Lightning in a Bottle: Jezebel and Bette Davis

Bette Davis in JEZEBEL | Warner Bros.
Warner Bros.

It might be one of the most erotic moments in a 1930s film, after the Hays Code takes effect: A haggard, bedraggled Bette Davis, nursing a prone, unconscious Henry Fonda, his face shining with sweat, dips her hand in a pitcher of water and gently wets his voluptuous, feminine lips, following it up with a gratuitous stroke of the spot underneath them. She might be cooling him off, but what is she doing to herself?

The dramatic engine of William Wyler’s Jezebel (1938) is supposedly the fiery relationship between Davis’ Julie and Fonda’s Pres. Throughout the film, however, her passion is most persuasive when she’s playing to a Fonda who’s in some way absent. She recalled in her memoir, This ‘n’ That, that because Fonda was taken away from filming by the birth of his daughter, “all my close-ups in scenes with him were played to a strange voice and a stick with a round piece of wood with a face painted on it.” Even in his own close-ups, however, Fonda may as well be a stick with a round piece of wood on top, for all the emotion he displays. He is convincingly angry when called upon, but that anger is frosty. In the film’s most famous scene, Pres calls Julie’s bluff by forcing her to dance to the end of a waltz in her scandalous red dress even as New Orleans society departs from the ballroom floor, as though she has a communicable disease. The psychological tension of the scene lies in the way Julie’s growing distress and pleas for compassion meet the stone wall of Fonda’s adamant unresponsiveness. This is the aspect of Fonda-as-lover, the self-righteous sulker, for which Preston Sturges will comedically punish him three years later in The Lady Eve. There’s no struggle in Fonda’s performance: Pres is already done with Julie by the time he makes the decision to keep her on the dance floor, yet he decides to teach her a lesson anyway. Throughout the film, all the struggle is within Davis, made visible in her performance—in fact, it is her performance.

Based on a failed stage melodrama by Owen Davis, Jezebel is not remarkable for its plot or dialogue. It does have a more intelligent take on the subject of slavery than Gone With the Wind—although that sophistication doesn’t extend to the portrayal of the black characters in the film, who are largely used for cringe-inducing humor, or plot devices, or as Julie’s personal props within the narrative. However, in the film’s second act there is tense dinner-table talk about the obsolescence of an economy based on “unskilled slave labor,” as Pres puts it, outraging his fellow Southerners even though he won’t go so far as to declare himself an abolitionist.

Despite being a banker with a considerable investment in his society, Pres is presented as a young man of advanced ideas throughout. When we first meet him, he’s fighting against the ignorance of his board of directors, who greet his suggestions for economic innovation and Dr. Livingstone’s vociferous prophesying about the city’s risk of another yellow fever epidemic with equal complacency. After the Olympus Ball crisis, Pres leaves for the North, later returning with a Yankee wife. Amy is a politically outspoken, sober young woman who’s much more compatible with Pres than Julie was. Julie makes a pass at him anyway—in a garden, too—and all hell breaks loose.

Ostensibly the story of a spoiled Southern belle’s slightly deranged love life, Jezebel is more psychologically interesting than it has any right to be, which Davis and Wyler fully exploit. The Antebellum South becomes a symbolic space of antiquated, somewhat barbaric customs—such as the custom that unmarried women must wear virginal white to the Olympus Ball. (The other custom of relevance to the plot is dueling, while the “peculiar institution” hovers behind it all.) Julie chafes at the restraints her society imposes: In the scene in which she tries on gowns for the ball, she complains about the white one she’s expected to wear literally binding her around the shoulders. She then removes it only to reveal that she is seated on a high stool with a cage—imitating the effect of a hoop skirt—imprisoning her lower body. The upper body of famously fidgety Davis is in constant motion during the scene, pivoting around her frozen lower half like Elvis in reverse. But although Julie’s enjoyment of breaking the rules constitutes an incipient feminism, she can’t conceive of equality with a man, the way that Amy and Pres are equals: by sharing interests and values. She can only conceive of a battle between two “sexes” conceived of as opposites, which only one can win. It’s either be dominated by your husband, or show him early on that you will dominate him.

Such female dominance, however, is “illicit.” It is not sanctioned by Julie’s society, unlike the beating that Pres contemplates giving her (which is recommended, surprisingly, by Dr. Livingstone, the only bank board member to share Pres’ progressive orientation). If she’s to achieve this dominance, therefore, Julie will have to be sly and subtle about it. Her problem is that she breaks rules too openly and spectacularly; her will to power is naked. Later on, she’ll show that she knows how to use sex to manipulate, but that version of her—the one that gives the movie its title—is not the character we’ve come to know.

Although Pres and Julie have no interests in common, the story establishes a curious subtextual psychological kinship between them. Pres, too, is a rule-breaker, with ideas that are far too radical for his milieu. Unlike Julie, he has a way out: because he is a man, he can simply leave and go where his views will be welcome. Even if Julie had the option of going wherever she chose, such a notion would never occur to her. She can commit impulsive provocations, but she’s too thoroughly indoctrinated to be able to think outside her gender role. She’s not a true radical: she doesn’t set out to scandalize her society as a committed act of principle, but rather in a fit of pique, as we learn in the scene where she reveals her plan to Pres. And yet, that may be because flaunting her sexuality in that setting is a far more socially devastating act than anything Pres could do in a board of directors meeting. The most interesting parallel between them occurs when Pres contracts yellow fever: when he collapses in a bar, all of the men—with the exception of Livingstone—back away from him, terrified of contracting it, just as the performative virgins backed away from Julie at the ball. Blazing female sexuality, unconstrained by the magic of rituals and customs, is as fatally contaminating as the swamp-bred fever.

Bette Davis is remembered for playing powerful women, but unlike her contemporaries of similar reputation—Barbara Stanwyck, Katharine Hepburn, even Joan Crawford on occasion—she doesn’t play a career woman in any of her most memorable roles, with the later-career exception of All About Eve. And even there, she’s an actress, which is to say that it’s not a career that involves seeking male power. She played Queen Elizabeth I a couple of times, a role that involves wielding a masculine form of power, but not seeking it. Ginger Rogers, not especially remembered for portraying powerful women, played working girls time and time again; her scrappy independence and sassy mouth are quite beyond Davis. The whole point of the Bette Davis persona is that, although her characters may have power by virtue of their social class, she is not liberated. It’s the contrast between her volcanic personality—sexually and emotionally passionate—and the social constraints acting upon her that produce the “lightning-in-a-bottle” quality, as writer David Fiore put it to me. It’s why she can play a woman who acts out and seeks to dominate others, as in Jezebel, or a woman who internalizes everything and is dominated by everyone, as in Now, Voyager, and both are equally characteristic performances. Her passions, her strength, can’t find healthy outlets in a society whose unhealthiness is primarily represented in both films by its hysteria over female sexuality.

The film’s first act establishes the terms of the battle between Julie and Pres. He slights her by putting bank business before their engagement party; she strikes back by invading his place of business, an emasculating tactic that prompts the doctor’s prescription of a beating as just the thing to help their relationship. When, still tied up at the bank, he refuses to honor his (emasculating) promise to accompany her to her dress fitting for the ball, she hits upon the idea of the red dress. That ought to get his attention. Pres, however, has been pushed to his limit as well. He presents himself at her home after the meeting, but when she refuses to see him, he heads for her bedroom—grabbing a walking stick from a stand along the way. Max Steiner’s score presents this decision as a cutesy bit of humor, using the same sprightly music that accompanied Julie as she strode through the bank, her bustle bouncing, men gaping. There’s even a xylophone-like sound effect as Pres, having bounded up the stairs, drags the stick along the railing while striding determinedly toward Julie’s bedroom.

It is worth noting that while spanking an unruly woman was a trope in minor screwball comedies, interpersonal violence was not a customary way for the male lead to solve his differences with his love interest in a 1930s Hollywood film. The historical setting, and the presentation of the South as a backward society even for its time, allows contemporary patriarchal anxieties to be portrayed especially vividly in Jezebel. At the same time, the subject of slavery seems to have evoked anxieties that creep into Julie and Pres’ battle for dominance and give it an overt cruelty that won’t be a common representation of relations between the sexes until the film noir era. When we first meet Julie, she’s holding a riding crop and yammering about breaking in a high-headed colt. But while Julie’s whip hand with Pres is metaphorical, Dr. Livingstone’s suggestion is quite literal.

Thematically, Jezebel has to take Pres’ side (though it may not support his methods); of course the subjects under discussion at the bank meeting are more important than dresses and balls, and if Julie were “reasonable,” like Amy, she’d realize that they even come before engagement parties. Visually, however, the movie is firmly on Julie’s side. Overwhelmingly, visuals are what matter in Jezebel, from the costumes designed for Davis by Orry-Kelly and the cinematography of Ernest Haller to Wyler’s storytelling choices.

Julie’s character arc is conveyed through fashion: from the inappropriate riding outfit that she wears to her engagement party to the red dress at the Olympus Ball, or from the white dress that turns out to be even more hideously inappropriate for Pres’ return to the elaborate gown that she will wearinappropriatelywhile tending to him after he contracts the fever. Her redemption is communicated to us in this form; in the first scene, she insists that there’s no time to change out of her riding clothes because she’s rash and impulsive and wants to create a sensation. In the scene in which she makes a slave take her across the fever line to Pres, there’s no time to change out of her clothes because she’s only thinking of him. She is, however, as reckless at the movie’s end as at the beginning, so although she’s suffered considerably and been humiliated repeatedly, the film’s punishment of her rebellion does not require her to change in any fundamental way.

In Jezebel’s best scenes, what matters is the visual impact of Julie and either her stage business or the blocking of the other characters in relation to her. We understand the scene’s social and psychological dynamics because of these and the other aspects of the mise-en-scène. Many of the most impactful scenes in Jezebel have little or no dialogue, like the great Olympus Ball set piece itself, or the scene that takes place between Julie and Pres when he arrives at her door with the walking stick.

Julie’s attire in this scene is almost as bizarre as in the scene at the dressmaker’s. Am I only imagining that there are little hints of fetishism (which pairs well with the BDSM vibe of whip and cane) in the film’s dwelling on weird 19th century women’s undergarments and beauty rituals? Julie wears a lacy white dressing gown, tied at the front, with a long, great bow. She lounges in a chair, singing under her breath and doing her needlework, as her maid, Zette, tends to her hair. She exhibits every signifier of having retired for the evening, just as she means to, because this is a performance, even though the person for whom it’s intended can’t, by design, see it. Instead she performs for herself—and for us, the boudoir-invading voyeurs.

When Pres bangs for entrance, Zette moves to answer the door automatically, but Julie, frowning and shaking her head, grasps the woman’s hand (without even glancing at her) and directs her back into place. As Pres begins to speechify about their love, Julie takes Zette’s hand again, still without looking at her, and sends her on her way, presumably to leave through the servant’s entrance. Pres grows more conciliatory, but Wyler stays inside Julie’s bedroom as she rises and looks at the door contemplatively, and plays with the loop of her bow rather autoerotically. She then strides toward the door purposefully—but only to turn the lock with an audible click. At that point, the scene cuts to Pres for the first time to show us his reaction. He pleads a moment longer, and then, realizing he’s in danger of complete and unqualified emasculation, begins to shout. Julie doesn’t react at all, however; she’s calmly laying out her new dress to show him. As he rages, she continues to prepare to receive him in her own good time. She looks at herself in the mirror, gives her cheeks a good pinch for color (only harlots wear rouge). Unsatisfied with the results, she smacks them with the back of a wooden brush, then sucks on her lips to wet them. At last, she asks with hilariously exaggerated coyness, in a lilting voice, “Who is it?” The contrast between feminine self-presentation and steely intention results in a comedic masterstroke.  

Wyler’s decision to stay in the room with Julie almost the entire time that she torments Pres has a couple of important effects. First, it allows us to see what could have been presented as sincere pleading, frustration, and anger from him into the blather that it is from Julie’s point of view (the fact that he switches so easily and completely from love talk to an angry attempt to assert authority suggests that she may be correct to doubt his sincerity). The other effect is to transform her bedroom into an erotically charged bower, a private feminine space to which she denies Pres entry in order to let him in on her own terms.

Julie probably has no motive here except to torture Pres (and herself) a little, tease him and toy with him, and then, once they’re all hot and bothered, sexily reconcile. Everything changes, however, as soon as she sees the cane. Even as they exchange flirtatious dialogue, Wyler ratchets up the emotional stakes by cutting to shots of Julie from the level of Pres’ hand holding the cane: it’s an Expressionistic composition that makes the viewer feel the threat it presents to her, even though Pres has seemingly forgotten he’s holding it. The way she flirts the cane out of his hand carries the hint of a suggestion that she is, in part, mollifying him in self-defense. The camera returns to the hand-foreground composition as he lays it aside, and Julie’s eyes follow its motion before returning to his face. When they embrace, however, we believe that she wants to forget what she’s seen or, if she can’t, forgive it. But when she sees the cane again over his shoulder, she knows she can’t. And that’s when the dress plan is brought into play.

The choice to make Julie’s thought process visible to the viewer while keeping Pres oblivious gives us the information we need to comprehend her disastrous actions, all without dialogue. Picking up the cane might have been nothing more than a foolish whim for Pres, like Julie’s initial decision to anger him with the dress, but it’s one with rather greater stakes for Julie than what she wears at a ball can possibly have for him. He’s proved that, progressive though he may be, he’s willing to use force to “keep her in her place.” Accordingly, she has no choice but to use the dress to prove that she will not be forced into obedienceeven though it’s an act of self-destruction, as she loses him and publicly humiliates herself. In a world where men can use force against you to make you do what they want, there is perhaps no way to fight back that’s not self-destructive.


In its second act, Jezebel works overtime to earn its title, introducing a creaky melodrama plot about wicked, deceitful women and gullible, dueling men that’s too complicated to relate here. The upshot is that Julie is blamed by Pres’ younger brother, Ted, for the death of his hero and Julie’s ex-beau, Buck, even though Ted pulled the trigger. Much more interesting than this plot is what happens when Julie’s visitors prepare to self-righteously walk out on her en masse. Instead, they’re brought up short by the news that the spread of yellow fever means they have nowhere to go. Kudos to Owen Davis, or whoever came up with this dramatically satisfying example of peripeteia, as the visitors must turn around and march back into the house, right past Julie. Her triumph unexpectedly takes the form of an entire absence of gloating, or even of self-dramatizing humility, as she for once takes refuge in the customs of her society, disappearing into an impersonal hospitality.

This sets up a brilliantly claustrophobic and morbid dinner-table scene, in which the guests, confined to the home of a woman whom they consider morally reprehensible, are forced by the rules of propriety to be civil despite their anger, mourning, and anxiety. Forced stillness, confined energy: like Julie’s imprisoned body in the scene at the dressmaker’s. There is only one sign of life in the scene, and it’s not provided by the heavy, tasseled fan swaying over the table, pulled by a slave boy in a corner of the room. Although for the first time she’s selflessly trying to be well behaved, Julie is, as usual, wearing something slightly inappropriate. Her dress appears to be suitably dark, but on the puffy diaphanous sleeves float insouciant little white dots that seem to represent her own refusal to have her spirit utterly crushed by her moralizing guests—and the moralizing plot in which she’s become enmeshed. Orry-Kelly’s striking gowns remain important to the dramatic texture of the scenes even when, as here, they are not playing a role in the plot.

In the final scenes, Ernest Haller’s cinematography works hard to sell the redemption theme, using lighting to give Davis’ haggardness a spiritual beauty and fascination. Pushed beyond endurance by anxiety for Pres, longing for him, and round-the-clock nursing of him, Julie is now truly beyond both ego and caring what others think. Davis’ performance is as important as the cinematography in making Julie’s transcendence both credible and compelling, and again, it’s all visual: from the time she starts tending to Pres until her final confrontation with Amy on the stairs, Julie is mute. There is a memorable moment when Amy arrives and finds her in the bedroom with Pres: Julie simply drifts, zombie-like, out of the room, the picture of resignation, neither trying to defend her presence nor trying to assert any right to be there. At this point, she simply is. Yet for all the work visuals do in the movie, Davis’ delivery of her lines in the staircase confrontation with Amy is also a testament to her and Wyler’s art. No one should be able to convincingly deliver a line like “Help me make myself clean again as you are clean,” but Davis speaks her lines throughout the staircase scene like she’s swallowing ground glass. Exactly what Julie is trying to get clean of is on the abstract side—the original sin of being Bette Davis, perhaps; of a strength that she can’t rid herself of even when it’s destroying her and those she loves. But it’s immaterial, because Julie’s redemption is not a moral but an aesthetic matter. We know she’s achieved a higher state of being—cinematically speaking—because she’s more riveting at the end of the film than she was at the beginning.