Cinema’s Southern Belles with Bette Davis and Marlene Dietrich

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I recently had the opportunity to double feature some golden age of cinema classics with 1938’s Jezebel and 1941’s The Flame of New Orleans. Both are vehicles for two of the hottest stars at the time, Bette Davis who won an Oscar for her role as Julie and Marlene Dietrich with her beauty and comedic chops on display, and are movies harkening back to the height of the Southern power in pre-Civil War New Orleans. Both actresses play confident, high society women not afraid to take charge of situations as a means of getting their way. Scandalous for the 1800’s and the 1930’s, these ladies use their intelligence to manipulate the men in their life either for power or out of defiance. They’re films about fighting the system but with radically different outcomes. It’s interesting to see the portrayal of women and people of color at this point in film history and how filmmakers reflected our nation’s past as well.

I began with William Wyler’s 1938 romance drama Jezebel. Set in 1852 New Orleans, the titular character is actually Julie (Davis), a wealthy socialite betrothed to banker Preston (Henry Fonda) making them both the talk of the town but her tempestuous way end in a broken engagement. Most of the film is Julia trying to win Preston back through schemes and egging on fellow admirer Buck (George Brent) all amidst an outbreak of yellow fever rampaging the South. I don’t want to call Jezebel a rip off of Gone With the Wind considering it came out a year before the groundbreaking film but it’s probably why this film is overlooked and why I didn’t find it as compelling as it should be. Both take place in the Antebellum South, starring an outspoken female that break gender and social norms but is still caught in a love triangle and in the end is left with nothing. Gone With the Wind is one of my favorites and difficult to top since it’s so epic and awe inspiring, but Jezebel takes place on a smaller scale. It’s more contained with its relationships and parts of the film feels very claustrophobic as you’re trapped in this uncomfortable plantation home. These films have similar aspects but separate tones and goals that make me think it’s not a straight theft but that brassy Southern Belle love triangles were just a popular genre in the 1930’s.

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The stand out of this movie is Bette Davis as Julie who I’ll take over Scarlett O’Hara any day. From Julie’s stunning entrance as she dismounts her untamed stallion, spouts off witty dialogue than catches her dress with her riding crop you’re immediately spellbound by her presence. The way she defies her parents by mingling with her guests in her “unacceptable” equestrian outfit, to talking down to her fiancé who skipped the party for work and the ultimate F-U of purchasing a scandalous red dress for Olympus Ball. Much like O’Hara she is quite selfish in her motives but she’s manages a greater likability due to her intelligence and maturity. Both have a knack for manipulation. Pres reminds me a lot of Wind’s Ashley Wilkes type with his soft demeanor and goodwill and Buck is the Rhett Butler, more rugged and ready with a pistol. By the end of the film, Julie gets neither of these men, Buck dying in a duel to protect her honor and Pres stricken with the plague. Julie’s punishment for ruining these lives out of her own selfishness is being left with nothing but a gloomy fate awaiting her.

Yellow Fever is Jezebel’s big set piece instead of the Civil War. The illness turns New Orleans into a madhouse that raises the stakes of this once more contained story. When Pres contracts the sickness, Julie offers to accompany him to the containment island where he will surely die. It is both punishment and redemption. It’s her moment of selflessness because she spares Pres’ new wife Amy (Margaret Lindsay) from this death sentence because she knows she stronger, and better versed in navigating a Creole island than the young yankee. Due to the production codes of the time, it’s hard to imagine her being able to get away with being the cause of Buck’s death and the shame she brings upon her house. It’s a powerful moment as Julie is carted off with all the other dying men, accepting that her life is over and has lost everything.

Even with the edition of yellow fever this film doesn’t come close to the excitement of Wind but it does manage a similar level of racism. The film has better treatment of its slaves at least because Julie is perceived as a “friend” to them. She converses with them as equals even if they respond with that cringe worthy dialect. The only upside I could think of was how many black actors got work from this film. There’s a lot of black speaking roles and extras in this movie than most films today. It’s disappointing the the type roles these actors were subjected to but like Hattie McDaniel said “I’d rather play a maid on film than be forced to work as one in real life.”

As much as I complained that Jezebel is a copy of Gone With The Wind, so many modern romantic comedies feel like a copy of The Flame of New Orleans. With tropes as broad as the a runaway bride (The Graduate) to as specific as the sexy con artist (Heartbreakers) it may not be the genesis of these ideas but it’s interesting seeing them in a 1940’s context. You get the added bonus of screen legend Marlene Dietrich playing the sultry single lady out to find a man and her fortune. There’s grand comedic set pieces and the witty almost racy banter you’d want from that decade of filmmaking.

Just like Jezebel we’re transported back to mid 1800’s New Orleans with an intelligent female protagonists playing the game of a man’s world. They very greatly in tone as Claire (Dietrich) rather than being a tragically chastised character for her cunning ways instead finds true love on her own terms. In the film Claire is conning the affluent Charles (Roland Young) in hopes for marrying him for the safety and comfort of money but in the process falls for the dashing but poor sailor Robert LaTour (Bruce Cabot). We’re always meant to be on her side where in Jezebel we’re supposed to despise Julie for manipulating the men in her life. Here it’s played for laughs as Claire has to keep up the ruse of her true identity by doubling as a fake cousin and sneaking in and out of places. She is trying to balance so many lies but we want her to win out either way whether it’s getting the money or the true love. Her line “women have to do things for a lot of reasons” sums up her motivation of trying to survive the patriarchy and she’s utilizing her beauty and sexuality to get what she needs.

The Flame of New Orleans is played all as an adult fairy tale with the voice over in the beginning setting up the whimsical story we’re about to witness to the over acting with Claire fainting to get attention and having a side character be a monkey. This film is filled with charades of mistaken identity and miscommunication which in movies today feel like a cheap ploy but for 1940 are fun in their innocence and sincerity.

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Most refreshing for a film of this time is the black characters in that they are well rounded and the film manages to make me question if they were even slaves (which they would have been in 1840). Most romantic comedy leading ladies have the “best friend” who assists them in their hunt for a man. Claire’s maid Clementine (Theresa Harris who also appeared in Jezebel) is her closest companion and helps at upholding the ruse but seems to be doing so out of friendship rather than obligation. She is never disrespected by Claire or anyone else in society and over the course of the film both turns a profit and meets a fine gentleman (the trope that the best friend will fall in love with someone connected to the main suitor!). Even Claire’s driver gets his own scene where after the meet cute between Claire and Robert in which her carriage is overturned, the next day he’s up recounting the story to an intently tuned in crowd. The most satisfying of all this compared to most films of this era is the black characters aren’t using that reprehensible slave dialect. These are respectfully written characters which is impressive for a film set pre-Civil War.

Jezebel and The Flame of New Orleans very much hold up by today’s filmmaking standards even though their gender and racial views may fall short. Blacks are slaves and the women’s main concerns are about men but is that much different from films we see today? The only way to be nominated for an Oscar if you’re black is to be in an oppressive period piece and most films can’t pass the Bechdel Test. It feels like we’ve progressed and stayed the same simultaneously. I want to see more characters with the assertiveness of Julie and more playful relationships like Claire and Clementine. Considering how many remakes studios can churn out, I’m hoping we can get to these forgotten classics at some point.

 

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