There’s a lot that can be said for the 1938 film Jezebel about a scheming Antebellum Belle who causes a little mayhem and a lot of heartache in New Orleans. Was it racist? Of course. Was it misogynistic? Insanely. Was there an entire plot point about a red dress even though the movie was in black and white? Unfortunately. Above all else, was Bette Davis’ character, Julie, a Jezebel? I shockingly found this complicated to answer!
The film, which awarded Davis her second Oscar for Best Actress, was based on a little-known and unsuccessful Broadway play from 1933 and was rushed into production because Warner Bros was pissed that MGM secured the rights to Gone With the Wind. Davis got the part after losing the role of Scarlett O’Hara to Vivien Leigh. So Jezebel was essentially a movie born out of pettiness. It premiered 10 months before Gone With the Wind and became a smash hit—an amazing reminder that grudges are great motivators.
So with the Oscars this weekend, I thought it’d be cute to watch this award-winning, but much less popular than Gone With the Wind, film that shares a name with your favorite iconic feminist brand. Jezebel was a wild ride, and I was thoroughly, surprisingly, entertained throughout. Here’s what went down.
00:00 - The trailer says, “The story of a woman who was loved...when she should have been whipped!” This is gonna be great.
1:10 - I know “jezebel” is from the Bible, but I Googled just to be sure. She is! Also, dictionary.com defines “jezebel” as “a scheming and shamelessly evil woman”; Merriam-Webster says it’s “an impudent, shameless, or morally unrestrained woman”; and the first entry on Urban Dictionary is “a female who is seeking attention from and possibly plotting to use someone who is wealthy or otherwise desirable in order to gain status in society.” As the senior editor here at Jezebel.com, those all sound like compliments to me. I can’t think of anything more boring than a woman who’s respectful, modest, and fully restrained by society’s morals.
1:16 - “New Orleans in 1852.” What could possibly be problematic about this?
1:50 - A fancy man in a top hat says, “Julie will have plenty to drink at the party.” I suspect Julie is our Jezebel.
1:51 - Another fancy man in a top hat says, “Eh, party liquor’s always messed up with cherries and stuff.” And you know what, he makes a good point.
2:30 - There are lots of fancy men in top hats drinking and shit-talking. It was never not a great time to be a white man.
5:49 - OK, we’ve arrived at the very fancy party where there are too many cherries in the liquor. The hostess compliments a young girl named Stephanie, saying, “How pretty you look.” Stephanie says, “Oh, thank you!” and then her mom gets MAD at her for saying thank you and not curtsying. What the fuck.
5:55 - We learn Julie isn’t at her own party at her own house! Already such a “morally unrestrained woman.”
6:15 - Stephanie has informed her mother that girls don’t curtsy anymore, she even read it in Godey’s! Her mother doesn’t care because not curtsying is apparently a trash manner of the trash Yankees. Remember, this is 1852—nine years before the Civil War. Slavery is thriving.
6:44 - We have our plot: Julie is a wild child and is engaged to Preston Dillard, whose brother Ted is happy about the engagement so long as Pres “keeps a short rein on her.” Incredible. And Julie seemingly broke Buck Cantrell’s (the man who hates cherries) heart to get engaged to Preston. Saucy! But Buck is fine and is having a nice time at this party.
7:26 - Miss Julie’s arrived! She came galloping in on horseback and didn’t change into her party dress, instead keeping her “horse” clothes on. Everyone’s scandalized but happy to see her. She’s friendly and fun and I love her! I very much get why we have a song about Bette Davis’ eyes—I feel like writing a new one right now.
8:55 - OK so, this is Julie’s second engagement to Pres. And she’s drinking whiskey even though that’s “for the gentlemen.” Cool girl alert.
9:00 - Buck and Julie are flirting! Pres is a Southerner who’s now up North all the time (since he’s rich banker; this is starting to add up), and Buck is shit-talking him. What fun.
16:15 - Now Julie’s at a dress fitting for the big Olympus Ball, but while she’s getting fitted into a white dress she spots a red dress and decides she wants that one instead. This is scandalous because, as I’ve just learned, unmarried women in New Orleans in 1852 only wear white. But Julie’s a rebel and visionary so she’s going to wear red! This entire movie is in black and white.
16:44 - “This is 1852 dumplin’,” Julie says to all the old women. “1852, not the dark ages.” Again, I love her.
17:45 - Previously, Julie went to Pres’ bank (also he’s hot!) to ask whether or not he was coming to her dress fitting as he promised. He couldn’t because he was busy being a busy bank boy. Now, a doctor is giving Pres a talking to at the bank and delivers what’s possibly the greatest line I’ve ever heard in a movie, ever:
Nowadays, no proper respect for our Southern womanhood. Think your father would have allowed the lady of his choice to come surging into his place of business?... [Your father would] have cut him a hickory sir, a hickory. And he’d have flailed the living daylights out of her, and then helped put lard on her welts, and bought her a diamond brooch. And she’d have loved it.
20:10 - Julie’s pissed that Pres didn’t come to the dress fitting and is giving him the silent treatment. A passive-aggressive queen.
21:38 - Pres has a cane, and it’s implied that he might whip her, what the fuck.
22:08 - They kiss instead. But Julie is staring at the cane. Kinky!
22:55 - Pres sees the red dress. Must be nice since, again, this is all in black and white. He’s scandalized: “You never saw an unmarried girl in anything but white!” Bet he wishes he went to the dress fitting now.
24:02 - Pres leaves and Julie sarcastically says, “You forgot your stick,” and Pres responds, “I forgot to use it too.” Imagine thinking “thank god I’m a woman in 2023.” So much sucks, but at least it’s no longer socially acceptable—or encouraged!—to whip your girlfriend/fiancé/wife with a stick if she annoys you.
26:00 - Julie wants Buck to bring her to the Olympus Ball so she can wear the red dress. Buck says no. But nicely. We love Buck.
30:10 - Julie and Pres enter the Olympus Ball! She’s in the red dress! Sacré bleu! Everyone’s whispering and backing away from her like it’s April 2020 and she has covid. Her friends won’t speak to her and Pres’ colleagues find reasons to excuse themselves. She’s a JEZEBEL.
33:00 - Julie and Pres are dancing but everyone else evacuated the dance floor because of the red dress. Julie starts tearing up and says she wants to leave but Pres forces her to keep dancing. What a dick.
35:00 - Pres drops her off at home and BREAKS. UP. WITH. HER. “Evidently you’ve made up your mind,” Julie says. “No Julie. You’ve made up my mind,” he replies. This movie is crazy and actually pretty entertaining: a snarky rebellious heroine challenging Southern societal norms and pissing off everyone, including her fiancé? Feminist masterpiece.
35:55 - She slaps him! Nice! Such a “shamelessly evil woman.”
36:00 - Bette Davis is truly gorgeous. Julie believes Pres is going to come back.
38:50 - Julie’s heartbroken :( The doctor tells her and her mom (aunt? friend? idk) they should go up to their plantation for a few weeks until the yellow fever scare blows over. Yikes. Then he snorts what appears to be a lil bit of coke.
41:30 - Pres is coming back! (I have no idea where he went or for how long but everyone keeps saying he’s finally come back from the North.) Julie vows she’ll beg for his forgiveness, say she hated herself, and admit she was vicious, mean, and selfish! All because she wore red! Wish I could tell her about Taylor Swift’s 2012 album.
43:15 - Julie decides to throw a party at the plantation for Pres’ return. Hooray! And, I assume, to celebrate the fact that they’re all rich white folks in the 1800s and have a plantation they don’t have to be enslaved on to escape to during a pandemic.
44:00 - They’re making mint juleps.
46:15 - Ugh, she’s wearing the white dress she was supposed to wear to the Olympus Ball before she decided to wear the red dress and completely destroy her life. Sad. So much for our feminist masterpiece :(
47:00 - All the young enslaved people are excitedly screaming “the carriages are coming” and running around as the guests arrive. Huge yikes.
48:30 - We learn the yellow fever outbreak is really, really bad. New Orleans isn’t letting people leave the city, and they’re going to ship those infected to “Lazarette Island with the lepers.” Another yikes.
49:24 - Oh my god. Pres has arrived and he has...a wife! Amy! She’s very nice and pretty. (Pres is played by Henry Fonda, Jane Fonda’s dad! Fun!)
53:10 - Julie is throwing herself at Pres; she doesn’t know he’s married yet, and she hasn’t met Amy. This is hard to watch. Very un-Jezebel behavior.
54:00 - Julie meets Amy and tells Pres, “You’re funnin’.” Amy says, “May I say Julie?” Shut the fuck up, Amy.
54:53 - OhHhHHh Amy’s fRoM nEw YoRk! Well fiddle dee dah!
56:10 - Ope! Julie storms off and calls Amy “that washed up little Yankee.” Our Jez is back, baby!
57:00 - We’re now enjoying a huge, lavish dinner and shitting on the Northerners for wanting to take our “sovereign rights” (slavery). Julie is sitting between Buck and Pres and is flirting with Buck to make Pres jealous and Pres looks miserable and is getting nostalgic about spending all his childhood summers here at the plantation.
58:49 - Now Pres is arguing with Buck that the North will win in a fight not because slavery is bad but because machines are better. He assures everyone at the table that he’s “no abolitionist.” Amy looks so uncomfortable. Same girl.
59:09 - Some random guy says, “We hate an abolitionist as we hate the devil.” Great.
1:01:10 - Pres’s brother Ted’s obsessed with how Julie’s been flirting with Buck all night, like a Gallatin street girl. “Great ladies and Gallatin street girls, my dear brother, have a lot in common,” Pres says. He seems bummed. I think he misses his Jezebel.
1:06:26 - Julie tried to win Pres back in the garden but it didn’t work. She even kissed him but he pushed her away! Luckily, since this is a movie, Buck walked out to the garden just as Pres left, so now Julie is ruthlessly flirting with Buck.
1:07:17 - WOW OK so Julie basically hints to Buck that Pres was drunk and was fresh with her. This Jezebel be jezzing!
1:07:39 - We now learn that New Orleans sets cannons off every night to “start air currents” and “carry the fever away.” Buck makes fun of Amy for asking what the hell that does. And everyone scoffs at Pres for suggesting they should be draining the swamps and cleaning up the city. Those Northerners and their stuck-up sanitation systems.
1:08:15 - Buck and Pres keep arguing. Everyone looks so uncomfortable that Julie’s aunt asks her that “as mistress of the house” Julie forbid them from talking any further. But she keeps smiling to herself and says she would never keep her houseguests from discussing anything. Shameless! Julie is fucking loving this.
1:12:15 - Pres gets called back to the city because the big bank person got yellow fever and is probably dying and needs to tell Pres lots of big bank business secrets. Then Buck and Julie get quippy with each other and Ted calls Julie out for “using” Buck and now Buck and Ted are fighting and everyone seems really worried and Buck calls Ted a young jackass.
1:12:45: Julie runs after Buck and says, “Buck I beg, this musn’t happen.” I DON’T KNOW WHAT MUSN’T HAPPEN.
1:14:03: Julie is begging this random man that he must stop this. STOP WHAT? “Isn’t this what you wanted, Julie?” the man asks. “Or did your plans go astray?”
1:15:36: Julie’s now manically leading a sing-a-long with the enslaved people and wants Amy—or “the little Yankee,” who is in near tears—to join in. Our girlie’s lost it.
1:17:20 - HOLY SHIT.
1:18:00 - Alright SO, it’s the next morning and the fuss was about Buck and Ted having a duel. Which they just had! We don’t know yet who’s dead! Amy says, “Are you savages, you Southerners?” Julie is all bright and smiles and just picked flowers and refers to a duel as “a silly custom but part of what we Southerners call our chivalry.” Whatever you gotta’ tell yourself girlfriend. Everyone else in the parlor is crying.
1:18:50 - BUCK’S DEAD. YO JULIE WTF DID YOU DO GIRL.
1:20:40 - Julie’s crying and screams at her aunt, “Well say it, what are you thinking?” And her aunt says, “I’m thinking of a woman called Jezebel who did evil in the sight of God.” Poetic. And honestly, yeah Julie, this was fucked up!
1:25:30 - We’re back in New Orleans, where we’re shown wheelbarrows of sick people being carried to the dock to get shipped to Lazarette Island. Pres passes out a bar. He has yellow fever! Or as everyone around him screams, “Yellow Jack!”
1:31:18 - Julie snuck back into the city to see Pres, who is in very bad shape. Romantic? Controlling? Obsessive? Ridiculous? The answer is E, all of the above.
1:34:17 - Everyone else has returned to the city from the plantation because “they got a pass from the governor” to see Pres. There’s a giant Y painted across the door. They find Julie fanning Pres—who honestly already looks dead.
1:35:00 - Damn, the doctor did Pres dirty and reported him to the government. “Have you any idea what would happen in New Orleans now if folks got to thinking there’s one law for the rich and another for the poor?” he says. Some things never change.
1:36:00 - All this means Pres is getting shipped out to the island with all the sick and the lepers.
1:37:58 - “Amy, do you know the Creole word for fever powder?” Julie asks...because Amy has just begged the doctor to arrange so she can be shipped to the island with Pres, and now Julie is trying to convince Amy to let her go instead. Because Amy’s a dumb Northerner.
1:39:12 - The people are here to carry Pres away. I’m hella stressed.
1:41:09 - An Oscar-worthy monologue from Julie!!! “I’m asking for the chance to prove I can be brave and strong and unselfish. Help me, Amy. Help me make myself clean again as you are clean.” A little desperate but OK.
1:42:03 - Amy says yeah, sure girl, go. “God protect you and Pres.” And, “I’m fucking out of here.” (At least, you can tell that’s what she wanted to say.)
1:42:47 - We get a shot of Julie on the wheelbarrow with Pres and all the other sick people heading for the docks.
And that’s it! The movie’s over. We never learn if they die or not!!!!
Well, I truly did not see the yellow fever self-sacrificial twist coming. Didn’t love that—deciding to banish yourself to care for your ex on an island filled with sick people to atone for the fact that you got your other ex killed? Just move on, honey.
So, is Julie a Jezebel? Yes and no. I don’t believe Julie is a Jezebel in the way that everyone around her thinks she’s a Jezebel. But Julie’s definitely a little jezzy! In the fun, rebellious, society sucks and I give zero fucks kind of way. At least, she was like that until, again, she begged to go to the banished island with her dying ex. But also, she is a slave owner. So honestly, whether or not she is a Jezebel doesn’t matter, because she sucks.
But I hope Amy made it back North and I hope Buck rests in peace <3