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.