Jezebel (1938): Classic Movie Review

Of all the directors screen legend Bette Davis worked with in her storied Hollywood career, William Wyler was her favorite. They worked together three times: Jezebel (1938), The Letter (1940), and The Little Foxes (1941), and she received an Academy Award nomination for all three films. No other director knew how to handle Davis like Wyler. As an actress Davis was known for her uncompromising dedication to her roles, no matter if she were playing a complete shrew in Of Human Bondage (1934) or an alcoholic actress in Dangerous (1935). She was also known for her ability to hijack a picture from a weak-willed director. And this is the main reason she and Wyler worked so well together: he was anything but weak-willed. He, like Davis, was a perfectionist. The difference is that he knew perfect when he saw it, while she had the habit of assumption. What I mean by this is that she often thought if she held nothing back and gave the most honest and raw take that she could then it must have been perfect. Yet, Wyler knew there was more to capturing cinematic greatness and that is what he taught Davis when they worked together on Jezebel.

Based on the 1934 Owen Davis play of the same name, Jezebel–which was nominated for five Academy Awards, including Best Picture–tells the tragic story of a headstrong New Orleans debutante, Julie Marsden (Davis, in a role that was originated on the stage by her not BFF Miriam Hopkins). When Julie decides to test the love and patience of her longtime on-and-off-again beau Preston Dillard (Henry Fonda) on the cusp of the announcement of their engagement by wearing a red dress to the Olympus Ball (where all unwed women wear white) she sets in motion a series of events that lead to her eventual downfall. There are three things that make Jezebel such a memorable picture: the costume design, the Olympus Ball scenes, and Davis’ performance.

The story takes place in 1850s New Orleans, so when the first glance we get of our heroine is her riding a hellish horse and wearing a riding habit we should know she’s a bit progressive for the times in which she lives. The fact that she would wear said riding habit in to greet a roomful of “properly” dressed guests to a party she’s late for only compounds the fact that Julie Marsden is obviously a feminist. Still, the riding habit is by far the least memorable of the costumes Davis wears in Jezebel when one remembers the infamous red dress and the virginal white gown she wears to beg Press to take her back. Designed by Orry-Kelly, every costume Davis wears is perfectly matched to the scene in which it is worn. The dress most remember is the red gown that gets poor Julie into all kinds of trouble. To answer Julie’s question upon seeing it: yes, it was saucy! What most people don’t know about the dress is that it was first made out of red satin but when photographed in black and white it looked dull, so the color had to be changed to rust-brown to appear red on film. Still, it is a rather startling dress, especially when it is contrasted against all the white gowns at the Olympus Ball. It fits Davis perfectly and matches Julie’s fiery personality at that point in the movie. The other standout gown is the frilly, virginal white dress that Julie wears when she greets Press at Halycon Plantation. At this juncture in the film Julie is filled with humility and repentance and is more than willing to lower herself before her beloved. This is a key point, because when Orry-Kelly designed this dress he had to make sure it showed well when Julie literally kneels at Press’s feet and begs him to take her back. She is enveloped by the dress and it shows just how small Julie feels about the way she’s behaved.

That bad behavior, of course, is on full display at the Olympus Ball. After Julie refuses to change her red dress before going to the ball, Press decides he’s going to teach her a lesson in humility. For a sequence that was originally scheduled for only a half-day of shooting, the ball scenes turned out to be some of the best in the film. A half-day soon turned into five excruciating days of extensive takes and camera movements. The ballroom was huge and had a massive chandelier that hung oppressively overhead. Countless couples (all “properly” attired) are dancing as a full orchestra plays a waltz when Press and Julie enter the ballroom. When Press removes Julie’s cloak to reveal her scandalous dress all eyes are shockingly focused on the young couple for a moment. They literally walk the gauntlet as they slowly walk past a line of men who Press warningly glares at. It is at this moment that Wyler and Oscar-nominated cinematographer Ernest Haller focus in on Julie’s eyes, which go from defiant to humiliated in a matter of seconds. Things become even more intense when Press forces her to dance, even as the entire floor of dancers leave the floor, repulsed by the couple’s impropriety. The overhead shot of the empty dance floor, save for Press and Julie, is almost unbearable to watch. The scene itself is what I like to refer to as a theatre of tragedy. Press and Julie are the actors, while the other attendants are the audience. As his grip tightens around her waist while she begs him to take her home, you see them encircled by those white dresses in a domineering overhead shot. A spotlight literally shows the complete disintegration of their relationship. It is one of the most powerful, almost completely non-verbal scenes I recall ever watching.

Bette Davis and William Wyler

Of Davis’ many great performances, Julie Marsden is most probably the most subtle. Davis had Wyler to thank for this, as well as for her Best Actress Oscar statuette. Perhaps one of the reasons most people don’t remember Julie as a bitch is because of the way Wyler asked Davis to play her. Instead of speaking aggressively and dealing death glances with her eyes, Davis was asked to play Julie with a smile on her face and a sweet lilt in her voice. She may have been giving Press hell or inciting duels, but she did it with a sweet Southern smile and a coquettish twinkle in her eye. At first when Wyler asked Davis to play her character like this she didn’t understand and was very off-put, but after watching the rushes she soon realized that her director was right. I think that is what makes Julie one of her most memorable characters—she was so different from the roles Davis usually played. I mean, really, who can ever forget how she looked as she knelt before Press—completely humble and innocent—begging for his forgiveness and love. How often did Bette Davis kneel before any man? And, then, of course, you have that indescribably baffled look on her face when Press introduces his new wife (Margaret Lindsay) to her. As she takes a moment to take in what he’s said you can see her internal struggle to understand what has just taken place. Her only response, obviously dumbfounded, “Your wife?” Priceless.

Oddly enough, Jezebel had as much drama happening behind the scenes as it did in front of the camera. For one thing, Wyler and Davis started a torrid affair that reportedly resulted in a pregnancy. And, perhaps to fully encompass the role of Jezebel, who in the words of Aunt Belle (Best Supporting Actress-winner Fay Bainter) was “a woman who did evil in the sight of God,” Davis also conducted an affair with Fonda after having a fight with Wyler. It took a phone call from Fonda’s pregnant wife (she was carrying Jane) to make Davis end the fling. In addition, at one point Jack Warner was seriously considering replacing Wyler with William Dieterle because Wyler was so far behind schedule and over budget. Davis had to plead with Warner to keep Wyler and promised to work until midnight every night if that’s what it took to finish the film with Wyler. In the end, the film finished a month late and nearly $400,000 over budget. Ah, but it was all worth it, as Jezebel made Bette Davis a superstar and William Wyler a top-tier director.

Kim Wilson is a history professor and the author of the 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die blog.

  • Marty

    What a wonderful film! Bette Davis was at her best. With William Wyler, the best director during the Golden Age of Film, this was another spectacular film from Warner Bros.

    • Kim Wilson

      Thanks, Marty.  Jezebel is indeed a testament to the Golden Age of Hollywood.

  • Wayne P.

    Interesting article…if the story about the affair between Davis and Wyler resulting in a pregnancy is true…wonder what happened to the baby? thanks!

    • Kim Wilson

      It was either a miscarriage or an abortion.

  • Juanita123516

    Enjoyed your very detailed look at Jezabel. This was definitely one of Davis’s standout roles next to All About Eve  -  she looked her most becoming no doubt due to being in love with the director. The character  of Julie Marsden is very similar to Scarlet O’Hara both feisty southern belles. Although Bette was no match for Vivien Leigh in the beauty department she made you believe that all men desired her.

    • Kim Wilson

      I agree, this is by far the film that shows what a beauty Davis was. It’s amazing what a good director and cinematographer can do for a woman.

  • http://bitactors.blogspot.com/ Bit Part Blogger

    An excellent choice for a post, Kim. And well done. But Bette Davis is always worth writing about, and she provides a lot to cover. Jezebel is an excellent movie, but not one of my favorites. (It’s a guy thing!) Dark Victory, made the next year so it is of the same era, also showed Davis trying to restrain herself. Davis is always complex, and almost always great!

    • Kim Wilson

      Jezebel doesn’t seem to appeal to men as much as it does to women.  Dark Victory is a mild annoyance to me, but Davis is good as usual.

    • Laurence Almand

      If you want some insight as to the real Bette Davis – as opposed to the Hollywood publicized personality – read THE LONELY LIFE, her long out-of-print bio published in the early 1960s. Now a collector’s item.

  • Jeff Jowett

    The review is interesting and informative. No argument. The film could also be reviewed for its racial content, which goes in both directions…Sorry, got distracted…The ante-bellum scenes portraying supposedly “happy” slaves are hard to digest. Wonder how Davis lived down the scene on the porch, singing while surrounded by “adoring” slaves, when the civil rights era came? On the other hand, the portrayal of the slave who conducts all the activities at the mansion [I couldn't even find his name listed among the cast!] was amazingly dignified at a time when Hollywood was disgraceful in the general portrayal of Black people. And his scene with Henry Fonda, when Fonda offers him a drink, says more in one brief scene than many entire films. Suspect that Fonda had something to do with the inclusion of that scene. 

    • Kim Wilson

      The porch scene is a bit cringe-worthy, but overall the film isn’t too racially insensitive. 

    • Stldjen

       Actually, a lot of southerners treated their slaves like part of the family, as long as things stayed the way they were. Likewise, a lot of slaves remained faithful to good owners simply because it was their home and the only thing they knew. If they were treated well, things worked out as beneficial to both. The responsibility of a good actor though, is to play the part for what it was, and I doubt Davis had any problem playing it. She liked diverse roles even if it meant going against convention. The role was no reflection on her as a person, but upon the character she played.

      • Laurence Almand

        You are correct, not all slaves were treated badly, and yes, they were considered part of the family. In the book GWTW, Southern author Margaret Mitchell states about Mammy: “She owned the O’Hara’s, body and soul, and their secrets were her secrets.” Later in the book, Scarlett describes Black Uncle Peter as “part of our family”.
        True, there were bad slave owners just as there are bad employers and bad parents, but for the most part slaves were well-cared-for, if for no other reason than they were so expensive.
        And keep in mind that only about 20% of Southern Whites owned slaves – most Whites could not afford them. And the free Blacks – called gens de coleur (free people of color) – also owned Black slaves.

  • Mbrob

    Bette Davis always said that she turned down the part of Scarlett O’Hara.  This excellent film makes me wonder how she would have fared in GWTW.  Vivien Leigh’s excellent portrayal aside, I think Bette would have been outstanding in that role along with her good friend Olivia deHavilland.  I always laugh at the point when Julie mentions that Amy, that washed out little Yankee, “probably knows calculus.”  Oh, if they only filmed Jezebel in color!

    • Kim Wilson

      Davis wanted Scarlett, but the producer had other ideas. She was bitterly disappointed about it all of her life.

    • Stldjen

       They would have been nuts to give that role to anyone but Leigh, who actually watered down her english accent enough to give herself a slight southern drawl. Jezebel was so lush in production that some people thought is was filmed in color, even though it wasn’t.

      • Laurence Almand

        Vivien Leigh didn’t “water down” her English accent. She worked hard to master the Southern dialect – the only cast member who did so, by the way. Selznick hired a Southern woman, Susan Myrick, to coach Leigh, at the actress’ insistence. Myrick later wrote a book about her experiences on the picture.

  • TrippyTrellis

    Although “Jezebel” is my favorite Bette Davis movie, I think she gave her all-time best performance in Wyler’s “The Letter”.

    • Kim Wilson

      That’s a great performance, too.

    • Laurence Almand

      You could debate this until doomsday, but don’t forget her superb portrayal in THE LITTLE FOXES, and also OF HUMAN BONDAGE (the best of the Maugham adaptations.)

  • Carnold

    Good question – what happened to Wyler and Davis’ baby?

    • Kim Wilson

      I think she either had a miscarriage or an abortion.

    • Laurence Almand

      During her career Davis is said to have had several abortions, like many other stars. In her autobio THE LONELY LIFE she admits to one – but she probably had more. The famous Hollywood abortionist used by the stars was known as “Doctor Killkare” and serviced many of the most famous femme stars, such as Lana Turner.

  • Stldjen

    Although I’m not a big Davis fan (early in her career – I liked her much better as an older actress), she deserved the Jezebel oscar. It was a fine performance. My favorite performance by her is in All About Eve; I still think this is her best. I’d like to see Dangerous. Have been looking for it on TCM. 

  • Rjstole

    To me, Bette Davis is the best of all time, with Meryl Streep close behind.  I enjoyed “Jezebel” and also “Now Voyager”.  I think in “Now Voyager” she expressed every emotion possible.  I suppose tho’ my favorite Davis film has to be “The Letter”.  The Max Steiner score certainly added to the drama, as it does in many of her films.

    • TrippyTrellis

      Rjstole, I agree with you 100%- Bette is the best actress of all time and she, and not K.H., should have received 4 Oscars doing her lifetime: in ’40 for “The Letter” (Ginger Rogers in “Kitty Foyle”- give me a break!) and in ’50 for “All About Eve”). And Meryl Streep is close behind.

  • Ggaspar52

    I totally agree with rjstole. Bette Davis is the greatest actress of all time, and Meryl Streep is right behind her. I have no problem with KH, but Davis was cheated out of many Oscars in her career. Come on, All about Eve, WEHTBaby Jane, and HHSCharlotte, and many more. There is not a more captivating actress on screen!

    G Gaspar

    • Laurence Almand

      Greatest of all time? That is debatable, since we all have our favorites. What about Garbo? Even Davis in her autobio described Garbo thus: “I cannot analyze this woman’s acting. Her mastery of the camera was pure witchcraft.” Coming from an artist like Davis, that is indeed a compliment.

  • Shemplugosi

    Two things wrong with this review – 1.  Your list of “things that make Jezebel such a memorable picture” is incomplete without mentioning the incredible Oscar-winning performance of Fay Bainter.  2. This performance of Bette’s definitely NOT “the most subtle”.  That distinction belongs to her marvelously understated performance in 1940′s All This And Heaven Too. 

    • Kim Wilson

      Good to hear your opinions.  I politely disagree about All This and Heaven Too, but admit I might have said more about Bainter’s great performance.

  • Joyce Buckley

    Well done article, thank you.

  • Robert Rudolph

    Good article, but you don’t mention how much the characters line up with “Gone With the Wind.” The Scarlett part goes without saying. Henry Fonda plays the Ashley part, frankly better than Leslie Howard did in GWTW. The Melanie part is Fonda’s patient fiancé from the North. There’s even an Aunt Pittipat character. All the film lacks is a Clark Gable character–there’s no Rhett Butler heavyweight challenging the Jezebel. Great nineteenth-century atmosphere in this movie.

  • PR

    I enjoy the fact that this film was shot in black and white. GWTW had more of the sweeping scenes that made color work for the grandeur. Jezebel was more a story about the characters, and less about the spectacle. The black and white enhanced the attention on the characters, and had enough imagination stimulating direction and performances to allow the viewer to see that red dress perfectly well even without the color. I also think audiences back then employed their own imaginations with more fervor than later ones, and didn’t need to have everything shown to them in exact detail to be able to see it as it was described to be.
    Bette Davis, William Wyler, and black and white…what a terrific and winning combination.

  • Laurence Almand

    One reason this film was made is because Bette was so furious at being rejected for the role of Scarlett in GWTW. In her autobio THE LONELY LIFE she states: “It was insanity that I not be allowed to play Scarlett.” But Selznick was right – Vivien Leigh was perfect as Scarlett. Bette was a brilliant actress, but her beauty could not compare with Leigh’s. Casting the relatively unknown Leigh was an excellent decision, since the audience could fully identify her with the role, having no other roles to identify with. And yes, Bette and Wyler had their conflicts – in one scene he made her do 45 takes – or so she says.
    (Bette later battled with William Wyler on THE LITTLE FOXES, and at one point became so angry she walked off the set – only to return when her lawyers told her Sam Goldwyn had the power to sue her for the entire cost of the production. Despite the conflicts, the picture turned out to be one of her best.)