Oscar: Best Actress–Davis, Bette in Jezebel (1938)

“Half-angel, half-siren, all-woman!” proclaimed the ads for the film “Jezebel” in 1938.

When strong-willed Pres Dillard, the young banker she’s engaged to marry, refuses to bend to her wishes, tempestuous Julie Marston embarrasses him publicly by wearing a red dress to the 1850 Olympus Ball, instead of the customary white gown all unmarried girls wear by tradition.

The ball, a highlight of the New Orleans social season, is the occasion when Julie’s betrothal is to be officially announced. Instead of casting a sensation in her scarlet dress, she makes a fool of herself, and Press, feeling she needs to be taught a lesson in deportment, refuses her demand to be taken home by insisting she dance with him.

Her humiliation is abject and she turns to Buck Cantrell (George Brent), a genial admirer who loves her, for comfort. Buck, eager to accommodate her, succumbs to her charm (and compliments) and escorts her home. Disgusted with her behavior, Press breaks his engagement and goes to Philadelphia to work at a branch of his family’s bank.

Embittered, but confident Press will return and marry her, when she asks for his forgiveness, Julie retreats into seclusion until one day, three years later, her guardian, General Bogardus, informs her that Press is returning to New Orleans, where a fever epidemic has shorthanded his bank’s staff.

Anticipating that Press will now marry her, she plans a homecoming party for him at Halcyon, her family estate. But her euphoria is short-lived, when Press arrives at the plantation with his wife, Amy (Margaret Lindsay), whom he married while in the North. Infuriated, Julie tells Cantrell that Press insulted her and violated her honor.

Cantrell challenges Press to a duel but, when Pres is recalled to New Orleans, where the yellow-jack epidemic is now raging, his younger brother Ted (Richard Cromwell) fights in his place and kills Buck. The plague spreads and Pres is stricken with fever. Julie returns to New Orleans, where martial law has been enforced, to nurse him. When the militia come to evacuate him to a quarantine island, Julie begs his wife to allow her to accompany him, promising that if Pres lives, she will send him back to his wife. The ballroom scene, in which she is forced to dance in her red dress with her disgusted fiance, is brilliantly staged. We observe Press’ ferocity as he forces her on to the dance floor, and stares down anyone who would appear critical.

The Southern Belle has been a uniquely American literary and cinematic type. Bette Davis won a second Oscar for Jezebel, as the rich, spoiled and willful Julie Marston, a quintessential Southern Belle whose entire behavior is motivated by her failure to win the love of Pres; she does everything in her power to goad her fiance into jealousy. Her aunt Belle admonishes her wayward niece with a line that became memorable in movie lore: “I’m thinking of a woman named Jezebel who did evil in the sight of God!”

Cast

Hulie Morrison (Bette Davis)

Preston Dillard (Henry Fonda)

Buck Cantrell (George Brent)

Amy Bradford Dillard (Margaret Lindsay)

Aunt Belle Massey (Fay Bainter)

Ted Dillard (Richard Cromwell)

Dr. Livingstone (Donald Crisp)

General Theopholus (Henry O’Neill)

Jean LeCour (Jean Litel)

Dick Allen (Gordon Oliver)