TCM Classic Film Festival Day 1: 7 Seconds of Bette Davis in JEZEBEL (1938)

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This afternoon, classic film fans from around the country and the world descended upon the stretch of Hollywood Boulevard that runs from the Roosevelt Hotel to the Egyptian Theater for the opening of the TCM Classic Film Festival. For much of the day, the street was completely blocked off for the red carpet entrance to the opening night movie, In The Heat of the Night, for which Sidney Poitier and Norman Jewison were in attendance. It looked to be a spectacular affair. But for those of us whose passes don’t allow entrance to the opening night movie, there was no shortage of other choices–and I, being a devotee of Bette Davis in general and Jezebel in particular, was thrilled to see the pre-Civil War story of love and defiance as an option for the festival’s opening night. It was a screening I did not want to miss.

Jezebel has always fascinated me. The story of Julie Marsden (Bette Davis), a rebellious young southern belle in 1852, who defies convention and alienates her companion Pres (Henry Fonda) only to have him leave and return with a new wife, it is a beautifully directed, beautifully costumed movie that plays with the idea of women’s rights long before the women’s rights movement, while still reining itself in with the restrictions of the production code. We see a strong woman who fights for what she wants, but who repents when her companion leaves. Then when he comes back with a new wife, she rebels again, only to give her final repentance at the dramatic ending.

I arrived at the movie relatively late in my classic film life, having somehow missed it until my first year in college, and due to the nuanced and textured performances of Bette Davis and Fay Bainter, I’m rather glad that I came to it late. As I watched Jezebel for the first time, I was able to grasp right away the meticulous and fine acting details that define the movie.

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Jezebel is best-known for the scene in which Julie appears at the Olympus ball in a red dress, in direct defiance of what Pres wants her to do. All unmarried women appear in white, he tells her, but when Julie insinuates that he’s just afraid of having to defend her, he relents and takes her to the ball in the red dress. It is indeed a marvelous scene, filled with discomfort and palpable tension. But what I consider to be the greatest moment in the movie occurs afterward.

Following the dance, Pres leaves Julie, humiliated. A year later, he returns and Julie has repented, appearing to him in a white dress and asking him to forgive her. She kneels down to the floor, her dress flowing around her, and tells him “Pres, I’m kneelin’ to ya.” A few seconds later, Julie finds out that Pres has married during his absence. The woman walks into the room and is introduced as Pres’ new wife from New York. What follows is a phenomenal 7-second performance by Bette Davis. Start the video at 2:31.

Davis immediately transforms from the angelic, saintly creature that was kneeling to Pres on the ground, into a confused, startled person. She starts with a blank stare, almost as if she hadn’t heard what was said. Then, she gets a look on her face that shows comprehension, but a disbelief that he had done it. Leaning forward slightly, she looks for a moment as if she were about to move toward him, but thinks better of it. She looks at Amy, scrutinizing her, looking her up and down, then gets a puzzled look on her face, and turns back to Pres before she says, in shocked disbelief, “Your wife.” This all happens over the span of 7 seconds.

The entire moment is played in the face–except for a small movement of her arms when she is leaning forward. It works due to Davis’ naturally expressive features, and her ability to use them and them alone. These 7 seconds are a testament to Davis’ skill as an actress, and to her ability to work effectively with director William Wyler. By this time, Wyler knew Bette Davis extraordinarily well, onscreen and off. By the time of Jezebel‘s filming, Davis and Wyler were spending a great deal of time together as romantic companions, and Wyler used his knowledge of Davis to direct her to her second Academy Award. Whatever direction Wyler gave her in that moment prompted Davis to create one of the most impressive physical moments of her career.

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Stay tuned for more reports from the TCM Classic Film Festival as it rolls on through the weekend. Tomorrow’s schedule includes screenings of The Maltese Falcon, Born Yesterday, and Red-Headed Woman. Thanks for reading!

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One response to “TCM Classic Film Festival Day 1: 7 Seconds of Bette Davis in JEZEBEL (1938)

  1. Great post.
    Wish I were there!

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