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Arts & Culture

New Orleans on the Silver Screen: Jezebel

Bette Davis in Jezebel
“I’m going to call you ‘Rhett.’ Just once. Just to see how it feels.” (Photo courtesy Wikimedia Commons)

It’s hard to imagine anyone but Vivien Leigh playing Scarlett O’Hara now, but before she landed the plum role many Hollywood-watchers expected Bette Davis to be the one putting on the drapes and slapping Butterfly McQueen. As a consolation, Davis was given the lead in Jezebel, a drama set in antebellum New Orleans – playing a Southern belle then was the equivalent of playing a district attorney today in terms of career milestones for actresses. Little-seen today, partly because it was overshadowed by the splashier Technicolor Gone with the Wind and partly because These Kids Today Don’t Know Good Movies, Jezebel was a hit when it came out in 1938 and won Davis a Best Actress Oscar.

Davis plays Julie Marsden, a girl who is rich enough to have her antics called “high-spirited” instead of “bratty.” When her beau Preston refuses to take her shopping, she rebels by buying a red dress instead of a white one for an upcoming ball – this is apparently shocking, which is hard to reconcile with contemporary New Orleans’ relaxed attitudes about provocative garb. In good Southern fashion, when Julie arrives at the ball in her red dress everyone is just horrified, and during the ensuing ruckus Preston breaks the engagement. While Julie sulks, Preston moves North on business. Time passes, and New Orleans receives a few visitors, each more shocking than the last: yellow fever, Preston, and Preston’s new Yankee wife. I won’t spoil the ending for you, but it involves a duel and an enormous amount of flouncing. Jezebel is one of the great films from the Golden Age of Hollywood, and a timeless depiction of New Orleans in film. As in most movies set in New Orleans, the city itself is almost a character, and adds to the atmosphere and drama as only New Orleans can.

If you’re a movie buff considering a visit to New Orleans, rest assured, you can live out all your Jezebel fantasies. Yellow fever has been extirpated – since 1905! – but you can learn all about the times it swept fatally through the city from the epidemiology exhibits at the New Orleans Pharmacy Museum, located in a converted apothecary’s shop in the French Quarter. Stop by New Orleans clothier Jolie and Elizabeth to pick up a dress that will pleasantly shock everyone because of its classic, elegant cut and excellent craftsmanship – and appreciate that their dresses are not only made in the USA, not only made in Louisiana, but made in New Orleans. Put your new purchase on and head over to the oft-praised Columns Hotel bar on St. Charles. Spend a few minutes dramatically striding up and down the front steps and through the rooms of this gorgeous and expertly restored mansion, then order yourself a drink. Try not to get carried away and throw it in someone’s face, though – drinks at the Columns are too good to waste.

On the fence? Check out this radio adaptation of Jezebel from 1949, complete with enthusiastic endorsement from Pabst Blue Ribbon beer.

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