Gotham Diary:
24 April 2017

Monday 24th

Kathleen has been reading up on the old movies, and asking to see a few. The other night, we watched Jezebel, which somehow she hadn’t seen before. I hadn’t seen it in years myself. I’d forgotten almost everything about it, except the red dress, the yellow fever, and Henry Fonda’s wooden performance. Wooden! Why, the whole thing is a piece of cardboard. Fay Bainter is very good, a study in generous respectability. “Halcyon belongs to its guests” — I’d forgotten that magnificent specimen of Dixie tripe. And Bette Davis is, as usual, extraordinary. I still think, though, that The Great Lie does a better job with similar materials, especially the ole plantation trope.

What makes Jezebel pathetic is the idea that it was supposed to compete with Gone With the Wind. Gone With the Wind is a terrible picture that Jezebel easily surpasses on its own terms. Economically, it shows us the antebellum South, doing without the bellum. (It is set in 1852-3.) And instead of going on forever and a day, as the Selznick blockbuster does, so that we are as tired of Scarlett and Rhett as they are of one another, Jezebel ends without a resolution. Will Julie be able to nurse Press on Lazaret Island? Will he survive? Will she survive? Maybe Press’s wife will come down with the fever, too. But we will never know. “What a gyp!” cried Kathleen. I however was impressed and relieved — no more Southern accents.

(Frankly, my dear, Gone With the Wind is a screwball comedy that has been hastily embalmed in a military epic. There is nothing in it that isn’t done better by Carol Burnett’s famous parody, Went With the Wind. “I saw it in a window and I couldn’t resist.”)

But what about Jezebel? This is the problem with growing up Catholic — no juicy Bible stories. I had encountered Jezebel and her husband, King Ahab, in Elijah, Mendelssohn’s oratorio, but only glancingly. The Bible itself isn’t much better. Split between Kings 1 and 2, Jezebel appears only twice, although we are told that she comes from Sidon and that she persecutes the prophets of the Lord. The second and final glimpse that we have of her is while she’s getting dolled up to meet Jehu, who responds to her greeting by having her eunuchs toss her out of the window. It’s all quite summary; you don’t get much of a sense of Jezebel’s motivation. She’s just bad — and she’s also a woman with a name, which means she shouldn’t even be in Scripture at all. Women with names are almost always occasions of sin. Nice women, like the widow of Zarephath who takes care of Elijah, are known only by their positions.

This may be how the Warner Bros film came by its title. The worst thing about Jezebel in the books of Kings is that she’s an idolatress, a worshiper of Baal. But in more recent times, what with idolatry fading away and all, her name was a byword for fallen women. What was the competition, Scripture-wise? How many other painted ladies are there? She was an old lady by this time. I wonder how often, in the fifteen-odd years before she died, Elizabeth I’s courtiers had to bite their tongues. The worst thing youthful Julie Marsden does is to wear a red dress to a ball. It’s hard to believe that anybody at Warner Bros, of all the studios, believed that Southern women were delicate figurines for whom the wearing of anything but virginal white would be grounds for ostracism.

More anon.