Tuesday, January 30, 2024

The Colors of Contagion in JEZEBEL (1938)

Bette Davis won her second Academy Award for Best Actress for the Civil War melodrama, Jezebel (1938), which took advantage of the cultural mania over Gone with the Wind by using many of the same plot elements and beating the 1939 blockbuster to theaters. Like Gone with the Wind, Jezebel tells the story of a spoiled, headstrong Southern belle who pines for the love of a married man, and the two pictures also share problematic visions of the antebellum South and slavery that perpetuate fantasies about happy plantations with graceful ladies in hoop skirts. The films even share the same composer, the great Max Steiner. Gone with the Wind, however, boasts one very important advantage over Jezebel because it had the time and budget to be a lavish Technicolor spectacle, while Jezebel unfolds in cheaper, faster black and white. The lack of color onscreen is particularly ironic for Jezebel as it's very much a story about color, specifically the sexually charged red of the scandalous dress Davis' heroine wears but also the deadly yellow of the fever outbreak that dominates the film's second half. In both cases, Jezebel connects color with contagion, something that spreads and infects the simple black and white world around it and thus should be avoided at all costs.

Davis plays Julie Marsden, a wealthy and temperamental young woman living in New Orleans before the start of the Civil War. Julie loves her prim suitor, Preston (Henry Fonda), but she also loves getting her own way, and she retaliates when Pres chooses business over pleasure by making a spectacle of herself at the Olympus Ball, which causes Pres to break off their engagement. One year later, Pres returns with his Northern bride, Amy (Margaret Lindsay), and Julie is once again torn between her love for Pres and her desire to stir up trouble for the sake of revenge. Julie is finally forced to reckon with her transgressions when Pres becomes one of the thousands suffering from yellow fever and in danger of being quarantined to a desolate leper colony.

The first, and most memorable, contagious color is red, the shade of the inappropriate dress Julie wears to the Olympus Ball, where all unmarried young ladies are expected to wear white. In the movie we can't actually see a red dress, only a dark one, but the characters discuss its vulgarity and shocking color at length. The dressmaker tells Julie and her Aunt Belle (Fay Bainter) that the gown was made for a local woman of ill repute, but this information only strengthens Julie's perverse desire to wear it to a ball intended to celebrate the virginal purity of young ladies of her station. Julie's plan to punish Pres backfires when he grimly insists on parading her around the ball, where everyone recoils from her in horror. The camera looks down from above to show us Pres and Julie dancing while girls in white dresses fly away from them, fearful of being associated with such disregard for convention and the sexual knowledge that the red dress strongly suggests. In this scene, it is Julie herself who is contagious, contaminating the reputation of everyone close to her. She has very literally made herself a scarlet woman, although she is thoughtless and perhaps naive enough not to realize the implications of her appearance. Pres, who understands the extent of her transgression, dares anyone to insult her because he still feels obligated by their social code to duel to the death in her defense, but after the ball he breaks with her and leaves town. Julie is so struck by his rejection and her own humiliation that she becomes something of a hermit for the next year, waiting at home with her white dress ready for the day Pres returns, but Julie doesn't realize how permanently she has contaminated their relationship. 

In the second half of the story, yellow replaces red as the contagious color, this time a color of fever and death. New Orleans and its surrounding areas succumb to a yellow fever outbreak, which people in the 19th century believed to be spread from person to person (as opposed to being spread by infected mosquitos). The film shows the audience that Pres is, indeed, bitten by an infected mosquito in a small but crucial moment at Julie's plantation outside the city, but the other characters only know that yellow fever is highly contagious and terrifying. Their fear is compounded by the city's decree that every known sufferer be exiled to an island normally used as a leper colony, where the chance of survival is almost nonexistent. Julie rushes to New Orleans to tend Pres, even though she might be shot for sneaking across the quarantine lines, but her desire to shake off her moral contamination is stronger than her fear of viral contagion. Julie argues with Amy for the right to accompany Pres to the fatal island; although Amy is Pres' wife, Julie needs the redemption her sacrifice can offer. She begs Amy, "Help me make myself clean again as you are clean. Let me prove myself worthy of the love I bear him." Ironically, one form of contagion counteracts the other; her willingness to embrace death by yellow fever serves to atone for Julie's moral contamination as embodied by the red dress. Julie wins the argument and is last seen in a wagon rolling away toward exile, suffering, and almost certain doom, very like Sidney Carton at the end of A Tale of Two Cities. In many ways it's a conventional ending for a woman who crosses the moral and sexual boundaries of her culture, whether she exists in the 19th century or under the tight control of the Hays Code. Julie, however, makes a triumph of her martyrdom because she believes that dying with Pres is better than living without him, and her sacrifice means that she will be remembered for her heroic final act rather than her many sins. 

While neither color actually appears on the screen, red and yellow dominate the imagination of the viewer as Jezebel unfolds, and both signal danger and contagion to the inhabitants of the film's world. Director William Wyler and cinematographer Ernest Haller skillfully evoke the effects of the red dress and yellow fever, but it would have been fascinating to see how those two fatal hues could have been used in a color production. One need only think of the iconic use of red in Black Narcissus (1947) and The Red Shoes (1948) or the way that color enhances every shot in Gone with the Wind. For more of Bette in black and white, watch Dark Victory (1939), The Letter (1940), and Now, Voyager (1942). If you're interested in seeing period melodramas in lavish color, check out Blanche Fury (1948) or Raintree County (1955). According to an interview with Robert Osborne, Bette Davis herself preferred black and white to Technicolor, but you can see her in color in movies like The Private Lives of Elizabeth and Essex (1939), The Virgin Queen (1955), and The Whales of August (1987).


* If you like my posts here, you can read more in my Silver Screen Standards column for Classic Movie Hub!

1 comment:

  1. What an excellent post, Jennifer -- I gobbled up every word like it was Thanksgiving dinner. You really made me want to watch Jezebel again, even though I've seen it countless times -- but in all those times, I never noticed that Pres got bitten by a mosquito! Really enjoyed this thoughtful and insightful write-up. Great stuff.