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.
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.
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 Siam) as his co-evil-mastermind.
But really, I was here for the Bette Davis, and the gloriously cake-like costume designs of Orry-Kelly (Madame du Barry, Jezebel, 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:
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?