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Southern Belles

by David Yeagley · April 11, 2008 · 10 Comments ·

There two movies that present stunning stereotypes of the Southern lady–as a spoiled coquette whose flirtatious veneer lies the venom of a serpent, the strength of a lion, and the still the ‘earth’ of home. Obviously, the most famous of these movies is Gone With the Wind (1939) with Vivien Leigh as Scarlett O’Hara–the one and only. The movie was in full ‘Technicolor.’ However, there was a movie just the year before, in black & white, that, to those familiar with it, is obviously the precursor of Gone With the Wind. That less familiar movie was Jezebel, with Betty Davis playing the part of Julie Marsden (“Miss Julie”). This 1938 film takes place, not in Atlanta, Georgia, but New Orleans, Louisiana. While both films are priceless recreations of the Old South, Jezebel is actually a deeper cutting story. Though not as grand in scale or scope, it reaches deeper into the heart of coquetry, and the agonies it creates not only for the young woman, but for all others involved with her. Jezebel has much the same stuff of Gone With the Wind, the same mis-fired affairs, the same critical roles of the servants weaved into the story (though nothing quite like Scarlott’s “Mammy” Hattie McDaniel); the same wealth, and the same pre-Civil War issues–which in both movies, has nothing to do with slaves, but with economics, industry, and competition.


Betty Davis, as Miss Julie, in Jezebel (1938), charming the daylights out of
Buck Cantrell (George Brent).

In terms of historical catastrophy, Gone With the Wind involves the burning of Atanta by General Sherman. The Civil War came directly to Atanta, as was included in the movie. In Jezebel, a different kind of enemy causes the crisis: yellow jack fever–the plague of the swamps, the curse of the Louisiana bayous, the bane of the Mississippi Delta land. The movie references the great outbreak of 1830, so that there is a drone of expectation created from the very beginning. It wasn’t storms or floods that hung over the populace like a dark, ominous cloud, but a fever, a chilling, killing fever. This is an interesting difference in the two movies.

Now, in Jezebel, there is heated discussion about the North and the South, even a duel. Henry Fonda plays Preston Dillard, a banker who is fully aware of the Northern advantages in economics and industry. He is concerned about the way in which the Northern railways were turning the traffic away from the Mississippi, while the older Southern gentlemen will not hear of any Northern superiority. “They’re not smart enough to turn the current of the Mississippi,” one of them says. “They’re smart enough to turn the traffic,” Preston remarks. These are the nature of the converstations before the war. The movie is set in 1852, so that the war idea is not so present as it was in Gone With the Wind, which was set nearly a decade later, 1861.


Miss Scarlett (Vivien Leigh) charming the ever-so-ungullible Rhett Buttler
(Clark Gable).

But the Southern Belle, the coquette, the supreme female egotism–what of this caricature? Was it real? (I know that just about every woman in Atlanta has a Scarlett O’Hara complex, at least the one’s I knew.) Were Southern Anti-Bellum women so fearless, dautless, and, well, ruthless? Were they just plain selfish? How did such a stereotype come about, and why has it remained so permanently popular today? What is it about such a woman that makes her so aggrandized? “More charm than the law allows,” as Rhett Butler said to Scarlett? There are attractive women all over the world. What was so memorable about the Southern Belle?

Well, it was as close to aristocracy that any part of America ever saw. The whole bit of black servanthood only accentuated what was perhaps somewhat of an artificially created sense of high social class. It gave the Southern aristocrisy a chance to be charitable and caring in a most dramatic, practical way (–something they would never do for their own kind, of course). But, how could such a circumstance evolve forth the Southern Belle, the coquette, the stereotype dramatized in two major, ever-popular American movies?

It is interesting to note that the South, to this day, prides itself on its English roots, and its French roots. The Northerners originally came from England also, but with great anxiety and resentment of the old country. The South, on the other hand, inherited the spirit of artistocracy, refinement, and social mannerisms. This is some what of an irony as well, however, since the masses of Southerners were Scots and Irish illiterates. The populace was renowned as “white trash.” Tough dudes, but, not elegant. The likes of Davie Crockett, Jim Bowie, and Daniel Boone had come from the sea of white refuse washed up into the woods of the south. Great men, but not Ben Franklins, not Nathan Hales. The writers of common American history (mostly Northerers?) would not have us believe that there was another gentleman in the South save he that surrendered the forces–General Robert E. Lee. Heroes and great men, yes, but not gentlemen. (No one would consider the great Old Hickory, Andrew Jackson, a gentleman, profoundly great a rough Scots-Irish though he was.)


Jim Bowie, of Kentucky, 1796-1836, killed at the Alamo

So, does the coquette come only with the aristocracy? The female aggressions developed in association with the restraints of the traditions? Both Jezebel and Gone With the Wind certainly present such a picture. The coquette is a reaction to repression. While Southern gentlemen could settle their differences quickly, by duel, the competing woman could only out manoeuver another woman. In a sense, there is absolutely nothing unusual about this, nothing particularly Southern. However, in the context of a special phase of American society, the Belle seems to have been forever locked within the historical scene of the South. Something as really universal as coquetry is, in American social memory, inexorably affined to the deep South. Pity. It was only such a small part of a very normal circumstance.

I suppose the popularity of these two movies (Jezebel deserving much more than it ever got) has to do with a sublimated honor of feminine manipulation. Deceit, lying, and all that is associated with the coquette are certainly condemned in the eyes of a moral society. The North certainly had no taste for that aspect of the Southern Belles–though obviously she is a winner in all imaginary eyes anyway. The Northern sublimation, so very characteristic of an overtly moral society, celebrates the Southern Belle rather through fiction, or cinema. It’s okay there, but not in real life. Surely no modern woman would think of being such a devilish creature as Miss Julie, or Miss Scarlett–or would they? They pay homage to the Southern Belle, but dare not imitate her.

Or am I greatly mistaken?

Funny how sexual themes seem to outway so much else. America officially remembers the South for the “evil” of slavery, and the poor, miserable Negroes. But the enduring movies are those of the Southern Belle. The South, in her day, is remembered as a fairy land. Especially since it “passed.” Yet, only the nature of the work force passed. The people of the South remained, and rebuilt. Yes, it’s taken more than a century, but, the people of the South didn’t go anywhere. The unforgettable Southern female stereotype, that impetuous personality, that seemingly somewhat exotic beauty, that’s the part that means most to the American public to day, at least the non-political aspect of the public. The Romance, not the slavery, is the chief entertainment from memories of the South. I can’t see that the two aspects are at all related.

Speaking of politics, the women of Atlanta were given the right to vote in 1919, a year before national sufferage.

Posted by David Yeagley · April 11, 2008 · 6:21 pm CT · ·

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10 responses so far ↓

  • 1 David Yeagley // Apr 11, 2008 at 6:23 pm   

    Just for reassurance, I promise, I will cover the American Indian aspect of the South toward the end of this series on Confederate History Month.

  • 2 Tom // Apr 11, 2008 at 7:52 pm   

    DAY wrote: “Just for reassurance, I promise, I will cover the American Indian aspect of the South…”

    We all have our priorities…

  • 3 "Greetings, my son!" // Apr 11, 2008 at 9:43 pm   

    In short Tom says,

    “My! My!…I believe I have the vapors!”

    I never could understood the cooling effect of a woman waving their hand back and forth in front of their face.

    I must now read the offering.

  • 4 "Greetings, my son!" // Apr 11, 2008 at 9:43 pm   

    In short Tom says,

    “My! My!…I believe I have the vapors!”

    I never could understood the cooling effect of a woman waving their hand back and forth in front of their face.

    I must now read the offering.

  • 5 betty ann // Apr 11, 2008 at 10:33 pm   

    Great one on southern belles. I love Bette Davis and all her movies. Yes she was a beauty in Jezebel but like all things she aged and she no longer was the beautiful and gracious light skinned white female that captures the heart of not only the white male, but the sexually strong willed negroe and of course our own Indian men, in hush, hush sweet charlotte.

    Great article.

    betty ann a descendent of a civil war sargeant wounded in the battle of gettysburg, what did you call them irish men oh comparable to scums of the earth. Tis alright I love my irish blood.

  • 6 cipher // Apr 12, 2008 at 12:32 pm   

    DY,

    Thank you for such a lovingly crafted musing on film, history, and culture. You da man!

  • 7 David Yeagley // Apr 12, 2008 at 8:35 pm   

    Tom, your priorities appear to be somewhat artificial.

    Like I said, I’m saving the best for last.

  • 8 David Yeagley // Apr 12, 2008 at 9:40 pm   

    Well, Betty Davis is not really known for her beauty, I don’t think. She really wasn’t beautiful. What she had was beautiful emotions. She could express every detail of every human emotion imaginable. She could express it prefectly, classically, and far better than just about anyone to ever set foot in Hollywood.

    I do recommend Jezebel. I truly do. Interestingly, when I originally saw it, it was on TV. I later had opportunity to buy a VHS. This was some years ago. The VHS did not have the same ending as what I had seen on TV! I don’t want to give away the ending of a great story, which is great in either version, but the original ending was better. I wrote MGM about it, and they said the VHS was the original length. Maybe true, but, all those VHS and DVD movies have been “modified.”

    I don’t know if Jezebel has ever been colorized. I don’t think so. The VHS is black & white.

    There’s a big scene, an Olympas Ball, in which all the unmarried ladies come in white dresses. Miss Julie (Betty) decides to come in a big RED dress! Wonderful scene. Agonizing.

    Well, she was supposed to be progressive, different, breaking traditions. She paid a big price for that outlandish act of a red dress…

  • 9 Alifa // Apr 13, 2008 at 4:13 am   

    The first time I saw Gone with the Wind, I thought it was thrilling. Then I re-read the book, and found out a bit about the author, Margaret Mitchell. In the book, Scarlett is a girl who had to grow up, and she did. She had her flaws (and suffered from her deluded “love” for Ashley), but she also had a sense of responsibility and she really showed her spunk and toughness when she ran her household after the war. There was so much to admire in her. It’s too bad people always think of the film as the quintessential tale of the South.
    Margaret Mitchell, in her earlier career as a journalist, wrote a series about women who had dressed as men and served in the Confederate Army. And her description of the siege of Atlanta was based on her interviews of some of the last Confederate veterans.
    And — thank you for your previous post about Jews in the South. In some of the earliest volumes of the American Jewish Year Book, there are lists of prominent American Jews, and I was surprised to find a significant number of Confederate military officers.

  • 10 David Yeagley // Apr 13, 2008 at 9:41 am   

    Alifa, Southern women writers are a very special breed. Flannery O’Conner, Kaye Boyles, etc. It is a wonderful thing, the Southern ethos.

    I think that if the slavery conditions were ever so horrible, the Jewish population in the South may have protested. Of course, the Jewish community was small, and itself subject to persecution, so, they had to be careful. But, even in modern times, the Jewish population in America is still a very tiny minority, and that didn’t stop them from a powerful participation in civil rights issues.

    In any case, I do recommend Jezebel to you. It’s really about the great wrong that coquetry can bring about, and the irreparable damage, despite the most passionate repentance. Terrific story.

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