Follow TV Tropes


Film / Jezebel

Go To
Trust us, it's a red dress.

Jezebel is a 1938 film directed by William Wyler, starring Bette Davis and Henry Fonda.

Julie Marsden (Davis) is a headstrong, rebellious Southern Belle in 1852 New Orleans. Preston "Pres" Dillard (Fonda) is her more sober and responsible fiance. Julie is given to temper tantrums when she thinks that Pres isn't paying enough attention to her, and one particular tantrum, which results in her decision to wear a red dress to the Olympus Ball, backfires when Pres breaks up with her. Pres promptly leaves New Orleans, going to New York to do business. When he comes back a year later, a humbled Julie is prepared to beg his forgiveness—until she finds out that he brought a wife back with him.

Jezebel earned Davis the second of her two Academy Awards for Best Actress. It has a place on the National Film Registry. A young John Huston co-wrote the screenplay.


  • Ain't Too Proud to Beg: When Pres returns from the North, Julie greets him wearing the white dress he wanted her to wear before. She drops to her knees and promises that she's turned over a new leaf and will be a good wife to him. Unfortunately, Pres reveals that he got married to a Yankee woman. Julie has a major relapse back to her scheming ways, with disastrous consequences.
  • Betty and Veronica: After Pres's wife Amy shows up, she is the sweet, supportive Betty to Julie's fiery, scheming Veronica.
  • Big Fancy House: Both the opulent Marsden mansion in New Orleans and their plantation house out in the country.
  • Cassandra Truth: Pres has several of these. He tries to tell the old farts who run his bank that they must build railroads or lose shipping traffic to Northern ports. He tells Julie's friends that a war against the North will be disastrous. He suggests cleaning up the town and draining the swamps to fight the yellow fever epidemic. No one listens.
  • Dances and Balls: The Olympus Ball triggers Pres and Julie's breakup.
  • Duel to the Death: Played completely straight. Buck Cantrell, one of Julie's suitors, seems to do this whenever he gets bored. When Pres comes back to New Orleans with his New York-born wife Amy in tow, a revenge-minded Julie tries to goad Buck into challenging Pres to a duel, but when Pres leaves the dinner early, his brother Ted calls Buck out on his rudeness and accuses him of letting Julie manipulate him, sparking Buck into challenging Ted to a duel instead. Buck loses.
  • Establishing Character Moment: In Julie's first scene she is late for her own party, finally showing up on top of a wild horse.
  • Expy: It's been speculated that Bette Davis was offered the lead role as compensation for her not winning the much-coveted role of another spoiled, willful Southern Belle. It's also easy to see Amy as this to Melanie Wilkes.
  • The Film of the Play: Adapted from a 1933 Broadway play of the same title by Owen Davis, which had starred Miriam Hopkins as Julie.
  • Gorgeous Period Dress: Lots and lots of fancy dresses. One, the red dress that Julie wears to the Olympus Ball in defiance of convention, is a plot point.
  • Happiness in Slavery: The slaves at the Marsden mansion and plantation certainly seem carefree. Of course, no Hollywood film made in 1938 would have dared suggest that slaves were unhappy with their lot.
  • Lady in Red: And how, to the point that it results in Julie's fiancé dumping her.
  • No Ending:
    • Sort of. Julie's character arc certainly reaches a conclusion when she goes off to the yellow fever island with Pres in order to save his life. However, if you were wondering whether Pres dies or recovers from his yellow fever, you'll have to keep wondering.
    • The film's final monologue implies a horrible Downer Ending: Pres will die and Julie will either contract yellow fever while nursing him back to health or worse, watch him die a slow and agonizing death.
  • Old Retainer: Uncle Cato, who has served the Marsden family for years, would be this, if he weren't actually a freaking slave.
  • One-Word Title
  • The Plague: A yellow fever ("yellowjack") epidemic ravages New Orleans in 1853.note 
  • Rich Bitch: Selfish, petty, temperamental Julie is this, before her redemptive moment at the end.
  • Rite of Passage: Julie scandalizes everyone at the debutante ball by showing up in a red dress instead of virginal white.
  • Rule of Symbolism: When Pres returns to town, Julie appears in a luminous white dress as she should have before, showing that she sincerely regrets her past behavior.
  • Serious Business: Wearing a red dress to the Olympus Ball, instead of the white required by unmarried young women, is serious business.
  • Southern Belle: Julie. Very much mauvaise until her Heel–Face Turn at the end.
  • Southern Gentleman: Buck Cantrell, a skilled duellist who is more than willing to fight a duel over a slight to Julie's honour.
  • Ten Paces and Turn: Ted and Buck fight a pistol duel in which they start back-to-back, take ten paces, turn, and fire simultaneously. As was often the case with pistol duels in the 19th century, Buck tells his second that he's only planning to wound and scare the inexperienced Ted; however, Buck is killed while Ted is unharmed.
  • Title Drop: After Julie's actions cause Bud's death, and she suddenly breaks out of the Stepford Smiler act that she's been putting on.
    Julie: Well, say it! What are you thinking?!
    Belle: (quietly) I'm thinking of a woman called Jezebel, who did evil in the sight of God.
  • Virgin in a White Dress: Julie spites her fiancé by wearing a red dress to the most important dance of the season, when unmarried women are to wear white.