Sunday, August 21, 2011

Whip v. Cane: Kink and Spectacle in Wyler's 'Jezebel'

The strengths of William Wyler's Jezebel do not lie in its screenplay, based on a stage melodrama by Owen Davis (a Pulitzer Prize winner, I just learned on Wikipedia). However, the stage origins of the film do become a strength: many of the film's most memorable scenes (including the one that's lived on in cinematic legend, the Olympus Ball scene) turn on rituals, and Bette Davis's disruptive relationship to them. There is an awareness of space and bodies within it, and what the characters are doing and how they interact is far more important than what they're saying. It's a film full of what creaky old theatre parlance calls business, as well as the use of significant props. Through these props the kinky sadomasochistic subtext of this coolly classical Hollywood film is revealed.

From the beginning, the play/screenplay anticipates the sexually/dramatically charged Olympus Ball scene, in which Davis scandalizes antebellum southern society by appearing in a dress fit for a prostitute. Davis makes a fine theatrical entrance, late for her own engagement party in horsey clothes. Inappropriately – and masculinely – dressed, Davis announces that she's been busy breaking a horse that's been giving her trouble, and to underline the point, she's first seen holding a whip. The terms of her relationship with her fiance (an infuriatingly stoic, stiff, and self-righteous Henry Fonda, auditioning for his role as Stanwyck's whipping boy in The Lady Eve) are set: who's going to break whom is an issue that needs to get dealt with before they can marry. Although absent from the scene, Fonda has already made his own, passive-aggressive move – by his absence. What's more important: an engagement party (the feminine realm) or a bank meeting in which progressive young Fonda is trying to convince the fuddy duddies to act to prevent a new outbreak of deadly Yellow Fever? Rationally, we have to side with Fonda – and on the surface, the film asks us to. But of course we know this untouchable moral position is a dirty move, and emotionally, we side with Davis.

From there, they just keep upping the ante. Characteristically, Davis decides to deal with the problem directly, by barging in where she's not supposed to go: she marches into the back of the bank, where ladies are not allowed, and interrupts the meeting. Her “frivolous” purpose is to get Fonda to go with her to her dress fitting for the ball. We know, of course, that if he concedes to this request, he will be completely emasculated – especially if he concedes to her in front of a roomful of men. This is his punishment for humiliating her (and it is a genuine humiliation) by not showing up at their engagement party. Like her, he pretends that all is well, but when one of the men (older and wiser) suggests that a round of physical abuse is just the thing to improve their relationship on every level, even the “progressive” Fonda is tempted.

The scene of Davis's fitting is beautifully bizarre, another tribute to Owen Davis's instinct for stage spectacle if it came from him: Davis, in bloomers and undershirt, is trapped from the waist down in a cage-like petticoat hoop, through which we can see her sitting on a high stool while she tries on gowns. Because this is Bette Davis, her upper body – especially the arms and hands – moves incessantly, restlessly, emphasizing her enforced stillness. Make no mistake, this is not only a metaphor for Julie Marsden's entrapment by propriety, against which her ultimately sexual energy rebels: it's also kinky pornography. Wyler can get away with showing a woman in a state of undress because of the old-fashioned setting and full covering of her undergarments – but they're what make the whole thing so kinky.

It's here that Julie impulsively selects the red dress, as it goes by her (it's been ordered by some “scandalous” woman, a high-class prostitute, no doubt), as Pres's punishment for not conceding to her at the bank. She knows she can't possibly get away with it, and probably doesn't seriously intend to wear it. But the move that tips things over into tragedy – within the terms of melodrama – is Pres's. When he's finished at the bank, he goes to see her and see her dress, as promised. However, he's denied entry. Deciding it's time to deal with Julie properly, he, too, makes an impulsive decision – grabbing a cane on his way up the stairs to her bedroom. There's a great moment where her sympathetic aunt, watching, is horrified and moves to intervene, but she's held back by Julie's other guardian, her disapproving uncle. He's quite right: these two have to work it out for themselves, by whatever means necessary.

Before the moment of truth arrives, however, we're treated to what, to my mind, is the film's greatest set-piece (or at least, its most overlooked one, overshadowed by the famous Olympus Ball set-piece), one that fascinated me as a young viewer. I went through a Bette Davis obsession between the ages of twelve and fourteen, and during those years and for a couple of years afterwards I watched Jezebel – my favourite Davis film besides All About Eve – dozens of times. Although I'd been finding out about the history of Hollywood from library books, I didn't know about the good movie rental stores in my city at the time, so what I got to see was limited to what I could tape off of TV (half a dozen classic Davis movies and a couple of Garbo ones). Much more than the literature I was reading, the handful of studio-era Hollywood films I endlessly rewatched during this period served as my induction into the mysteries of what one might inadequately, on all counts, call “normative” adult psychology and opposite-sex relationships. (I mean, it wasn't like Naked Lunch or Our Lady of the Flowers or The Trial were going to give me much help there. Or even Colette, since I was never going to be a perfectly handsome, vain, spoiled young man obsessed with a middle-aged courtesan.)

The long, silent movie-like scene that comes between Pres's decision to use the cane and its consequences fascinated me more than any other scene in the film in my original viewings. Once again, Davis is “in her underwear” – once again, fascinating underwear (a lacy, beribboned, semi-transparent dressing gown). She is lounging in a chair next to her bed, doing her needlework, her hair – another point of fetishistic fascination, knotted in little bows – being attended to by her Negro servant. The picture of upper-class feminine luxury, indolence, and “Christian” industry. But what fascinated me most was the psychological game that she plays.

Having made her move by denying Fonda entrance, she knows how he will react – and she is prepared for it. She is going to torture him by making him wait; as a woman in a conservative society, even one as restless as she is, she knows how to practice patience. (This is another scene of female waiting, which I described in a previous post with reference to another forbidden female bedroom.) The scene is as blisteringly brilliant as it is, however, due not only to the kinky premise, but to Wyler and Davis's execution.

The scene could only be conceived by a theatrical intelligence: we do not see Pres for its duration, but only hear him, through the door, while watching Julie's actions and reactions. He starts out sugar-sweet, appealing to her to let him in so they can make up. As soon as she hears him, Davis's servant instinctively moves to let him in, but Davis (always brilliant with her gestures and expressions) stops her by seizing her arm – behind her, while her eyes, looking at the door, in front of her, glaze over and glare. The maid doesn't understand: like the child-viewer I was, the caricatured “darkie” can't comprehend the destructive and self-destructive games that adults play.

I remember the very first time I (formally) met the critic George Toles, who arranged for us to be introduced after he saw, and admired, my play Live With It. I was eighteen and he was about fifty. We met at A&W and, although I can't remember what I ate (a Teen Burger and vanilla milkshake were my usual fare), I do recall that George was eating fries dipped in gravy while we avidly discussed Bette Davis films. (Or that, or the conversation, could have been the second time we met, in the same place.) I don't know what he was doing (perhaps having an innocent conversation), but I was sussing him out – I had heard that he was a professor of English, theatre, and film, and while this impressed me very much, I had to know that he had good taste before I granted him my esteem. And for me at the time, with my limited range of reference, “good taste” meant honouring Bette Davis. Luckily, George was fluent in Davis films, and we got into a spirited argument about the infamous scene in The Little Foxes where Davis wills her invalid husband to die after he has an attack and falls down the staircase behind her, unable to reach his heart medicine. I was gleefully into the sadism of the scene, whereas George told me what he found remarkable about it was Davis's visible, valiant fighting of every human impulse in her to prevent her from going to his aid.

And that is one, primary thing that makes Davis so compelling on film: her visible, hysterical conflict as she perversely acts in opposition to her own needs, desires, and best impulses. Here, we watch as she responds calmly to Pres's growing insistence and, finally, naked anger (after she gives another turn of the screw by turning the lock), floating around the room, pretending to take her time as she prepares herself to receive him. (Who's she performing for? Not for her – gawking – servant; not for Pres, who can't see her, although in one sense for him; not for the audience, whom she cares about as little as Pres. It's all for herself.) She rises, straightens her dressing gown, and wanders over to her dresser, where – in another strange, archaic (and masochism-tinged) ritual, she picks up a large hairbrush and smacks herself on each cheek with the wooden back, also aggressively pinching her cheeks to add colour. (Ladies don't use rouge.) All the while, she knows she's safe from his rage – after all, he's in a position of impotence, and in dramaturgical terms, his words are just meaningless sound in accompaniment to her actions. But all of this is mere provocation, coyness elevated to a fine, sadomasochistic art: she's winding him up as a sexual game, the deep level on which the scene works.

The game, however, is fated to go awry. She finally opens the door, making a flirtatious remark about the indecency of pounding on a lady's bedroom door – and then she sees the cane. Wyler makes a point of it: a shot of the cane, a shot of her reaction. As usual with Davis, it's a thinking reaction. Importantly, Pres doesn't notice her noticing; in fact, as soon as she lets him into the room, he forgets about the cane, leaving it just inside the door. He would like to forget about everything that's passed between them, even what just happened. But he doesn't get it. There is no going back from the cane. The implication that he would beat her is unforgivable; he's playing outside the rules.

And perhaps, just as he wasn't “really” planning to use the cane, so she wasn't “really” planning to use the dress – by showing it to him as her choice. But once she sees the cane, the die is cast. Now she will have to use her weapon, even though the consequences will be for her, not him: first, by humiliating her in front of the entire community; second, by ending their relationship, which, since she loves him, is the last thing she wants to do.

Jezebel is one of those films – about the battle of the sexes – that I assume must be entirely different viewing experiences depending on whether you're a woman or a man, even though presumably most viewers can sympathize and identify somewhat with both perspectives in it. Wyler, certainly, appears to understand what it means for Julie to be threatened with abuse in response to her unruly behaviour. After all, she may have metaphorically been holding the whip hand with Pres, but she never threatened to use a whip on him. And although on the one hand, these props – the whip and the cane – are metaphors for the kinky aspect of their sexually charged battle of wills – the cane, and abuse, here, is also literal. And not just literal (and literal abuse, not BDSM), but also symbolic of something that may even be more offensive than the use of violence: the implication that he wants to control her behaviour as a woman. This is Wyler's version of so-called “patriarchy,” in which men will decide the limits of female behaviour, and punish their transgressions, as an act of psychological violence that will be enforced with physical violence if necessary.

But the film's psychology is a lot more complex than that. It's important that even the female viewer never entirely loses sympathy with Pres's behaviour, no matter how unsympathetic it becomes, or knows what one would do in his place. (It's a film full of unsympathetic behaviour by both principals.) Until the Olympus Ball scene, Julie has brazened her way through society's opposition; but here, with all of society staring at her, positioned in direct violation of its precepts, she gives in to shame and can't go through with it. But Pres, as stubborn as she is, forces her to see through the consequences of her willfulness and keeps her a prisoner at the ball: if she wants to make a spectacle of herself, she will have to experience what being a spectacle means.

For him, the relationship is over before he even takes her to the ball, as soon as he sees she's determined to go through with wearing the dress. Once he's fulfilled and more than fulfilled his duty as her escort, he then has the temerity to dump her – at her doorstep. What ensues – again, gestures and facial expressions – also had an enormous impact on me as a teenage viewer. He tells her it's over and she pretends to accept it graciously, smiling and offering her hand; but when he takes it, her other hand whips out and slaps his face viciously, whereupon she gives him one of her classic Bette Davis glares, never more powerful than in this film where she and Wyler emphasize her physical and psychological fragility. I was fascinated by this sadistic undercutting of social pretence; by Julie's refusal to assume the moral high ground or conceal the ugly hostility of their parting. She can't refuse herself her revenge, even though, again, it's Pyrrhic.


The second act of Jezebel deals with Julie's attempts at redemption after she realizes she has really driven Pres away for good. In the film's “official” morality, Julie is a quasi-sympathetic bitch who goes too far and alienates her man, which teaches her a lesson and sets her on a rocky road to becoming a genuine “good woman.” The film – or anyway, the screenplay – is a textbook example of the “having it both ways” morality of classic Hollywood: on the one hand, the audience gets to enjoy Julie's shocking behaviour and sadism; on the other hand, we pretend it's all in the service of her moral redemption.

But there are many scenes to enjoy in the second half, too. For me the scene in which Julie essentially throws herself at Pres in the virginal white dress he wanted her to wear – kneeling before him – without knowing that he's married, is not one of them. Similar in its emotional dynamics to the climactic onstage scene of De Palma's Carrie, the Olympus Ball scene is nearly unbearable viewing for a female viewer, but in that scene, at least, Julie is made abject – by her society, by Pres – whereas in the kneeling scene, she humiliates herself (both deliberately and inadvertently). And for my teenage self, at least, that was far worse, since she couldn't conceive anything worse than throwing yourself at a man and being rejected. (Which is why the ball scene in Pride and Prejudice where Darcy refuses to dance with Elizabeth was such a feminist revelation for me.) George Toles has argued this point with me as well, and perhaps Davis herself thought that Julie was simply humbling her pride in this scene – but perhaps Davis, as an actress or persona, is incapable of doing that “correctly,” in a way that would be moving rather than painful to watch; or perhaps we, as viewers, are incapable of wanting to see her that way.

Much better, for me, is the scene where Julie is pushed to a point of desperation akin to madness when she's faced with having to play hostess to Pres's northern wifey, and indulges in some of her worst behaviour yet. She takes herself off to the back porch of the manor house, overlooking the Negro shacks, and suffers the little slave children to come unto her, leading them in song. When Pres's wife looks askance on this wild scene, Julie informs her, batting her eyelashes more aggressively than you would think possible, that it's a quaint “southern custom,” and also announces that she wore her white dress “'cause I'm bein' baptized!” Amy the northern wifey may be all for progress (including a marriage based on modern “equal partnership” rather than sizzling one-upmanship), but there's something about a white woman in a white dress mingling with the Negro slaves that appals her delicate puritan sensitivity. I wouldn't go as far as this blogger, who thinks that the threatened caning stands in for the violence of slavery, but I do think that Julie's “lowering herself” to mingle with the slaves makes a symbolic equivalence between her and their abject pariah status – and, with it, innocence. She tried to exalt herself by demeaning herself when she knelt in front of Pres, but here she actually accomplishes it, even if only the viewer recognizes it. (And even if the slaves – like her maid – are merely uncomprehending props in her complicated, sophisticated, grown-up “white person” games.)

I will confess that I'm not unaffected by the “redemption porn” that Wyler and Davis so beautifully accomplish at the end of the film, especially since the final bartering exchange – for Pres's unconscious, half-dead body! – between Amy and Julie contains Jamesian elements of ambiguity as to just how selfless Julie is being. Wyler turns Davis into a soft-focus waif, wearing herself to death in Pres's service, a single-minded somnambulist in a sweaty, ragged black gown that's been dragged through a swamp (with fabulous puffy spotted sleeves I've never forgotten). (Davis, I recall, once said that Orry-Kelly's gown designs did half her acting for her in another Wyler film, The Little Foxes; here, the same designer's gowns are, at least, brilliant collaborators with her.) The wasted beauty Wyler finds in Davis in these final scenes, surpassing the prettiness she achieved in earlier scenes and never managed to repeat in another film, is a distinctly Hollywood (glamourous, erotic) version of “spiritual beauty,” but I can't deny its effectiveness in its own terms.

But Julie's real redemption takes place in the film's subtext: the scene where Pres collapses from Yellow Fever in a crowded bar, where all of the men (now truly revealed as emasculated cowards) stand back from him except for the doctor (who, incidentally, is the one who recommended the caning) makes a symbolic equivalence between this infected, infectious pariah and the “contamination” of unconfined female sexuality symbolized by Julie's red dress in the Olympus Ball scene. Including the fact that Julie is shunned in a feminine “society” space, by the “good,” “pure” women who fear her contamination (and who lead their men in that respect), while Pres is shunned by a roomful of men.

Other than the – disturbing – “Raise a Ruckus” singalong scene, my favourite scene from the second part of the film also answers the Olympus Ball scene. (The film not only leads up to it by echoing it in advance, but keeps on “answering” it – digesting it – afterwards.) Julie has made herself a pariah a second time over by trying to manipulate Pres and his former rival for her, Buck, into a duel, but accidentally getting Buck's naive young man-about-town protege involved instead of Pres. In the end, Buck is killed or lets himself be killed. This melodrama subplot is a manipulation that forces Julie into a technical villain position, in a way that feels rather artificial and a betrayal of her more interesting qualities. At the same time, however, it also echoes the dynamics of the Olympus Ball scene, since Buck's protege is being rash and headstrong and Buck intends to “tutorially” make him see through the consequences of it – although in the end he can't go through with what that would mean.

Now everyone – even her supportive aunt – in Julie's household turns against her in a wall of self-righteous moral outrage. The time-honoured dramaturgical result, of course, is to make Julie seem morally sympathetic, even though she's in a morally inexcusable position for the first time. The only thing worse than a villain is the villainy of group moral outrage. And when Yellow Fever means that they can't march out of Julie's house en masse as they wished, it's the group's turn to get a comeuppance. They return to the house with grumpy bad grace and forced humbleness – while Julie exhibits perfect good grace and the grace (almost in the elevated Christian sense) of genuine humility and southern hospitality – in bowing before them, welcoming them back in. Which also shows that Davis can “do” humility – when it's actual humility, not humiliation posing as humility. Once again, the scene – drawing on the film's stage origins and the southern setting – pivots around ritual and formal manners. Julie draws on the Magdelene side of her casting as whore and on her similarly demonized southern background, disappearing into a social tradition of humility: she is not humiliated (and humiliates no one) in this scene because her visibility is diminished rather than heightened.

One thing I can agree about with the blogger's slavery subtext theory (marvellous blog title, by the way: I Hate the New Yorker): I think the film's sadomasochistic thematic undercurrent (not just the cane) probably refers to the suppressed subject of slavery. In which even, perhaps (and now I'm warming to the theory), women – the abject, the uppity – are metaphorically equivalent to slaves. But then, so is the abject, disease-ridden, backwards, unreformable south: it, too, is the demonized/romanticized Other. At any rate, the transformation of the master/slave conception of the world into BDSM kink at the interpersonal level (which in turn serves as a metaphor for the former) also shows up in one of the most overtly kinky mainstream English-language films ever made, Losey's The Servant. Which will surely turn up as a subject in a future post. 


  1. just saw a clip. Looks good. Your analysis is making me think of Gone with The Wind.

  2. They're very comparable; in fact 'Jezebel' was supposedly Davis's "consolation prize" for not getting Scarlett O'Hara. (Selznick didn't think she was sexy enough, even though Mitchell specifies that Scarlett is not beautiful. It sure would have been a different film with her.) I've got a GWTW essay I want to write but I'm saving that one to submit to film magazines!