TBT: Juarez Needs More Bette Davis


I may be a history nerd, but that doesn’t mean my knowledge is encyclopedic. I admit to knowing little about Mexican history — one factoid I did know is that there was a short-lived attempt to institute an emperor during the mid-19th century that had something to do with France. Welp, insert a number of faaaaaabulous images of Bette Davis in Juarez (1939), and me having a big crafting project I was working on, and I decided to fire me up some pretty!

Turns out Juarez is much more about Benito Juárez, president of Mexico, and Maximilian I, Hapsburg (Austrian) archduke and attempted emperor of Mexico, than it is about Empress Carlotta (Bette Davis’s character). The good news is I learned a little bit more about Mexican history: Juárez was elected president of Mexico as their civil war was ending. Angry over unpaid debts, Napoleon III sent in troops to overthrow the government and institute a monarchy (Spain and Britain also sent troops, but pulled out due to the overthrowing).

Juárez himself is a really interesting figure, being of indigenous descent, and again, today I learned something (I previously only thought of “Juarez” as the city)! That being said, all of the characterizations are stereotypical and semi-problematic.

Juárez (Paul Muni, of Jewish descent) is noble, strong, quiet, and apparently ALWAYS makes the right decision. There’s lots of positive nods to his indigenous background, including painting those who oppose him due to racism as, well, actual racists, which, this is 1939! On the other hand, he and other “indigenous” characters are definitely wearing some brownface makeup, which is gross. And, ya know, Americans weren’t exactly embracing Native Americans at this point in history.

Juarez (1939)

Paul Muni as Juárez

Maxilimian (Brian Aherne of Titanic) is the kindest, gentlest, most romantic haver-of-extensive-facial-hair EVER. He just wants to do the right thing and has a fatal case of noblesse oblige.

Juarez (1939)

Aherne as Maximilian just wants to Do the Right Thing!

Juarez (1939)

While having the most luxuriest of beards EVAH.

The film spends a lot of time trying to glorify democracy (note World War II would have just started) and the American model, while leaving out the fact that part of the reason Maximilian’s regime fell was because the Americans blockaded Mexican ports (it’s made to look as though it’s because the French refuse to honor their commitment to support Maximilian’s regime). Oh, and Napoleon III (Claude Rains of The Sea Hawk) is the greasiest, mustache-twirlingiest villain EVER, with Eugenie (Gale Sondergaard of Anna and the King of Siamas his co-evil-mastermind.

Juarez (1939)

Napoleon is conniving and self-serving, and Eugenie is his match.

Juarez (1939)

But really, I was here for the Bette Davis, and the gloriously cake-like costume designs of Orry-Kelly (Madame du BarryJezebel, The Private Lives of Elizabeth and Essex, The Sea Hawk, All This and Heaven Too, Auntie Mame). And I didn’t get enough of them! Davis plays Empress Carlotta as mostly good and tragic (she’s infertile, although her husband and doctor keep this from her) and supportive, but occasionally pops up to nudge her husband’s mind in a particular direction. However, she’s pretty much a supporting character, except for two OTT (over-the-top) scenes where she gets to go insane, and it is played for total hand-staple-forehead drama.

That being said, when she’s on screen, it’s all #DressGoals and #TiaraLust:

Juarez (1939)

The sheer neckline and sleeves! The ball fringe! The velvet roses! THE BLING!

Juarez (1939)


Juarez (1939)

Rocking the fake eyelashes and perfect ringlets.

Juarez (1939)

The dress worn in the photo above, I believe?

Juarez (1939)

Some of Davis’s dresses were really quite great for the period!

Juarez (1939)

While a few read as SUPER 1940s…

So, check out Juárez if you’re a Bette Davis or Orry-Kelly completionist, just know it’s not as full of both/each as you might like!



Have you seen Juárez? What’s your take?


About the author



Kendra has been a fixture in the online costuming world since the late 1990s. Her website, Démodé Couture, is one of the most well-known online resources for historical costumers. In the summer of 2014, she published a book on 18th-century wig and hair styling. Kendra is a librarian at a university, specializing in history and fashion. She’s also an academic, with several articles on fashion history published in research journals.

8 Responses

  1. picasso Manu

    Well, TBH, Nappy the Third did not cover himself with glory, on that occasion. He made a great deal of promises to secure an alliance with Austria… And to his credit, began by honoring them. But besides costing France a fortune, that politic was unpopular inside AND outside. He’d banked on an easy and fast victory, but when it went south, well…He sort of forgot his promises. Which, not surprising or even out of the ordinary, but Carlotta didn’t see it that way: After being led down the primrose path for a few months, she DID go insane, and not in a quiet way, badmouthing Nappy & wifey in all European courts. It’s been part of our Second Empire “dark legend” for awhile…

  2. Sharon

    I read somewhere, years ago that Bette’s mad scene is like watching a candle, flame, flicker and die

  3. Susan Pola Staples

    I love Ms Davis and have been meaning to see this. Your review just made me put it next on my viewing list, as I’ve been bringing on season I of Handmaid’s Tale.

  4. Holley Anthony

    AND….a bit of cool trivia, Maxililian’s doctor was a Hungarian named Haroney who fled Mexico with his family just before the assassination and went to Davenport, IA. His eldest daughter, Mary Katharine Haroney was known in later life as Doc Holiday’s sometimes girlfriend…Big Nose Kate!

    • Andrew.

      And… a further bit of Maximilian trivia, his short reign saw a lot of Austrians, Swiss, and Germans immigrate to Mexico and subsequently start Mexico’s brewing industry.

  5. EA Gorman

    There’s never enough Bette Davis in any film she’s in. I think she’s my favorite Classic Movie Actress.

  6. Tree

    Ooh ooh ooh Claude Rains is the best thing in ANY movie he’s in, nobody “my dear”s women with so much malevolent charm.