Navigation – Plan du site

AccueilNuméros14.11. « Regards croisés sur la Nouve...IV/ Réfractions littéraires et ci...New Orleans as the city of misfit...

1. « Regards croisés sur la Nouvelle-Orléans : la cité décalée » / “Perspectives on New Orleans, the Misfit City”
IV/ Réfractions littéraires et cinématographiques / Literary and cinematographic refractions

New Orleans as the city of misfit women in Jezebel (William Wyler, 1938) and The Flame of New Orleans (René Clair, 1941)



Dans plusieurs films hollywoodiens sur le Sud antebellum, la ville de la Nouvelle-Orléans pivote autour d’une jeune femme insoumise, peu adaptée aux codes et aux coutumes du pays, pour servir ainsi le portrait cinématographique de la ville louisianaise au XIXe siècle, présentée comme un topos d’instabilités culturelles et sexuelles, en même temps qu’un parfait lieu de spectacles et performances de toutes sortes. Vue comme une ville peu américaine où les codes se mélangent sans néanmoins déboucher sur un melting pot, la Nouvelle-Orléans filmique fournit une toile de fond fascinante pour des fictions filmiques susceptibles de remettre en question l’image romantique archétypale du Sud antebellum.
Cet article examine deux personnages féminins qui mettent à mal la vision pastorale du « Vieux Sud », enracinée dans les romans de plantation du XIXe siècle dans Jezebel de William Wyler (L’Insoumise, 1938), et dans The Flame of New Orleans (La Belle Ensorceleuse, 1941), réalisé par René Clair au cours de son exile aux Etats-Unis pendant la Seconde Guerre mondiale. Dans le premier, une Belle du Sud nommée Julie Marsden (Bette Davis) transgresse les codes de civilité sudiste, alors que chez René Clair, c’est une douteuse comtesse française, Claire Ledoux (Marlene Dietrich), qui perturbe le beau monde de la célèbre ville portuaire. Dans quelle mesure la conduite de la leading lady déclenche le plus grand cataclysme connu par le Sud avant la Guerre de Sécession (1861-1865) — la fièvre jaune qui dévasta la Nouvelle Orléans dans les années 1850 — demeure une interrogation à la fin du mélodrame de Wyler qui amène le spectateur à s’interroger sur les rapports entre la calamiteuse conduite de la jeune femme, emblématique de l’insouciance des Sudistes avant la guerre, et les catastrophes qui s’abattent sur la ville sudiste. Sur un ton plus satirique, mais en résonance avec l’iconoclasme de l’héroïne rebelle néo-orléanaise de William Wyler, René Clair nous présente une ville que l’on ne saurait confondre avec Atlanta en Géorgie, dans cet autre film représentatif du genre « southern ».

Haut de page

Texte intégral

Have you ever been in New Orleans? If not, you’d better go,
It’s a nation of a queer place; day and night a show!
Frenchmen, Spaniards, West Indians, Creoles, Mustees,
Yankees, Kentuckians, Tennesseans, lawyers and trustees,
Clergymen, priests, friars, nuns, women of all stains.
James R. Creecy,
Scenes in the South (1860)

1Movies on the American South tend to present New Orleans as a vibrant, singularly un-American city where a potpourri of people of various origins mingle, without turning the city founded in 1718 into a WASPish “melting pot” in the idealized sense of the metaphor. Difficult to manage because of the motley crowds that poured into the city during the decades of its French and Spanish rules, and long after the transfer of Louisiana to the United States of America in 1804, the city of New Orleans created by the cinema stands out as a puzzling place due to its population shifts, but also due to its natural environment. In many films seeking to capture the effervescence of the Southern port city, New Orleans is staged as a topos of corrupted codes and conventions. Surrounded by exotic, pestilential swamps teeming with alligators, snakes, and white trash folk, the bayou-bound city offers a vivid backdrop for scenarios affected by the idea of a fallen garden, so central to the Southern mythology.

2This cinematographic hortus non conclusus, both a Babylonian harbor city and a rank swamp, nourished by a variety of geographical, botanical, historical, political and theological subtexts, marks a number of movies within a wide corpus of films introduced here under the heading “southerns” to remind that, since the yearly years of cinema history, in a parallel vein to the American West and its myths explored by “westerns”, films on the American South have undergone their own periods of creation, maturation and increasingly transgressive and reinventive parodies and hybridizations. And although the “southern” may still be in want of legitimacy as a cinematographic genre, akin to the western, it has its own subgenres closely related to the treatment of time and space. While westerns are keen on creating conflicts between civilization and wilderness in a generic frontier town or village, southerns tend to focus on disordered towns and cities locatable on the map, thus bringing the questions of frontiers, merging populations and “law and order” under a different light.

3The movies set in New Orleans are of particular interest, for since Edwin S. Porter’s 1903 film adaptation of Harriet Beecher Stowe’s 1852 novel Uncle Tom’s Cabin, partly set in New Orleans, where beautiful courtyards coexist with slave markets, the city seems to have emblematized the greatest virtues and the greatest evils of the South. This does not require the city’s omnipresence on screen. Sometimes a mere allusion to New Orleans seems to suffice to create a mindscape or a particular mood, a webwork of historical and cultural associations, or a challenge to the very “unity” of the United States of America. For, as Wayne Schuth argues in “The Image of New Orleans on Film”, a text published in Warren French’s The South and Film, whatever its role or function in the movie, New Orleans is endowed with characteristics which distinguish it from all the other North-American cities:

In some of the films, New Orleans is a character, essential to the structure of the film itself. In others, it is merely in the background for beauty, mystery, and excitement. The city may appear throughout a film, or in just a small part. Whether the film is set in the historical past (Pretty Baby, Band of Angels) or in contemporary times (Let’s Do It Again, Live and Let Die), whether in a filmed television series (Yancy Derringer, Longstreet) or in feature films made for television (Concrete Cowboys, Sparrow), whether in theatrical films (The Cincinnati Kid, Easy Rider) or in non-theatrical films (Always for Pleasure, Three New Orleans), whether in famous films (A Streetcar Named Desire, Panic in the Streets) or in obscure films (Mirrors, French Quarter), New Orleans has a personality all its own. (Wayne Schuth 240)

4Strikingly, the dramatis persona named New Orleans often connects with attractive “Belles” turned into “Hell’s Belles”, to quote the title of Seale Ballenger’s Hell's Belles: A Tribute to the Spitfires, Bad Seeds & Steel Magnolias of the New and Old South, a humorous homage to the famous and infamous females, good and bad Belles of “Old Dixie”. And as implied by the well-known song “Dixie (I Wish I Was in Dixie Land)”, composed by Daniel Emmett in 1859 where a woman’s name fuses with that of an entire region, popular culture perceived the “Old South” early on as something intrinsically and infinitely feminine.

5Well before Hurricane Katrina hit the Gulf Coast and blasted through New Orleans in August 2005, cinema had imagined and recreated a long series of scourges and plagues falling upon the city. A great many of these curses remain intimately associated with tempestuous, destructive females, as women par qui le mal arrive accompany fires, floods, epidemics, economic crises, depressions, military conflicts, or other calamities, contagions, slumps or tensions. In contrast to the charming yet curiously lifeless flowers of the Southern magnolia garden, the daring, disturbing “misfits”, the always somewhat turbulent and degenerate Belles serve the portrayal of the main city of Louisiana as a culturally and sexually suspicious site. This cultural capriciousness together with the incongruous mixture of origins are crucial for the understanding of the two Hollywood Golden Era movies set in the antebellum New Orleans examined in this article: William Wyler’s romantic melodrama Jezebel and René Clair’s romantic adventure comedy, The Flame of New Orleans, both of which highlight some of the quintessential features of New Orleans on screen at a time when the “Old South” heroines were breaking into a new era.

1. The Queen City of the South

6Before the symbolic feminization of New Orleans lingered into the world of moving pictures, for better and for worse, it had already made its way into the American letters, including sentimental domestic novels and the accounts by many travelers to the city. In his study, Southern Queen: New Orleans in the 19th century, a thrilling exploration of the history of New Orleans during the decisive era of its development, a period which saw the city develop “its most characteristic poses” (Ruys Smith 1), Thomas Ruys Smith quotes several 19th century visitors and travel writers to the city, devoting an entire chapter to the “‘Prima Donna’: The Queen of the South”, also known as “the stately Southern Queen” (Ruys Smith 71). In keeping with this regal iconography, popular mythology later saw the allegorical royal Lady of the South deprived of her emblems of power. This is best illustrated by “A Lament for New Orleans”, a poem written during the Civil War (1861-1865) by Mary Bayard Clarke where New Orleans is presented as a fair-haired, now crownless monarch:

Oh, weep for New Orleans! The fair Southern Queen,
Whose throne by the “Father of Waters” is seen,
She sits in the dust – her fair head bowed down –
Her spectre departed and fallen her crown.
(Ruys Smith 109)

7After the advent of the cinema, the “unrivaled Southern Queen of Cities” (Ruys Smith 1), a geo-historical site, as well as a multilayered, transatlantic cultural colony of visual sights would be restaged on screens, big and small, in scenarios where individual destinies and more global “Histories” crisscross. This ostensibly majestic, and presumably noble façadein reality only one of its many fronts, carnivalesque masks and disguisesshould also be kept in mind when examining the depiction of New Orleans in Jezebel (1938), one of the first films probing, more critically, into Southern chivalry and honor codes, before the somewhat Europeanized cinematic depiction of the capital of the fantasy-laden Dixie Land in The Flame of New Orleans (1941).

  • 1 The screen play of Jezebel was written by Clements Ripley, Abem Finkel and John Huston.

8In the historical drama, Jezebel, we encounter a colorful pre-Civil War Southern Belle named Julie Marsden played by Bette Davis, an American actress who was to interpret several other queenly or vixenish women on screen during her long career. After failing to be cast as Scarlett O’Hara in David O. Selznick’s super-production, the Technicolor Civil War epic Gone with the Wind (1939), Davis received an Oscar for her role in this Warner Brothers movie based on Owen Davis’s 1933 Broadway play1 as a willful, coquettish New Orleans Belle. Or rather a “Jeze-Belle”, because of the character’s hyphenated, inter-textual links with Jezebel, the bad girl of the Bible, a murderer, prostitute and enemy of God who, in Wyler’s film, creates havoc among family and friends before her calamitous conduct spreads disorder over the entire New Orleans area.

9Davis’s on-screen persona is a “high-headed and willful” [00:18:20] Southern woman, an orphan and a surrogate daughter under the guardianship of General Bogardus (Henry O’Neill), in many respects quite like the spunky, gumption-filled Scarlett O’Hara in Gone with the Wind released a year after Jezebel. Despite the obvious parallels between the central Southern Belles whose flamboyances epitomize the Southerners’ fiery opposition to the Yankees, one should nevertheless not confuse New Orleans with Atlanta. For what we have here is not the capital of the Civil War and post-Civil War Georgia, but a deliberately insular antebellum New Orleans, Louisiana.

2. Port of entry to the motley city

10Jezebel is set in 1852 and 1853, at a time when a legendary yellow fever epidemic struck New Orleans claiming 8,000 victims. The city was hit by several other invasions of yellow fever between the 18th century and the beginning of the 20th, the decades before the Civil War witnessing particularly deadly outbreaks of the epidemic. In Wyler’s film, the pivotal character is Julie Marsden (Bette Davis), a female rebel who defies the strictly coded customs of her country, not only by triggering duels between Southern Beaux, but by showing up in an outrageously scarlet-red dress at an elegant yearly ball, despite the objections voiced by her fiancé, Preston Dillard (Henry Fonda): “You never saw an unmarried girl in anything but white.” [00:21:45]

  • 2 The other three films René Clair made in the USA during the war are: I Married a Witch (1942), It H (...)

11Our second film with a New Orleansian setting is a 1941 romantic adventure comedy also set in the antebellum South. One of the four films made during his exile in the United States during the Second World War2 by France’s first great director of comedies, René Clair, The Flame of New Orleans has as its central protagonist not a rebellious Southern Belle, but a European-born adventurer, a fake countess named Claire Ledoux played by Marlene Dietrich. Quite similarly to Wyler’s Julie Marsden, the never entirely “clear” Claire is the driving force of the spectacle, organized around the woman’s calculated postures and duplicitous manners which reflect some of the city’s foibles, idiosyncrasies and multiple cultural make-ups.

12In both movies, the apparition of the female star is delayed, until she is allowed to dazzle the spectators with her aura emphasized by close-ups. In The Flame of New Orleans and Jezebel, this well-known Hollywood strategy is extended to the other major “star” of the film: the city of New Orleans, never a mere backdrop, but a persona in its own right.

  • 3 According to the biblical tale, the wicked, idol-worshipping queen called Jezebel was defenestrated (...)

13During Jezebel’s title sequence, the name of the movie appears on the screen in ornate letters in decorative font, thus creating a distinctively Victorian mood. The period look is completed by an iconic Southern landscape: a moonlit garden with trees covered by Spanish moss hanging off the branches which gives the setting quite an eerie touch. From the very beginning, the name of the Jezebel womanknown as the wife of King Ahab of Israel whose idol worship, blasphemy and further ill deeds led to a hideous end3glistens in dark, smoldering letters on the screen. Ready to flame up, it foreshadows the arrival of the half-Lady, half-vixen who, like her biblical counterpart, seems incapable of repentance. Later on, when the yellow fever (also called “Yellow Jack”) breaks out, rough-edged, jagged letters zoom out from the screen suggesting the panic and terror that have now overcome the city. The atmosphere is grim and hellish, tar barrels burning on every street corner. Open wagons carry the sick and the dead to the docks, to be shipped off to Lazarette Island, a leper colony in the Gulf of Mexico.

14Less canonical, but quite as stereotypical is the harbor scene of New Orleans at the beginning of The Flame of New Orleans. Here the viewer is briefly reminded of the city’s main artery towards the inlands, the Mississippi river, an important waterway for the city’s trade and commerce. New Orleans is represented metonymically by a series of masts and sails of schooners and other vessels which exported cotton, rice and tobacco, and hauled in people and goods from all over the world. The city’s harbor area remains, however, too spotless to mirror the motley character and the “devilish sites” of the city foregrounded in the following mid-19th century poem written by James R. Creecy, a Northern colonel quoted in the epigraph of this article:

Negroes in purple and fine linen, and slaves in rags and chains;
Ships, arks, steamboats, robbers, pirates, alligators,
Assassins, gamblers, drunkards, and cotton speculators,
Sailors, soldiers, pretty girls, and ugly fortune-tellers,
Pimps, imps, shrimps, and all sorts of dirty fellows;
White men with black wives, and vice versa too.
A progeny of all colors
an infernal motley crew!
Yellow fever in Februarymuddy streets all year;
Many things to hope for, and a devilish sight to fear!
(Creecy 275)

15The more aseptic look of the film continues as the viewers are led into an opera house, one of the art forms popular in 19th century New Orleans. As Thomas Smith notes in Southern Queen: New Orleans in the 19th century, antebellum New Orleans was famous for its public spectacles of various kinds. The city was the second theatrical center in the then United States, after New York, and the exciting heterogeneity of its population helped foster a great variety of shows in “this crucible period” (Ruys Smith 75) of its development. “Racing and boxing were popular, but most notorious was the city’s propensity for blood sports” (Ruys Smith 81), Smith notes, without forgetting the cockfights, dogfights, bullfights, and bull and bear contests that also drew large crowds.

3. Kingly Cotton and a “gold-digger”

16In Wyler’s movie, the era is still the allegedly blissful period when “Cotton was king”, as reminded by the prototypical Southern gentleman, Buck Cantrell (George Brent) during a fancy candle-lit dinner at Julie’s mansion: “Cotton is king. Folks are bound to ship cotton downriver. So how can New Orleans keep from being the greatest city in America, fever or no fever?” [00:55:55] Cantrell’s blind conviction that nothing will put an end to the Southern “cotton monarchy” is, however, countered by Preston Dillard, the promising, far-sighted young Southern banker inspired by Northern ways who claims that “New Orleans is missing the parade!” Preston admits: “I hate to say this, but in a war of commerce, the North must win” [00:56:07], adding prophetically: “If you must have it, it will be a victory of machines over unskilled slave labor.” In the film’s only explicit reference to the system of slavery, Preston is accused of sounding like a “black abolitionist”, an accusation he nevertheless immediately contests in this 1930s movie keen on shunning the subject of slavery. His words sound very much like those pronounced in Gone with the Wind by Rhett Butler who, on the eve of the Civil War, warns his fellow-Southernersstill clinging to an already-vanishing lifestyleagainst too much arrogance and confidence in case of a war against the North.

  • 4 A pejorative word for a person, usually a woman, who only dates wealthy partners with the intention (...)

17While in the prewar years the industrial revolution was almost exclusively limited to the regions north of the Mason-Dixon Line, there was one thing the South could pride itself with: its lively commerce and trade. This is what the opening scene of The Flame of New Orleans seems to stress, closing the camera eye on one of the main objects of trade: black slaves. Instead, attention will be maintained on the theatrical commotion caused by the foreign “Countess”actually a bold adventuress and a greedy “gold-digger”4 who sets her sights on a rich yet naive New Orleans bachelor banker, Charles Giraud (Roland Young). The fact that the false European aristocrat first puts on an act (by fainting to attract the banker’s attention) in an opera is not a coincidence and sustains the film’s later meta/theatrical effects. The rest of the film involves further acts of impersonation and imposture, more docks and duels, monkeys, parks, parties, opera houses, Mardi Gras festivities, fake faintings and plenty of romantic rivalry in the spirit of the New Orleansian motley mélange. And like Julie Marsden who creates a reckless, colorful alter ego with the help of a red dress, Claire invents a similarly wild, sexually compromising look-alike cousin Lili[th] from St. Petersburg, before her final attempt to cover up her tarnished past by a dazzling white wedding dress. The plot is almost perfect, but at the end, Claire’s scheming is stopped by Robert Latour (Bruce Cabot), a Mississippi riverboat captain who forces the fake Countess to confront her true nature. The fairytalish tone is kept up until the end, as the pirate snatches Claire during her wedding to Giraud and the high society. The final scene takes us back to the harbor, in time to see the bridal gown fly suggestively out one of the port-holes of Latour’s ship.

4. Costume melodrama and comedy

18Costumes remain a central issue both in Wyler’s “costume melodrama” and in Clair’s “costume comedy”. In the latter, voice-over narration sets up the story of a once-upon-a-time foreign Countess whose wedding dress was found floating on the Mississippi. The idea of a bride who put an end to her life is, however, soon brushed aside when the anonymous narrator begins the story of a woman who vanished from New Orleans leaving behind a veil of mystery.

19Both films open on a long continuous shot to offer the spectator a wider view of New Orleans. Jezebel unfolds with a seamless tracking shot on a marketaccording to Thomas Ruys Smith, the best metaphor for antebellum New Orleans:

Here was the most visible symbol of the city’s booming prosperity and teeming multiplicity; here was confirmation that antebellum New Orleans was a place where seeminglyindeed, everyonecould be bought and sold; here was testimony that this was a city where business was pleasure, and pleasure was business. (Ruys Smith 73-74)

  • 5 Impressed with the music in Jezebel, producer David O. Selznick hired Max Steiner to write the musi (...)

20Backed up by Max Steiner’s brisk music5, Wyler’s camera pans along a row of busy street vendors. The spatio-temporal setting is confirmed by the words “New Orleans 1852” [00:01:07] which appear on the screen when the camera enters a French-style street market. While the 19th century Southern city is established as a buoyant and festive place of commerce and trade, curiously enough, the most common sales item seen during the tracking shot is masks. For an instant, a saleswoman faces the mask of an ape during a shot which already seems to anticipate the Jezebel woman’s confrontation with her wild animal self. In strong contrast with this marketplace opening, the closing sequence of the film shows Julie, transformed from a hellcat into a Florence Nightingale-like nurse, holding Preston’s motionless head as they are carried away on a wagon towards a nearly-certain death on Lazarette Island. During this ambiguous final sequence, Bette Davis’s Julie could be interpreted as the redeemed image of altruism and martyrdom, although it seems somewhat difficult to believe in her total transformation into an incarnation of Victorian values.

21In the course of the film, Preston Dillard keep criticizing, in vain, the city’s delusions of grandeur: “New Orleans is missing the parade” [00:10:46]. Nobody listens to what he has to say about the North’s rapidly expanding railway systems, nor about the need to move from boat to railroad transportation. As in other respects, the city remains tragically attached to its old ways. The most ludicrous illustration of the South’s self-delusion and inability to face the facts is the combat of New Orleans authorities to fight the plague by firing a “fever cannon” [01:04:25] in an attempt to start “air currents to carry the fever away” [01:04:37] from the city.

22When the star of the movie arrives in Jezebel, she is first a mere sound. Or rather a noise that arises from the shadowy street – that of horse hooves beating against the cobble-stoned street in the elegant quarter of New Orleans where Julie lives with her uncle and her Aunt Belle (Fay Bainter). Presented as a model of Southern gentility and civility, Aunt Belle later renames Julie “Jezebel” in reference to “a woman called Jezebel who did evil in the sight of God” [01:17:09]. Unsurprisingly, Davis’s spectacular entry and her restless, whip-cracking cavalier persona introduce plenty of gender trouble into the film’s basically patriarchal cavalier culture. Julie rides sidesaddle, but carries a crop in her hand: a sign that underlines her transitional status. Once inside the house, the camera follows in her wake through the guests, surprised by the belated, boisterous entry of the mistress, still in her “horse clothes” [00:08:03].

5. The red dress of the reBelle

23The above-described scene is but a foretaste for a later sequence where Julie is, once again, wearing the wrong garment at the wrong time. It is prepared by another memorable scene of Jezebel at Madame Poulard’s, a New Orleansian dress-designer during which Bette Davis’s Southern Belle persona is trying on a white crinoline dress de rigueur for unmarried women of the Southern “gentle-folk”. When Julie sees a “gorgeously red” [00:21:41] dress carried by, she rashly discards the pristine white gown to defy and humiliate her hard-working banker fiancé, Preston Dillard, whose attempts to discipline his wife-to-be are of no effect. As Julie chooses the red garment, intended for a cocotte, the French-speaking spectators of the movie may appreciate the allusion, beneath Madame Poulard’s francophone name, to a “fattened bird” which enriches the undertones of the already “saucy” and “vulgar” [00:15:36] red dress.

24Besides its allusions to sexual unruliness, the dress-fitting sequence which shows Julie’s body caged in a hoopskirt frame stresses the dichotomies of the Hollywood-promoted Southern society, recalling the little autonomy and decision-making white women enjoyed as “angels of the house”, even in the cosmopolitan New Orleans. Even the basically progressive Dr. Livingstone (Donald Crisp) believes that women are not to enter a bank or a bar, and ought to be whipped in case they rebelled against the paternalistic rules of the community.

  • 6 A set of moral censorship guidelines that governed the production of most American movies released (...)

25On the other hand, the sequence provides an inkling of how American filmmakers had been skirting the problems posed by the censorship regulations under the Motion Picture Production Code6 since 1930. The “women of all stains” mentioned in Creecy’s poem are never openly referred to in the 1938 movie where prostitution is evoked through veiled expressions, such as “that creature”, “that infamous Vickers woman” [00:15:58], or “a girl from Gallatin Street” [00:21:52]. As demonstrated by films such as Edward Dmytryk’s Walk on the Wild Side (1962) and Louis Malle’s Pretty Baby (1978), it took a few post-Jezebel decades after the abandonment of the Production Code before films were actually set in Storyville, the notorious red-light district of New Orleans. Until then, due to the Hollywood logic applied by the Production code, naughty women were to be punished for their transgressions and movable identities before the film was over and the spectators allowed to go home.

  • 7 In order to ensure the scandalous effect of the dress, costume designer Orry-Kelly created a rust-c (...)

26Quite predictably, the “arroseur” (the metaphoric “sprayer”) ends up being “arrosé” (“sprayed”) as Julie’s fiancé forces her to endure public humiliation, and then breaks off their engagement. During the annual Olympus Ball held by the New Orleans high society, Julie’s outrageously red yet vibrant dress7 becomes the focal point of the event. Wyler’s technically skilled ball sequence is highly proleptic, presenting Julie as an audacious element that perturbs and interrupts the harmonious collective movement of the dancers. A series of silent stares and voiceless withdrawals underline how gracefully, yet no less vehemently the odd [belle-of-the] ball is ostracized after her faux pas has offended the polite society of the city. Alternating close-ups of Julie’s face and of the audacious dress, Wyler’s camera gradually pulls away from the ballroom floor, leaving Julie “belittled” in Preston’s stiff arms, all the other dancing couples having, at this point of the ball, retreated to the edges of the frame.

27The following year, Preston returns from the North, now married to Amy (Margaret Lindsay), according to Julie, a “washed-out little Yankee” [00:53:55]. When Julie tries to bring Preston back to his “Southern senses”, her ex-Beau is bitten by a fever-bearing mosquito, a vicious little beast from the wilderness that surrounds Julie’s plantation not far from New Orleans. The sequence is archetypically Southern with its references to “the mockingbird in the magnolia”, “the moss hanging from the moonlight” [01:01:55-59], and the strange customs of the Southerners who, in Julie’s own words, “remember how the fever mist smells in the bottoms, rank and rotten” [01:02:30].

28These dialogue lines confirm the extent to which Wyler’s narrative and formal choices confirm his awareness of the norms and margins of the southern genre, perceived through the staging of Julie’s beautiful upriver plantation-estate named, ironically enough, “Halcion”. Once again, despite its overtones of prosperity and peace, the Southern Eden turns into a noxious, potentially sin-generating garden. And, as in many other biblically-connoted “master narratives” on the American South, arises the question of redemption. When Julie hears that Preston has contracted the dreaded yellow fever, she transgresses yet another rule, this time to break through the “fever line” into the quarantined, sealed-off city to save the ill-stricken Preston from the yellow fever epidemic now raging in New Orleans. Forgetting her former pettiness and ill will, Miss Marsden crosses the vicious, misty marshes – the very swamps her former suitor had unsuccessfully asked the city authorities to drain in order to limit the breeding of mosquitoes, and protect the community against the outbreak of yellow fever which it had already endured in 1830.

29As Gabriel Miller notes about Bette Davis’s character in William Wyler: The Life and Films of Hollywood's Most Celebrated Director:

Julie is a split and vacillating individual. […] The film’s production notes describe her as a “product of the environment” and one who “typifies it”. In fact, she IS the Deep South, beautiful, exotic, alluring, lavish and also savage and deadly dangerous. She moves by instinct rather than reason... Her chief traits are absolute ruthlessness of purpose, and an intellectual honesty. (Miller 148-149)

30The subsequent, even more devastating calamity, the Civil War which broke out eight years after the 1853 epidemic, is only alluded to in Wyler’s film. The relation of cause and effect between Julie’s womanly whims and the evils of the illness are never established, but the swings between her calamitous misconduct and the bouts of collective cataclysms lead the spectator to ponder over the true nature of the mishaps encountered by the Southern city.

6. The carnivalesque femme fatale

31One of the main appeals of René Clair’s comedy-fantasy is the indecisiveness conveyed by Dietrich’s both at the same time devilish and angelic screen character. Already in The Blue Angel (Josef von Sternberg, 1930), Dietrich was seen as a heartless, fatal woman with few redeeming features. Later roles tend to show Dietrich as a prostitute of a kind, without the marginal status depriving her of dignity and pride. As in The Flame of New Orleans, the woman is not what she should, but a body in service of successive masquerades. And, as with Wyler’s scenario, the heroine’s acts remain contradictory, showing her as a vile woman, yet at the same time as somebody capable of loyalty and self-sacrifice.

32Highlighted by the German actress’s imitation of a French countess, the crossbred female figure has no trouble finding her way through what Washington Irving, during his visit to the city of New Orleans in the 1830s, saw as “one of the most motley and amusing places in the United Statesa mixture of America and Europe” (Ruys Smith 78). As Countess Ledoux’s French-sounding name suggests, although presented as an outsider, a European with an obscure past, it is her very foreignness that helps foreground classically New Orleansian features, namely through the pseudo-aristocratic Lady’s carnivalesque disguises and relentless play with costumes, masks, veils and other props that resonate with Miss Marsden’s own costume games and acts of camouflage in Jezebel. Through its fine-looking Victorian mansions and elegant hotels, horses and carriages, graceful courtyards, fountains and wrought-iron balconies of the Vieux Carré (French Quarter), the outlandishness of The Flame of New Orleans is foregrounded by its stylistic vicinity with the light and witty French “boulevard comedy”. Comparable to the comédie de boulevard, a type of popular comedy written and performed in France since about 1850, René Clair’s film is knowingly peu sérieux, offering stylishly witty, light entertainment rather than more pointed social satire. More often than not, social flaws are derided in such a way as to avoid bothering the spectator with a sharper focus on questions such as servitude, woman’s subdued role in society, and other social and racial issues afflicting American society in the 1930s. All through the film, the impression of constructedness is reinforced by the fact that none of the scenes was shot on location, in the actual South. The Jezebel woman’s Halcyon plantation was set up thirty miles from the Warner Brothers’ studio in California, far from the real New Orleans, just as Tara, the make-believe Southern plantation of Gone with the Wind was put together on a Hollywood back lot.

  • 8 Within the limited framework of this article, it was not possible to examine how un/masking affects (...)

33In The Flame of New Orleans, mystery elements are intensified by the casting of Marlene Dietrich whose onscreen femme fatale persona had already provoked the eyes of spectators with her translucent veil in a previous films, such as Shanghai Express (1932) and The Devil is a Woman (1935), two of the six Hollywood movies in which Josef von Sternberg created the Dietrich legend. In Femmes Fatales: Feminism, Film Theory, Psychoanalysis, Mary Ann Doane observes that “the veil, in its translucence, both allows and disallows vision” (Doane 49). This is certainly the case in The Flame for, contrary to The Devil is a Woman, set during a carnival in Spain where the woman’s veil is black, in René Clair’s more parodic Southern film the garment remains outstandingly white, thus reflecting the South’s obsession with immaculate whiteness and segregative color codes, and, on a deeper level, a culturally more extensive dialectic game between depth and surface8.

34Despite René Clair’s appropriations of southern subjects and thematic underpinnings, the French filmmaker’s first feature film shot in the USA, at Universal Studios, was little more than a commercial flop. Once François Truffaut had seen The Flame of New Orleans, he made a derogatory comment claiming that Clair was a man who made “films for old ladies who go twice a year to the movies in an old chauffeured Delahaye” (Dixon 53). Today, Clair’s Old world feel and cinematic look seem better appreciated, and they are definitely worth reviewing within a wider context of Southern movies and Southern storytellingan aspect which most failed to catch the attention of the emblematic film director of the French New Wave cinema.


35Most critics have interpreted the ending of William Wyler’s movie as an expression of self-sacrifice, the Jezebel-woman’s redemption for her pride and vanity, to “make [her]self clean again” [01:36:07]. As argued by this article, the matter is complexified when reviewed in the light of a wider range of southern films which rely on a recognizably regional backcloth, yet resonate within a broader cultural canvas, thus extending the Old South’s ostensibly spatial and temporal boundaries. Although Julie Marsden disappears at the end of Wyler’s movie, just as René Clair’s Countess Ledoux vanishes with her pirate-like Mississippi riverboat captain, both films close on a hint of further masquerades, on a promise of comebacks through other masks and dramatizations. Despite their archetypal and allegoric nature, while giving a face and a body to the city, the “misfit women” of New Orleans and other Louisiana Belles resist ultimate definitions, favoring inconclusiveness at a time when Hollywood scenarios were still keen on putting women in their “proper” place.

36Undoubtedly the best proof of this is the film Son of Dracula (1943), released a few years after Jezebel and The Flame of New Orleans where Robert Siodmak imagined a Louisiana Belle of a Gothic kind to tell the story of Count Alucard (Dracula spelled backwards) who accepts the invitation by a Southern Belle, Kate Caldwell (Louise Allbritton), to visit the South. Ironically, when accepting the invitation to a bayou-surrounded mansion, the Old World bloodsucker (Lon Chaney Jr.), in search of fresh bodily fluids in the New World, falls on somebody even more wicked, for Miss Caldwell is less in love with the vampire than with the promise of immortality rendered possible by his embrace. The film’s ending may be gloomy, but it established Louisiana as a place of regeneration for vampires, an idea developed further several decades later by Neil Jordan’s Interview with the Vampire (1994) based on stories written by the New Orleans-born author Anne Rice.

37Since Robert Siodmak sunk the Eastern-European vampire into the swamps of the Deep South in his neo-gothic film noir released during the Second World War, new generations of Southern heroines capable of disturbing the age-old, culturally supported woman-nature associations have appeared on screen in more or less serpentine or post-modern scenarios, including TV-avatars and parodies. Indeed, despite the little hope of survival on the Lazarette Island where Bette Davis’s Julie disappears at the end of Jezebel, the power of renewal of the New Orleans “misfit Ladies” and vamp/iric women prevails. Like the red-clad lady so famously “gone with the wind”, those “gone with the plague” or with the Mississippi river pirate thus never mean the ultimate destruction of the Southern city of mishaps and calamities. For while Atlanta burns, New Orleans survives, through its very sickness, squalor, decay and recreative disasters.

38Looking at the wider picture beyond these two moving pictures, we could conclude by claiming that the increasingly unsteady identity of the American South in film may be read as an endless series of guilt-ridden as well as fantasy-laden stories cinema has been particularly keen on imagining on screen. Never a definitively locatable persona, but more like a counter-narrative which stubbornly seeks to complete a “bigger picture” of the New World, the Southern transhistorical “Belle” works as a far-reaching intruder into the American “master narrative” where femininity is but one of its facets of otherness.

Haut de page


Ballenger, Seale. Hell’s Belles: A Tribute to the Spitfires, Bad Seeds & Steel Magnolias of the New and Old South. Berkeley: Conari Press, 1997. Print.

Campbell, Edward D. C. The Celluloid South: Hollywood and the Southern Myth. Knoxville: The University of Tennessee Press, 1981. Print.

Creecy, James R. Scenes in the South. Washington: Thomas McGill, 1860. Print.

Dixon, Wheeler Winston. The Early Film Criticism of François Truffaut, with translations by Ruth Cassel Hoffman, Sonja Kropp, and Brigitte Formentin-Humbert. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1993. Print.

Doane, Mary Ann. Femmes Fatales: Feminism, Film Theory, Psychoanalysis. London and New York: Routledge, 1991. Print.

French, Warren, ed. The South and Film. Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 1981. Print.

Heider, Karl G., ed. Images of the South: Constructing a Regional Culture on Film and Video. Athens: The University of Georgia Press, 1993. Print.

Langman, Larry, and David Ebner. Hollywood’s Image of the South: A Century of Southern Films. Westport: Greenwood Press, 2001. Print.

Miller, Gabriel. William Wyler: The Life and Films of Hollywood's Most Celebrated Director. Lexington: The University Press of Kentucky, 2013. Print.

Piazza, Tom. Why New Orleans Matters. New York: HarperCollins, 2008 (2005). Print.

Ruys Smith, Thomas. Southern Queen: New Orleans in the Nineteenth Century. London and New York: Continuum, 2011. Print.

Schuth, Wayne. “The Image of New Orleans on Film” in Warren French, ed., The South and Film. Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 1981. Print.

Seidel, Kathryn Lee. The Southern Belle in the American Novel. Tampa: University of South Florida Press, 1985. Print.

Tuhkunen, Taïna. Demain sera un autre jour : Le Sud et ses héroïnes à l’écran. Pertuis : Rouge Profond, “Raccords” series directed by Guy Astic, 2013. Print.

Haut de page


1 The screen play of Jezebel was written by Clements Ripley, Abem Finkel and John Huston.

2 The other three films René Clair made in the USA during the war are: I Married a Witch (1942), It Happened Tomorrow (1944), and And Then There Were None (1945).

3 According to the biblical tale, the wicked, idol-worshipping queen called Jezebel was defenestrated, left unburied and eaten up by dogs.

4 A pejorative word for a person, usually a woman, who only dates wealthy partners with the intention of marrying and exploiting the wealthy person.

5 Impressed with the music in Jezebel, producer David O. Selznick hired Max Steiner to write the musical score for Gone with the Wind, one of the most famous scores of all times in film history.

6 A set of moral censorship guidelines that governed the production of most American movies released by major studios from 1930 to 1966.

7 In order to ensure the scandalous effect of the dress, costume designer Orry-Kelly created a rust-colored gown to make it look as red as possible in Wyler’s black and white movie.

8 Within the limited framework of this article, it was not possible to examine how un/masking affects the female characters of color in the films studied here. Let us note, however, that the “mask effect” remains linked with the “blackface minstrelsy” said to be the first distinctly American theatrical form. When René Clair cast Theresa Harris as Clementine, the mulatto chambermaid in The Flame of New Orleans, she had already appeared as Zette, the colored house slave in Jezebel. In Wyler’s film, Harris wears a curious black-face, her neck and hands revealing the actress’s own, lighter skin. Therefore, parallel to the film’s overt sexual and racial typecasting, the spectator’s attention is also drawn to the construction of the colored character, fabricated like the white Lady, by the “dream factories” of Hollywood.

Haut de page

Pour citer cet article

Référence électronique

Taïna TUHKUNEN, « New Orleans as the city of misfit women in Jezebel (William Wyler, 1938) and The Flame of New Orleans (René Clair, 1941) »e-Rea [En ligne], 14.1 | 2016, mis en ligne le 15 décembre 2016, consulté le 16 avril 2024. URL : ; DOI :

Haut de page



Université d’Angers
Taïna Tuhkunen is a professor of American literature and cinema at the University of Angers. Her publications include Sylvia Plath: Une écriture embryonnaire (Paris : L’Harmattan, 2002) and Demain sera un autre jour: Le Sud et ses héroïnes à l’écran (Pertuis : Rouge Profond, 2013). Besides her coeditions, Lolita : Roman de Vladimir Nabokov (1955), film de Stanley Kubrick (1962) (avec Didier Machu, Paris: Ellipses, 2009) and Le Sud au Cinéma : de The Birth of a Nation à Cold Mountain (avec Marie Liénard-Yétérian, Palaiseau : Editions de l’Ecole Polytechnique, 2009), Taïna Tuhkunen has published a number of articles on literature, cinema and film adaptation.

Haut de page

Droits d’auteur


Le texte seul est utilisable sous licence CC BY-NC-ND 4.0. Les autres éléments (illustrations, fichiers annexes importés) sont « Tous droits réservés », sauf mention contraire.

Haut de page
Rechercher dans OpenEdition Search

Vous allez être redirigé vers OpenEdition Search