New Orleans, 1852, and Southern belle Julie Marsden (Bette Davis) is causing trouble, as there is a rumour going around that she has spurned the advances of local man about town Buck Cantrell (George Brent), much to the amusement of his drinking buddies at the gentlemen's club he frequents. Julie, meanwhile is preparing for the biggest society ball in the calendar, where all the young ladies line up in their finery to dance with the young man of their choice: she has her heart set on aspiring businessman and activist Preston Dillard (Henry Fonda), but it is another choice she will make that proves controversial, as every girl at the ball traditionally wears white. Not this year...
Legend has it that Bette Davis had been promised the role of Scarlett O'Hara in Gone with the Wind, the most successful film of all time if figures are adjusted for inflation, and was furious when it went to Vivien Leigh instead. But the truth was different, as it was down to her casting in Jezebel that ruled her out of David O. Selznick's consideration, he really did not like this film which he regarded as a spoiler for his superproduction, rightly so as there was no other reason for it to be made. When it won Oscars, notably for Davis in the lead, it rankled with him, though as events turned out he would be laughing all the way to the bank when his Southern effort eclipsed Jezebel completely.
Well, almost completely; Bette has her fans to this day, and this showed her at somewhere near her best thanks to the guiding hand of director William Wyler, with whom she was so impressed she insisted on bedding him for the duration of the shoot (er, after the day was over, that was). Wyler's technique was to craft the performances he wanted over the course of multiple takes, sort of a proto-Stanley Kubrick, and like Kubrick wont to go over budget thanks to his dedication to securing just one more take out of his cast, which was the case here. All was forgiven, of course, once the box office tills began a-ringing and the awards nominations began rolling in, not just for Davis, either.
Watching it now, you can see how this was basically one big spoiler for Gone with the Wind, sharing as it did similar setpieces and a strong-willed heroine in the Scarlett mould, though the studio would point out that Julie was written first, so completely different and thoroughly legitimate to bring her to the screen, then. Still, Davis was terrific in her part as a young woman who will not be told she is making a faux pas of epic proportions in wearing a red dress to that ball, and Fonda got to show backbone by forcing her to dance on even as the floor is cleared because none of the other girls in white wish to share the scene with her. When Preston marries someone else, it is the cue for Julie to become a recluse of sorts, staying on her estate and only emerging to ride horses when the whim takes her.
Yet one other aspect this shared with the most successful film of all time was more problematic: set at a time when slavery in the American South was endemic, how were we supposed to take the scenes with the black characters in subservient roles? Apparently aware that there was a racist elephant in the room, there were distinctive personalities appearing in those roles, from Jack Benny's partner in comedy Eddie Anderson to the beautiful Theresa Harris, often cast as maids but able to bring more than simple stereotyping (and as ever, making you lament she was rarely given opportunities she deserved). Nevertheless, there was nobody as indelible as Hattie McDaniel in Gone with the Wind, who despite being the "mammy" slave in that film was practically the only character with any sense. But while we were being inclusive, mention Preston's wife was played by Margaret Lindsay, one of the few "out" lesbians in Hollywood of her day, and here typically demure. Otherwise, it was Davis's self-sacrificing show, paired with her favourite actor Brent, and all verging on hysteria. Hokum, and with caveats, but interesting too. Music by Max Steiner.