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JEZEBEL – Max Steiner


Original Review by Craig Lysy

Warner Brothers executives were seeking a vehicle to showcase their star Bette Davis following her 1935 Oscar win for Dangerous. They believed they found their story with the 1933 play Jezebel by Owen Davis. William Wyler was tasked with production with a $1.25 million budget, and would also direct. The team of Clements Ripley, Abem Finkel and John Huston were hired to write the screenplay and a stellar cast was assembled, including Bette Davis as Julie Marsden, Henry Fonda as Preston Dillard, George Brent as Buck Cantrell, Donald Crisp as Dr. Livingston, Fay Bainter as Aunt Belle Massey, Margaret Lindsay as Amy Bradford Dillard and Richard Cromwell as Ted Dillard.

The film is set in New Orleans 1852 during the pre-Civil War antebellum period. It follows the tempestuous life of impulsive, Julie Marsden, a maiden of the southern aristocracy whose coquettish charm and willfulness drives the love of her life Preston Dillard to abandon her and marry another woman. Her scheming to win him back from his wife Amy only serves to make matters worse. Tragedy comes in the form of Yellow Fever, which leads to widespread deaths and a quarantine of New Orleans. Preston takes ill and in an act of redemption, Julie redeems herself with martyrdom accompanying Preston to the quarantined leper island of Lazaret Island. The film was a commercial success, however critical reception was mixed, with some critics calling Davis’ redemption incongruous and unconvincing. Nevertheless Davis went on to earn her second Oscar win, which affirmed her status a Hollywood’s premier woman star. The film earned five Academy Award nominations, including Best Picture, Best Cinematography, Best Film Score, winning two for Best Actress and Best Supporting Actress.

Max Steiner was Warner Brothers resident composer and his association with Bette Davis is legend. He scored fifteen of her films and was affectionately called by Davis as “My composer”. Steiner throughout his career was a master for scoring female character driven dramas, foremost, those with Davis. As such there was never any doubt that he would score the film. Steiner understood that as with all Bette Davis films, the musical narrative had to focus on her. As was his usual practice, he also infused his soundscape with classical and folk melodies to bring authenticity to the film’s time and setting, including; the traditional song “Raise a Ruckus,” “Pretty Quadroon” by Nat Vincent and Howard Wright, “De Camp Town Races” by Stephen Foster, “Beautiful Dreamer” by Stephen Foster, “Oh, Shoo My Love,” traditional, “Susie Gal” by Thomas W. Talley, Etude in E Opus 10 No. 3 by Frederic Chopin and “An Der Schonen, Blauen Donau Opus 314 by Johan Strauss.

The score’s signature piece is the Jezebel Waltz, which offers a grand performance for the crucial scene where Julie rebels against social mores by defiantly wearing a bright red dress to a ball instead of the virginal white required for maidens. Steiner’s construct is genius, beginning with three repeating F-natural notes (matching the syllables for “Jezebel”), followed by a rising triplet (G-A-B-flat), a reprise of (F-F-F naturals) and then a final glorious ascending triplet, which initiates the waltz. Steiner offers a sumptuous sweeping valzer gentile, which flows with the dance’s classic ¾ time rhythms. It offers an ABA construct with the fluidic A Phrase flowing with traditional grace and eloquence, while the B Phrase offers a more expressive and passionate statement. The theme permeates the film, being rendering in a multiplicity of guises, with its most notable being a Love Theme. There is one additional theme, a rarity for Steiner, but the Jezebel Theme provides a powerful unifying thread that is intrinsically linked to Julie, which masterfully holds the tapestry of Steiner’s score together. The second theme is a classic marcia della morte, which supports scenes of the death caravans carrying the dead to pits where their bodies are burned, with other carts carrying the dying to the leper colony at Lazeret Island. This death march is powerfully enhanced in the final scene by a wailing women’s chorale. There is also one motif, the Scheming Motif, which supports all the schemes Julie uses in the film to manipulate people to support her plots and goals. It offers an ethereal, nebulous, almost intangible wavering expression meant to express the workings of her mind. The rest of the score offers the folk songs and classical pieces mentioned above as well as a number of set pieces, which speak to ambiance and setting.

Because there is no commercial album, I will use film scene descriptors and film time indices for my review. We open at 00:00 “Studio Logo” empowered with Steiner’s classic Warner Brothers fanfare. At 00:07 we flow into “Main Title,” which supports the roll of the opening credits. Fanfare dramatico usher in a grand sumptuous rendering of the Jezebel Waltz, which softens at 0:45 for a more intimate and tender exposition. At 1:09 we flow into the film proper with “New Orleans 1852” where we see a bustling Main Street full of life, which Steiner supports with vibrancy and a happy go lucky energy. A calliope joins as Buck and Ted arrive by carriage at the St. Louis Hotel and enter. At 4:48 we segue into “Belle’s Social” where we see guests attending a social at her manor. Steiner offers an ambiance of gentility as we see New Orleans’s finest in attendance. The music reprises as Mrs. and Miss Stephanie Kendrick arrive. At 5:59 “De Camp Town Races” joins to enliven the party ambiance and a montage of guest conversations unfold with growing controversy as Julie is late for her own party.

At 7:50 we segue into “Julie’s Arrival” where she arrives on horseback, and decides not to change into her party dress as she is late. Steiner supports the party ambiance under the dialogue with gentile dance-like elegance. At 13:44 we segue into “Julie’s Temper” when her messenger to Preston to join her shopping for her ball dress is declined due to a Board of Director’s meeting. She his highly displeased, and storms out of the carriage and into the bank carried by a string borne scherzando, which subsides at 14:13 when she is stopped at the Boardroom door by an attendant, who promises to fetch Mr. Dillard. Preston tells her he cannot join her and to go on without him. Julie plays the pity card perfectly and departs to a spritely musical narrative propelled by strings animato. The melody transforms into a delightful traveling motif as she heads to Madame Poulard’s dress shop. In the dress shop at 15:16, Steiner offers a refined and gentile ambiance as Julie rejects the traditional white virginal gown demanded by social convention for maidens, and instead choses a lusty bright red gown, which shocks all in attendance.

At 19:33 we segue into “Preston’s Anger” as Julie refuses to see him when he calls on her. As he picks up a cane to ascend the stairs, an agitato ascent motif carries him up to her bedroom. As he knocks Julie sits with nonchalance singing beautiful dreamer as a servant combs her hair. As he continues to knock and profess his love for her, she hums the song and purposely ignores him. The orchestra expands upon the melody, enriching its exposition as Julie lays out her red gown and then finally goes to the door to let him in. She quickly uses her feminine wiles to disarm him, eventually eliciting his loving embrace and kiss at 22:04, which Steiner supports with strings d’amore with harp adornment. The romanticism dissipates when she reveals her red dress to him, to which he strongly objects. He tells her in no uncertain terms that she will dress appropriately in white for the Olympus Ball, kisses her goodbye, and then departs with a tender dream-like rendering of “Beautiful Dreamer” as we see defiance in her eyes. She summons Zette to take a note to Mr. Cantrell and a solo cello with mischievous woodwinds inform us of her intention to defy both Preston and society at the ball.

At 25:25 we segue into “The Red Dress” atop spritely strings of travel and a playful musical narrative as Buck arrives by carriage at Julies house. An ascent motif followed by a descent motif carries Zette up and then down the stairs as Julie follows. Steiner sow a mischievous musical narrative as we see her in the resplendent red gown. Buc sees the red dress, counsels against it, and declines to escort her and be part of something she will regret. He departs and as she reenters the House Preston arrives and joins her parents. Steiner sow unease as they confront her, but she is defiant. Preston acquiesces and grudgingly escorts her. At 28:41 we segue into “The Olympus Ball,” which Steiner supports with an elegant valzer gentile as we see couples, with all unmarried women dancing in white dresses. As they enter and proceed arm in arm a scandal swells as one by one every couple offer expressions of disapproval and turn their backs. At 32:42 we flow into “Jezebel Waltz” a supreme score highlight where Steiner offers a waltz, which has become legend. Julie loses her nerve and wants to leave; however, Preston forces her to dance and as they do, all the other couples exit the floor. The elegant waltz rendered fully in ABA form juxtaposes the couple from the glaring stares of disapproval, which surround them. When the conductor stops, Preston orders him to continue and they continue dancing over Julie’s pleads to take her home. Never in cinema have I see such tension and discomfort supported by music so beautiful and eloquent.

At 35:05 we segue into “Preston Says Goodbye” as Preston says good night to Mr. and Mrs. Marsden, and goodbye to Julie. When she says that evidently, he has made up his mind, he counters that “you made up my mind,” which elicits a face slap, something he as a gentleman suffers. Steiner sow both tension and sadness as she has lost him and foreclosed any hope for mending the rupture. We end with tragic finality when Julie tells her mother, he will come back, and she counters, no he won’t, not this time. As she ascends the stairs a grieving rendering of the waltz’s A Phrase supports her saying that he will come back to her, yet we see in her eyes, she herself does not believe it. One year later we segue at 39:38 atop a solo cello triste and a retinue of woodwinds into “Julie’s Sadness” as we see her still mourning the loss of Preston after a year. She declines Dr. Livingston’s advice to relocate to the plantation as Yellow Fever has returned to New Orleans. The forlorn musical narrative supports Mrs. Marsden relating to him that Julie never leaves the house or accepts gentlemen callers. The music warms with a hopeful rendering of the Waltz Theme as Livingston informs her that Preston returns tomorrow. As he departs strings of happiness dance and are transformed into a romantic rendering of a now hopeful Main Theme as she informs Julie that Preston returns tomorrow. As Julie speaks of him returning, she dreams aloud of marriage as Steiner embellishes with soft wedding bells. At 42:22 an impassioned crescendo romantico so full of longing commences as she declares that she will humble herself before him and beg his forgiveness. We then burst with happiness as she declares that they will go to the plantation and prepare to meet him. The music almost becomes manic as she issues orders for the help to pack and prepare to depart to Halcyon.

At 43:30 we segue into “Halcyon Plantation” as we see Julie meticulously preparing the plantation for Preston’s expected arrival. She is full of joy yet Stiner juxtaposes the grieving slave song “Pretty Quadroon,” which speaks of love denied to inform us that Julie’s dream of marriage will soon be dashed on the rocks. At 46:28 we segue into “The Guests Arrive” as we see in Julie’s eyes, love’s anticipation, which Steiner supports with a musical narrative of ecstatic happiness. As the carriages arrive and guest enter the manor house an ambiance of southern hospitality is emoted by strings gentile. At 48:55 we segue into “Preston’s Arrival,” supported by musical ebullience. Yet the narrative sours as he introduces to Belle and the other guests, his wife Amy. Belle is formal, gracious, yet her face betrays what will surely be heartbreak for her daughter Julie. At 51:00 Julie descends the stairs in her resplendent white gown in search for Preston carried by a thirsting string borne Main Theme. She hides in the study as Preston enters the adjoining room. The “Pretty Quadroon” song by wordless chorus reprises as Julie enters and joins him. He complements her on her timeless beauty as she bares her heart to him, kneels, and asks that he forgive her. He pulls Julie up as Amy enters, then proceeds arm in arm to introduce Amy as his wife. The music dissipates as we see Julie incredulous and trying to maintain composure. At 54:38 as she extends her hand and offers her felicitations, the eerie ethereal strings figures of the Scheming Motif dance with disbelief creating musical tension with the outward pleasantries. Julie departs with Belle carried by a surging strings full of uncertainty and later spurns her mother’s sympathy. Her Theme simmers with anger as she declares Preston hers, and schemes to end his marriage.

At dinner Julie tries repeatedly to provoke Preston to no avail. At 1:02:04 we segue into “Etude in E Opus 10 No. 3” as Miss Massey plays the Chopin piece on piano for the guests. Preston is clearly unsettled, and while walking outside in the garden slaps a mosquito biting his wrist at 1:02:59 supported by a strike of dissonance – Steiner informing us that he has been infected with Yellow Fever. As Jezebel joins him, a romantic rendering of her theme accompanies her. She insists on knowing why he married her, and he says out of love, as he lost his love for her. She seeks to remind him of their shared roots and love, which Steiner supports with a wistful musical narrative. She moves into him and kisses him, only to be firmly pushed back. At 1:06:40 Buc joins her for chit chat and the eerie Scheming Motif reprises as she plants the seed that Preston was less than a gentleman. A courier arrives and informs Preston that La Cour has taken ill and needs to speak to him of important bank matters. As Preston prepares to depart a playful musical narrative enters at 1:09:24 as two black slave kids inform Julie of what time they were to sing with her. As Preston kisses Amy goodbye their Love Theme crowns the moment.

At 1:10:32 we segue into “Ted’s Disclosure” as we see Julie and Buck making uncharitable insinuations to Amy regarding Preston, supported by the Scheming Motif. The music darkens as Ted discloses that Buck is being used by Julie to carry out her schemes to make Amy uncomfortable. Ted then insults Buck’s honor and challenges him to a duel. Julie runs after Buck and forbids him to duel, insulting his old fashion customs. The music becomes bitter and grim as he departs saying there is a lot he does not understand (about her). As she ponders, the Scheming Motif reprises until interrupted at 1:12:59 by the slaves singing the happy folk song “Susie Gal”. After the general exposes to Julie his knowledge of her scheme, he departs and she goes to the slaves and tells them to stop. She leads them at 1:14 50 in a new song, the celebratory traditional “Raise A Ruckus”. She uses the song to further taunt Amy, who goes into the house, and as Julie sings, we see tears flow from her eyes.

At 1:16:01 we segue into “The Duel” atop a grim musical narrative as we see a wooden box opened revealing two dueling pistols. Buck informs Dick that he only intends to wing the boy not kill him. They walk opposite directions out of camera range and on the count of ten open fire, closing with a dire piano rumble. Back at the manor Julie enters carried by a happy go lucky musical narrative, showing no concern for the outcome of Buck and Ted’s duel. As a distraught Amy leaves full of worry about Ted the music sours until he enters through the front door. Ted walks straight to Julie and tells her Buck is dead and that he confessed to her scheme, supported by her Scheming Motif. She says nothing, and he departs along with all the other guests leaving Julie and Belle alone. At 1:19:50 we segue into “Aftermath” atop a molto tragico musical narrative, which entwines with the Scheming Motif as Julie returns to fashioning a bouquet from the fresh flowers she cut. Belle then speaks of the biblical tale of Jezebel who did evil in the sight of God. Gun shots ring out as flight music surges on a crescendo dramatico as a fleeing man is shot dead by a policeman for running past the quarantine line. Steiner sow tragedy as the sheriff advises that no one may cross the quarantine line to reach New Orleans. We close with quintessential harp draped southern gentility as Julie graciously reinvites the guest to return and stay until the blockade is lifted.

At 1:22:30 we segue into “Yellow Fever 1” with orchestral strikes of violence as we see the city racked with death and panic. A tragic musical narrative of death and despair unfolds joined by a grim marcia della morte as we see several wagons hauling dead bodies to burn through the streets. Other wagons haul those infected and dying to the Leper Colony on Lazaret Island as Preston and Dr. Livingston look on. In the St. Louis Hotel dark strings support news that Buck Cantrell is dead as Dr. Livingston and Preston take some shots. When Preston hears the men placing bets that his brother Ted could not have killed Buck, he challenges them, but then faints, struck down by Yellow Fever. At 1:27:07 we surge on a crescendo dramatico after all the men refuse to aid Dr. Livingston lift Preston, and he is forced to carry him alone on his back. At 1:27:2 we segue into “Dinner at Halcyon” where we see the Marsden’s hosting their guests for a formal dinner. A sad and subtle exposition of the Main Theme supports the dinner, with the guests clearly uncomfortable sharing bread with Julie. The music is severed when Cato advises that he has been informed that Mr. Preston has taken ill with the fever. Julie decides to go to him over Cato’s protests and suspenseful strings propel their preparations.

At 1:29:55 we segue into “Julie Goes to Preston” where we see Cato and Julie navigating the shrouded bayou at night supported by the Main Theme rendered as a tension motif. A twinkling motif supports their arrival at the boat and boarding. As they depart the Main Theme assumes a yearning romanticism, dissipating into a misterioso as a door knock awakens Dr. Livingston. Julie arrives and cannot be dissuaded to going to Preston. At 1:31:37 we segue into “Julie and Preston” atop tremolo violins as she goes to his bed where he lies in delirium. An aching rendering of the Love Theme supports as she kisses him. The theme then shifts to string borne tenderness as she begins applying cold towels to control his fever and fanning him. At 1:33:19 we segue into “Yellow Fever 2” atop a tragic musical narrative of death and despair borne by a grim marcia della morte as we again see several wagons hauling dead bodies to burn through the streets, with others hauling those infected to the Leper Colony on Lazaret Island. We segue at 1:33:37 to “Amy Arrives” as we see Julie ministering to Preston as Amy and the other house guests arrive by carriage supported by surging strings of anticipation. A descent motif of sadness carries them to the door, which bears a painted “Y” on it. A chiming motif syncs with each fan stroke by Julie as she hears the door knocker. Amy insists on seeing Preston and yearning strings d’Amore carry them up the stairs. As Amy enters and sees Julie, their eyes lock supported by the ethereal Scheming Motif. Julie walks out of the room and a sad musical narrative unfolds as Dr. Livingston advises that he reported Preston’s illness as required by law and that men will soon arrive to transport him to Lazeret Island, where he will not survive.

At 1:36:40 We segue into “Julie’s Decision,” a dramatic score highlight, atop a sad musical narrative, which entwines with the Scheming Motif as Dr. Livingston informs Julie to get some rest or she’ll end up at Lazaret Island like Preston. A descent motif carries Amy down the stairs and impassioned strings support her demand that she accompany Preston to the island. He tries to dissuade her to no avail and departs. Julie then confronts Amy and makes an impassioned plea as to why she who is versed in the Creole language and customs is better equipped to accompany Preston and save his life. A grim low register sustain of death supports the arrival of the transport team, which have come to take Preston. At 1:39:38 a harp and violin ascent support Amy’s declaration that she is not afraid. Julie again makes an impassioned plea to go for self-redemption.

Steiner masterfully supports the scene with a desperate and impassioned rendering of the Love Theme. As I watched the film the scene achieved an emotional, tear evoking confluence of music, acting and dialogue, which is, sublime. A descending musical narrative of death intrudes, joined by a pleading variant of the Love Theme as the men transport Preston on a liter. Julie begs Amy, who relents and gives Julie her blessing to accompany Preston, supported at 1:41:54 by a glorious ascending string borne crescendo brillante as a thankful Julie runs to join Preston. As we shift to the caravan of death the marcia della morte reprises for a powerful iteration, now joined by wailing from wordless women’s chorale. We see Preston laying in Julie’s lap, and the musical narrative is crowned with a grand statement of the Love Theme, which ushers in the “The End”. At 1:43:24 we segue into “Cast Credits” with a sweeping romantic rendering of the Jezebel Waltz, which concludes in a glorious flourish!

It is a tragedy that this score, like “Now Voyager” lack a commercial release. Both deserve a kick-starter campaign to rerecord these magnificent masterworks by Max Steiner to new generations of film score lovers. In many ways Steiner was Bette Davis’ personal composer, someone who understood her well, and consistently composed music, which achieved a beautiful confluence with her acting performance. In conceiving the score, Steiner understood that the Olympus Ball scene was the film’s lynch-pin, which forever shattered Julie and Preston’s romance. He conceived a waltz that has gone down in the annals of music for the cinema, as perhaps the greatest ever written, taking its place in the hallowed halls of the Pantheon of great score themes. What is so amazing is Steiner’s masterful juxtaposition of musical and film narratives. Preston forces Julie to dance and endure the shame of her wearing a red dress to defy social mores, resulting in great tension between the two as all the other couples abandon the dance floor and with collective repudiation. Steiner however supports with a beautiful, sweeping elegant valzer gentile, which flows effortlessly with sublime eloquence. This juxtaposition actually served to make the rupture of their relationship more poignant. This waltz theme served as the score’s Main Theme, being emoted in a multiplicity of guises, which provided a unifying thread to Steiner’s musical narrative, and Davis’ acting performance. He also fully captured the ebullient happiness and gentility of southern antebellum culture, as well as the unbearable sorrow of the Yellow Fever plague, which ravaged New Orleans. Folks, Steiner’s mastery of capturing a film’s emotional core and cultural sensibilities is once again on display. While not as grand as his other antebellum score “Gone With The Wind,” “Jezebel” offers yet another testament to Steiner’s genius. I highly recommend you experience his handiwork by watching the film, until such time as a rerecording can be realized.

Editor’s note: as mentioned, the full score for Jezebel has not been released in any format, but recordings of the waltz are available on several compilation albums, including RCA’s Classic Film Scores For Bette Davis album conducted by Charles Gerhardt originally released on LP in 1973, and on several re-packed versions thereafter.

For those of you unfamiliar with the score, I have embedded a YouTube link to the immortal Jezebel Waltz: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=t_Bi86LX0nM

Track Listing:

  • Not Available

Unreleased (1938)

Music composed and conducted by Max Steiner. Orchestrations by Hugo Friedhofer. Score produced by Max Steiner and Leo F. Forbstein.

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