circumstances. Bette Davis as her most compelling.