Many times, vanity is the driving force behind the poor decisions young women make. In today’s society, it seems that women are supposed to constantly primp and flaunt what they’ve got. Makeup is generally expected all the time and breast implants are perfectly acceptable cosmetic surgery. Everyone is in competition to be the prettiest girl at any occasion. Now and then, we see one woman who has taken her vanity to a socially unacceptable level and cannot come back from the boundary she has pushed. This is our modern interpretation of a Jezebel, a painted, false or fallen woman.
In Jezebel, Julie (Bette Davis) is a confident, headstrong Southern Belle in the 1850’s. She rides a dangerously wild horse and is practically engaged to Preston (Henry Fonda) a successful young banker. When Preston is busy at an important bank meeting, he breaks his promise to go to Julie’s dress fitting. Fueled by vanity and an I’ll show him attitude, Julie decides to wear a red dress to the ball. In Antebellum Louisiana, the idea of an unmarried girl wearing anything but white is unheard of and scandalous. Everyone desperately tries to talk Julie out of it, but the selfish girl won’t budge.
At the ball, everyone stares disgusted and offended at Julie in the red dress. Even her parents seem to slink away in disappointment. Preston tries to defend her at first, but he’s being shunned as well. Against her will, he takes Julie out on the dance floor to finish what she’s started and people leave, not even wanting to dance near such a harlot. The scene nearly feels like a nightmare. We see the humiliation take over the pride within Julie. Her stubborn decision to wear the red dress will cost Julie her Preston.
A whole year goes by with Julie having no suitors or social life. When she hears that Preston will be visiting again she tries to make amends to win him back, but he’s already been taken. He’s married Amy (Fay Bainter), a northern girl. Regaining her spite, Julie starts fueling a North vs South debate that ends up in an old fashioned duel. There’s also a yellow fever outbreak that causes heartbreak, widespread terror and a chance for atonement.
Bette Davis gives a beautiful Oscar winning performance as Julie. She’s tenacious, bold and confident with such grace and poise. When she realizes the consequences of her actions, the lament and shame in her eyes is moving. She’s beautifully coy in her push on the North and South debate. But her most moving scenes are toward the ending with Bainter’s Amy, who also took home an Oscar for her supporting role.
With today’s media building up the self-entitled generation with shows like My Sweet Sixteen, Jezebel is the movie every spoiled girl needs to be shown. The story is a wonderful cautionary tale, that I would not mind seeing in a modern remake. That’s a rare thing for me to say. Until we’ve found a film maker who can do this story justice, sit your kids down with this film and have a good talk about social expectations and the consequences of defiance.
“Child, you’re out of your mind. You know you can’t wear red to the Olympus Ball.”