Co-written by John Huston, the film boasts a crew selected among the best of WB’s technicians – cinematographer Ernest Haller, composer Max Steiner and costume designer Orry-Kelly, just to name a few. This was a major production, one that represented a change of direction in the WB output – up to “Jezebel” this had been a studio dominated by men like Cagney, Robinson and Flynn, where the women were as hard as any of them (Davis, Blondell, Stanwyck, Dvorak, Kay Francis) or decorative objects. The only exception, somewhere in the middle, was Olivia de Havilland’s pairings with Flynn. The films were tough and quickly, often cheaply made. Over the next few years, however, prestige productions gained momentum including a string aimed at women, most often led by Bette herself (de Havilland got a couple towards the end of the war).
The remaining cast is also worth looking at: Henry Fonda (before his own stardom with the John Ford films); George Brent; Donald Crisp; Margaret Lindsay; Spring Byington and especially Fay Baiter who, defeated by Davis at the Oscars as best actress, deservedly took home the best supporting actress one.
The film tells the story of a spoiled southern belle, Julie, who, to spite Preston, her fiancée (Henry Fonda) and since she thinks herself above all rules (“This is 1852 dumplin', 1852, not the Dark Ages.”), she decides to wear a red dress to a ball – when she was meant to wear white, the colour of choice of unmarried girls. As a result he teaches her lesson, humiliating her in public, showing that actions have consequences and breaks off the engagement, departing to Boston. A year later he comes back, married and to what turns out to be an outbreak of yellow fever. Unfortunately for every one involved, Julie still hasn’t fully learned her lesson.
This is a film full of wonderful moments – the subjective shots of the cane (ok, there’s a technical name but I am too lazy to look for it); at the ball, when we get the full extent of what’s happening (accompanied by a wonderful “twist” in Steiner’s waltz); Davis’ whole facial range in the sequence where she meets Fonda after his return (Fay Bainter’s expressions in the porch just before, while I am at it); Bainter’s defeated exit in the background; Julie as a Madonna and Preston as Christ in the end. There is also strong hints that Fay Bainter’s character was somehow like Julie in her youth and that she’s now paying the price (spinsterhood), and that maybe, the man she lost (or wasn’t allowed to get) was Donald Crisp’s idealistic doctor.
Part of course is Wyler, part is the wonderful Ernest Haller, but this being WB, I was wondering if there isn’t a bit of Curtiz’s influence in last act of the film, when things turn darker. Of course, there are some silly moments as well, like the mosquito scene at the plantation, which hits you with an off key note at the piano.
I like the ending, but somehow I am less convinced by the appearance of self-sacrifice than I am meant to. (Note: some spoilers coming…) Throughout the whole film, Julie behaved like a spoiled brat (actually, a bitch) but she now offers herself to follow Pres to the island to nurse him back to health (or more likely to die with him). Her reason, she states, is to clean herself from her sins (in particular, orchestrating the duel that ended with Brent’s Buck Cantrell’s death). Despite the pietà imagery of the last shot, all she wants is to be with him at last – and if she can’t have him in life, she’ll have him in death. Of course, this is a much darker interpretation, and one the Hays Office might not have been terribly happy with.
The film has of course, one major aspect of controversy for modern audiences – the depiction of slavery. None of the black characters in the film have much depth, with perhaps the odd moment of Julie’s butler conversation with Preston. This of course is usual 1930s fare. What really bugs me is that the red dress that causes such offence, is not only the dress of a prostitute, but is also coveted by Julie’s personal maid (a slave, obviously).
At the Oscars, the film got three other nominations: for best film, cinematography and score (not “best original score” though, although I don’t understand the difference). It should have won the last two clearly (Korngold won the “best original score” category). As for best film, considering that “La Grande Illusion” (I know, French, so it would never win) and “The Adventures of Robin Hood” were in the race, I’d rather have either getting it. In the end all three lost to Frank Capra’s mediocre “You Can’t Take it with You”. Wyler, the script and the art direction weren’t even nominated and costume design wasn’t yet a category.