ThEOLOGY AT THE MOVIES
By James Tomek, Ph.D
Is “Jezebel,” a 1938 movie set in the 1850s South with Bette Davis, worth seeing from a theological view? Turner Classic Movies shows it regularly. The protagonist, Julie Marston, appears to have little in common with Jezebel, Elijah’s enemy, in the 800s BCE, seen in the Book of Kings. However, by comparing the two characters, we can arrive at a positive interpretation of the Deuteronomic moral code of the Bible. A review of the evil manipulative workings of Jezebel, and its connection with the Deuteronomic Covenant, will reveal her as an evil conscience influence on the mind of Julie, scheming to keep her man in an 1852 New Orleans business world, with the backdrop threat of Yellow Fever. Is there a deeper reading of the Deuteronomic code than just reward and punishment for being faithful, or not, to the Moses’ covenant? Does Julie have a perfect contrition?
Jezebel comes to Israel via King Omri, who succeeded Solomon and reestablished the Northern Kingdom’s power with Samaria as a base. He married his son Ahab to Jezebel, a Phoenician, who came with her pagan god Baal, along with the Phoenician ambition in commerce. Baal is a Canaanite god of rain that promises wealth and good crops, without imposing any ethical responsibilities. She and Ahab are central figures in the struggles with the major prophets of the era – Elijah and then Elisha. Elijah wins a fire battle against her prophets, ending a drought that he inflicted on the land. Jezebel’s overall power continually frightens Elijah. She and Ahab, in a murderous plot, take the land of Naboth for their vineyard. Jezebel writes secretive letters that eventually doom Naboth. She dies unrepentant and punished – her dead body eaten by dogs.
Julie Marston is a plantation owner in love with Preston “Pres” Dillard (Henry Fonda), a banker who persuades his New Orleans colleagues to invest in railroads and factories instead of the river economy and slave labor. Pres’s business dealings preoccupy his mind, causing him to neglect his love interest. To get his attention, Julie resorts, shockingly, to wearing a red dress, reserved for married women, at the annual Olympus Ball, instead of white, the mandatory color for unmarried women. She also tries to incite Pres’s jealousy by asking her former beau, Buck Cantrell (George Brent), to take her to the ball. Pres has a mean streak as he refuses to take Julie from the ball, punishing her, by keeping her shamefully on the dance floor, for refusing his request to wear white. He ends his relationship with Julie, going North on business, returning with a wife, Amy.
Julie, in a mixed-up state on how to win Pres back, does succeed in causing anger between her former beaus, who are opposites. Cantrell is a Southern gentleman, comfortable with the slave way of life and happy with an economic system that relies on slavery and the river trade. He accuses Pres Dillard, with his interests in railroads, factories, and non-slave labor, of being an abolitionist and traitor to the Southern way of life. Their disagreements carry over to the treatment of the Yellow Fever epidemic. The “Old South” conservatives prefer to think of the “plague” as passing, while the “New South” liberals, like Pres and Dr. Livingston, want to learn from the previous 1832 outbreak and clean the swamps and city streets.
Julie’s manipulations in having the men fight over her fail, as Buck, having insulted his rival’s “Yankee” wife, is killed in a duel by Pres’s brother Ted. Pres, himself, is bitten by a mosquito carrying the fever virus, while Julie’s Aunt Belle labels her a Jezebel – a person who has done evil in the sight of God. While not as maliciously evil as her Biblical counterpart, Julie is possessed by her scheming spirit.
The Jezebel of the Bible brings with her Baal and the false prophets or idols who allow her to justify her greed. What are the idols in Julie’s and our age? The “prophets” who praise profit would be one. Quick fixes instead of long run thinking. While the treatment of blacks in this film are a little outdated, the message of white condescension is still clear. Julie undergoes a conversion, as she will accompany and care for Pres at “Lazarus” Island, the doomed colony for fever victims. She convinces Pres’s wife of her husband’s love for her. The story ends with Julie in the cart of victims going to their sure death. However, she feels clean again.
In Deuteronomic history, from Moses down through Joshua, Judges, the Books of Samuel to the Book of Kings to the Babylonian exile of 585 BCE, one sees that faithfulness to Moses’ covenant is rewarded, while disobedience brings punishment. While this outcome is not always true, as we see in Job, there is a sense of peace brought on when one does the right thing covenant-wise. The prophet Micah aptly sums up the covenant – do right, love goodness and walk humbly with God.
Some film critics thought that Julie’s conversion was too sudden. Theologically, especially in the lament psalms, God’s grace arrives quickly and undeservedly. Take Psalm 22, for example, the one we read on Palm Sunday. The sufferer cries out “My God my God, why have you forsaken me?” Look at the sudden reversal of fortune from verses 21 to 22.
v19 But you O Lord do not be far away! O my help come quickly to my aid!
v20 Deliver my soul … from the power of the dog!
v21 Save me from the mouth of the lion!
v22 From the horns of the wild oxen you have rescued me.
Julie’s character is complex as she does not seem to know what she wants. She is a strong-willed woman in a patriarchal society. In an early scene, she is being fitted with a white dress that is wide and fluffy, giving her an impressive stature. When the dress makers lift the dress off, we see her very slim small body inside a cage that served to keep the dress wide. It takes a lot of work to go from appearance to reality. Julie does get real in her repentance and does stay true to the Deuteronomic code by doing good in the sight of the Lord. The reward is in the sacrament of penance itself.
(James Tomek is a retired language and literature professor at Delta State University who is currently a Lay Ecclesial Minister at Sacred Heart in Rosedale and also active in RCIA at Our Lady of Victories in Cleveland.)