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*** This review may contain spoilers ***
JEZEBEL (1938) is one of the great and enduring Warner Bros. Bette
Davis classics, and alongside "The Old Maid" - made the following year
- is my own favourite Davis movie. From a flopped play by Owen Davis
Snr. It was produced for the studio by Henry Blanke and beautifully
written for the screen by Clements Ripley, Abem Finkel and - feeling
his way along in the business - a young John Huston. Genius
cinematographer Ernest Haller was behind the camera bringing the vivid
Art Direction of Robert Hass to life and the masterful direction was in
the safe hands of William Wyler.
A splendid sense of time and place is immediately established at the very beginning with the 1852 setting in antebellum Louisanna. Bette Davis is Julie Marsden the high spirited southern socialite who toys playfully with the feelings of her male suitors especially her young banker fiancé Preston Dillard (Henry Fonda). But he tires of her controlling personality and her irritating misdeeds such as storming into his bank demanding to see him on a trivial matter as he attends an important board meeting and then her insistence on wearing a RED dress to the Olympus Ball much to the chagrin of those who adhere to the strict tradition to only wear white ("You can't wear red to the Olympus Ball"! asserts an astonished Pres)). But wear it she does in defiance! However the Ball is a sensational sequence as Julie and Pres become a spectacle when all in attendance stand around and stare in disbelief as they waltz alone in the middle of the floor. Later during their uneven relationship Pres has to go North on business. He returns after about a year but he is not alone. He is now accompanied by a new woman in his life....... his wife. Counting the days for Pres's return Julie is in utter shock when he introduces Amy (Margret Lindsay) to her as his wife.("You're funnin'!" A horrified Julie exclaims - "Hardly!" responds a sheepish Pres). The picture climaxes with the dreaded Yellow Jack fever breaking out across the South and Pres being struck down with the deadly disease. In a brilliant confrontation with Amy Julie manages to convince her that it must be her, and not his wife, who should accompany Pres to the fever death camp. The picture ends in an extraordinary and harrowing final scene as Julie comforts the dying Pres on one of the many wagons in the caravan heading out of the city to the fever camp.
The acting throughout is superb from all concerned topped with a blistering Acadamy Award winning performance from Davis (she was assigned the role so as to allay any disappointment she might harbour with Warners for not loaning her out to play Scarlet O'Hara - a part she dearly wanted to play). Excellent too is the young Henry Fonda, Fay Bainter in her best supporting Award winning role as the gentle and anxious Aunt Belle and George Brent is impressive (as always) as the ill-fated rival Buck Cantrell. The movie's atmosphere is quite stunning with the stark black & white cinematography, the vibrant looking sets and the supreme nominated score by Max Steiner. The composer's main theme is beautifully arranged as a beguiling waltz for the infamous ballroom scene. And in the final sequence his prowess as film's great dramatist is powerfully demonstrated in the chilling dirge-like march he wrote (complete with spirited female chorus) for the fever wagons, with their cargo of dead and dying, as they struggle through the streets of New Orleans on their way to their grisly destination. JEZEBEL was one of 18 scores the great composer wrote for Bette Davis' films which included "The Old Maid"(1939), "Dark Victory" (1939), "The Letter"(1940) and most memorably "Now Voyager" (1942) which brought the composer the second of his three Acadamy Awards. The great actress once remarked of the composer "At Warner Bros. Max knew more about drama than any of us".
Max Steiner's music, William Wyler's adroit direction, Ernest Haller's stunning cinematography and of course Bette Davis's riveting performance all jell to make JEZEBEL one of Hollywood's outstanding and unforgettable motion pictures of all time.
After winning the Oscar for best actress in 1936 for `Dangerous', Bette
Davis began to complain that Warner Brothers was not giving her scripts that
were worthy of her talent. In 1936, Warner suspended her without pay for
turning down a role. She then went to England, in violation of her
contract, with the intention of starring in a movie without Warner Brothers'
approval. The studio stopped her, telling her that if she didn't work for
them she wouldn't work anywhere. In defiance, she sued to break her
contract. Although she lost the lawsuit, Warner Brothers began to take her
more seriously and even paid her legal expenses. The part in `Jezebel' was
thought to be an olive leaf offered by the studio to mollify
About that time, Davis made it known that she wanted the lead in David O. Selznick's upcoming production of `Gone With the Wind'. She was actually considered for the role, but Warner told Selznick that they wouldn't agree to loan her out unless he also took Errol Flynn for the part of Rhett Butler. Davis refused to work with Flynn and angrily turned down the part, although Selznick did not intend to agree to Flynn regardless. Many believed that Warner Brothers purposely created an impossible deal to punish Davis for the lawsuit while making it appear they were trying to help her. It isn't clear whether `Jezebel' was offered to her before or after the negotiations for GWTW. Clearly, it didn't matter, because Bette Davis went out and gave one of the best performances of her career and won her second Oscar for best actress.
This film is GWTW without Yankees. Instead, the enemy is yellow fever. The story takes place in New Orleans in the 1850's. Although there are references to the abolitionists and the prospect of war, the entire story takes place prewar. This story focuses on the southern lifestyle of the period, and in this way it is very similar to its more famous counterpart. It also follows the life and times of one very spirited woman named Julie Marsden (Bette Davis), who could have been Scarlet O'Hara's soul mate.
Julie shocks New Orleans society when she insolently comes to a ball wearing a red dress when it is the custom for all proper southern girls to wear white. (A production note of interest: The famous `red' dress was actually black satin, which was used because red didn't produce enough contrast in the black and white film, causing it not to stand out enough.) As a result, her beau Preston Dillard (a youthful Henry Fonda) is mortified and he breaks off their engagement. Included in the story are a couple of duels over points of honor, a stark depiction of the yellow fever epidemic, and the noble resurrection of a contrite Julie Marsden upon Preston's return.
As always, director William Wyler (with whom Bette Davis was romantically linked) does a fantastic job at direction, giving the film a genuine southern flavor and period feel. The black and white cinematography in this film is tremendous and procured the film one of its five Oscar nominations.
The acting is superb all around. This is certainly one of Bette Davis' best and most memorable performances and it helped secure her place in movie history as one of Hollywood's greatest stars. Though she never won another Oscar, she went on to be nominated eight more times with five straight nominations between 1939 and 1943. Ironically, in 1940 she lost to Vivien Leigh, who won in the role Davis turned down.
Fay Bainter is marvelous as Aunt Belle Bogardus garnering a best supporting actress Oscar. Henry Fonda shows a hint of his future greatness in a fabulous portrayal of Julie's no-nonsense beau. George Brent (with whom Davis also was rumored to have had an affair) also turns in a strong performance as Buck, the honorable gentleman who duels his best friend to defend Julie's honor.
This is a wonderful film with great acting and directing. Though not the epic that GWTW became, it contains certain elements that Selznick undoubtedly incorporated at Tara, since the similarities between the films are striking at times. I rated this film a 10/10. For anyone interested in seeing why Bette Davis is considered one of the great actresses of the Studio era, this film is a must.
It is 1850's New Orleans, and Julie Marsten (Davis), a head-strong
young woman who doesn't find it the least improper to be late for her
own engagement party because she feels like riding her horse instead,
is getting married to Preston Dillard (Fonda). Unfortunately, Preston
isn't at the party because he is hammering out business at his family's
bank; when they are married, he and Julie will be moving north, an
almost sacrilegious action during this time. Buck Cantrell (George
Brent) is Julie's former beau, who remains a family friend and still
defends Julie's honor. One day, when Preston doesn't drop everything to
attend a dress fitting for Julie that he had originally promised to
attend, she defiantly insists that she purchase a red dress, breaking
the white dress only tradition for the ball they were attending.
Despite the protestations of everyone she knows, including Preston, she
wears the dress to the ball, causing her to be ostracized and the
official break up of her engagement to Preston when he realizes that he
cannot deal with her headstrong attitude. He leaves for the north
without her, and comes back a year later with a surprise, and sees that
Yellow Fever has gripped New Orleans, a peril that threatens everyone.
"Jezebel" is a tale of defiance, love and redemption. Davis plays her role so well that it is hard to determine whether you want to support her or marginalize her as a spoiled brat. I think that even when the film was made, (1938) the lines were still blurred as to how many freedoms and how much free-thinking should be afforded to women. It is easy for me to say that Julie's red dress was much ado about nothing, but then again, this is the millennium, when nothing is overtly shocking anymore. The mere fact that I thought so much about a classic film (which generally has throwaway plots) is a true testament to Davis' performance and the writing, under William Wyler's direction. "Jezebel" is essentially "Gone with the Wind" without the budget or the color, and was made the year before that film was released. Most of the characters are fairly throwaway, but the subject is Julie, and her development is amazing and very believable, despite the melodramatic genre. This is a film that most classic film lovers have seen, I'm sure (I am apparently a late bloomer in regard to this film) but if you are one and you haven't seen it, or are a Bette Davis fan, see this movie. Most of her late 30's to 1950 films are so spectacular just because of her performance (if the rest is good, it's gravy), and this is one of her best known performances. 7/10 --Shelly
The American South has always had an aura of sadness around it. I don't
know why exactly. This film tends to reinforce that perception.
Characters start off with high hopes for the future, only to succumb to
some unfortunate fate, as a direct result of their Southern roots.
In pre-Civil War New Orleans, Julie Marsden (Bette Davis) is a wealthy young woman, engaged to respected banker Preston Dillard (Henry Fonda). But Julie is strong-willed, independent, and impetuous, traits considered unwomanly by that era's Southern aristocracy. Against Preston's wishes, Julie wears a red dress, instead of the customary white, to a gala ball. This event sets up the rest of the story.
While the support cast in "Jezebel" is fine, especially Fay Bainter, the film would not be the same without Bette Davis. I just can't see anyone else in the role of Julie. Davis' performance and the film's setting are what make this film so memorable. The costumes, the production design, the cinematography, and the music combine to convey a genuine sense of the antebellum South, with its stately manners that conceal narrow-mindedness and barbaric "chivalry".
Normally, I don't care for films whose subject matter is long ago history. But "Jezebel" is an exception, because it is so well made. I guess it is the tone of the film that really got my attention. The stately beauty of that time and place masks an underlying sadness, as a prelude to tragedy. Some might call it melodrama. But to me, that's just good drama.
Jezebel was Bette Davis's consolation prize for losing the Scarlett
O'Hara sweepstakes. Considering the sacrifice that the title character
makes in this film, it is fitting and proper that Davis got this role
because she could have had Scarlett, but she wouldn't make Gone With
the Wind if it included Errol Flynn as Rhett Butler.
Julie Marsden is as willful and and spiteful a southern belle as Scarlett O'Hara ever could be. But Scarlett would never deliberately violate the code the way Julie does and wear that red dress to a cotillion. Just simply not done in the best families.
Bette Davis is Julie and while she's going to be married to the very proper Henry Fonda, she likes the idea that she can still turn the head of every young blade in New Orleans. Especially George Brent's head as the dashing Buck Cantrell.
When Fonda doesn't jump at her beck and call he prefers doing business to catering to her whims she decides on a daring move. This is a woman who cannot stand not being the center of attention. She wears a red dress to a cotillion when polite society dictates that all the unmarried young ladies wear white. When she does, New Orleans society shuns her as effectively as the Amish can and Davis retreats to her plantation upriver.
Fonda goes north and returns after a while to New Orleans with Margaret Lindsay who he is now married to. An insult our southern belle won't put up with. Davis sets in motion a string of events that results in a lot of tragedy.
I have to say that just a description of the plot seems a bit ridiculous at times, but Bette Davis does make this whole thing quite believable. She won her second Oscar for Best Actress in this film and as her aunt who occasionally gives her a reality check every now and then Fay Bainter was named Best Supporting Actress of 1938.
Fonda and Brent are fine in their parts, but they are in support of Bette Davis in a Bette Davis film. Another performance I liked is that of Donald Crisp as the doctor who fights a lot of prejudice and ignorance in New Orleans in trying to deal with yellow fever.
Looming over all of the film is the knowledge we have that this society will come crashing down in another eight years or so in events so well told in Gone With the Wind. This film should be seen back to back with Gone With the Wind as a view of southern society.
This was Bette Davis's first film with director William Wyler who she admired above all other directors. Davis was not generous with praise for colleagues so any kind words towards one are really something. Apparently Wyler did have the magic touch in handling Bette.
Jezebel is one of Bette Davis's finest films, maybe not the finest, but definitely right up there. Unlike Davis's first Oscar for Dangerous which she said was a consolation for not winning for Of Human Bondage, this one she was proud of. And we're proud of it too.
*** This review may contain spoilers ***
The back-story behind Warner Bros.' JEZEBEL -- itself widely regarded among critics and connoisseurs of the films of Bette Davis (and the late Thirties in general) as that of a consolation film given to Davis when the "hunt" for Scarlett O'Hara was in full swing -- is as long and convoluted as the tangled passions within the story shown on screen. Davis, among a long list of actresses, were hungry to play this plum role even when it was already, contractually, and secretly secured to Vivien Leigh. Davis' position at Warner Bros. makes me wonder if she was somewhat aware of the situation for which she decided to accept to take on the role of Julie Marsden -- itself nearly identical to Scarlett. When seeing snippets of scenes from both this and GONE WITH THE WIND side by side on a split screen, even some trivial scenes (like that of both Scarlett and Julie primping up their faces in front of a mirror) wind up looking cloned. As a matter of fact, much of JEZEBEL looks and feels like dress rehearsal or a matinée showing of the more lavish and grandiose, full-length feature film GONE WITH THE WIND, which has become an intrinsic part of American Film History. Even so, this is not saying JEZEBEL is an inferior film -- it's not, and has some very beautiful moments, especially the dance sequence where Julie and Pres are progressively left alone in the middle of the ballroom, and of course Julie, pleading to Press in her white dress, falling to the floor like a reverse bloom. Bette Davis has some of her better acting here -- no chewing the scenery, but emoting only through minimal expressions and her eyes. She's balanced by Oscar winner Fay Bainter who plays her aunt Belle and matches Davis scene by scene. Despite having the less showy parts, Henry Fonda, George Brent, and Margaret Lindsay (always the second woman in a Warner Bros. drama) have strong screen presences, but most of all the star of this movie is William Wyler, who could always be counted on having Davis give exactly what she was required to do and not sabotage a movie due to her operatic demands and bombastic overacting. Because of Wyler, JEZEBEL is a much better film that it would have eventually been.
Bette Davis is a legend. I'd always heard that growing up, but felt
some disconnect from it . When I became aware of her it was late in her
career after she had developed into a boozy, smoke belching, caricature
of her on screen persona's. So, if the "Bette Davis/Legend" concept
rings a little hollow with you as it did me, watch this film. I just
saw "Jezebel" for the first time on DVD. Wow! I haven't seen a lot of
movies from the 1930's but I'm pretty sure that no one else was doing
then what Bette Davis was doing. It is an acting style, and skill
level, that isn't seen often.
She is brilliant throughout but one scene in particular made the hair stand up on the back of my neck. It happens in the scene where Henry Fonda escorts Jezebel home after the ball and breaks off their engagement. When he tells her, "goodbye" and not "goodnight", a look of puzzlement and humiliation comes over her face. She starts to turn away to leave, but decides instead to extend her hand in Southern feminine cordiality to wish him well. As she does this something inside her wells up. Her expression changes, and as they say, if looks could kill... With the speed of a cobra, and unable to restrain herself, she slaps him in the face. Unlike a cobra however, which recoils after it strikes, she lurches slightly closer and you think she might just rip his throat out. William Wyler lets the camera linger on her and it's a powerful, and slightly disturbing, moment. I don't think anyone else could have pulled it off like Davis did.
The film is great although the depictions of slavery as a genteel Southern quirk are more than a little cringe worthy. To see this movie though is to understand how Bette Davis became a legend. And to see this movie is to see one of the most powerful screen performances ever. Who knew... After all 1938 was a long time ago and I've been busy with other stuff.
Bette Davis is at her best in this 1800s Southern melodrama in which her attempts to snag a married ex-love (Henry Fonda) end in tragedy. Storywise this is nothing new, and there are way too many scenes were people talk endlessly about Southern manners. Also seeing all the black slaves so happy and singing is a bit hard to take. But the direction by William Wyler is excellent. He directs in a way that makes you part of the action (especially in the ball sequence and a duel at the end). Best of all is Davis. Her performance is superb--when she's on screen you can't take your eyes off her. She won a well-deserved Best Actress Oscar for this. Also Fay Bainter is excellent as her long-suffering aunt--she won Best Supporting Actress. All the acting is good except for Henry Fonda--he's so stiff and dull--what does Davis want with him? One last complaint--it's not in color. I know there are two reasons for this: 1) the expense and 2) they did tests and Davis looked horrible in color (think about it--how many color movies did she make?). Still, the non-stop compliments about the red dress at the beginning are annoying--the dress looks black! Still, this is worth seeing for Davis, Bainter and the direction.
I recently saw this magnificent film after not having seen it in quite a
number of years. William Wyler's extraordinary direction makes this movie a
classic that will live forever.
Mr. Wyler had at his disposal the best of what his studio could give him. In this film, based on the play by Owen Davis, he was at the top of his form. With the help of the great cinematographer, Ernest Haller and that fabulous costume designer, Orry-Kelly, he gives us a movie that will stand as one of the best of that period melodramas. The great Walter Huston was an assistant director under Wyler.
There are some people who have written comments about Jezebel expressing how much better it could have been, had it been done in color. Personally, I don't think so. Just look at the closing scenes of the picture to witness the master camera work of Mr. Haller showing a close up of Ms Davis. The effect of light and shadow is almost comparable to a painting. Bette Davis reacts to the camera with an economy of gestures, and yet, she speaks volumes of what is going on inside her soul.
Technicolor would have been the ruin of this film. At the beginning of its invention, this new process was too harsh. The film wouldn't have kept the glorious look it still possesses, had it been shot in color. As far as the red dress being more visible, in sharp contrast with the white costumes of the other young women at the ball, the black and white effect is more dramatic.
William Wyler was very lucky with the amazing cast he assembled for the film. Bette Davis and Henry Fonda were at their prime when they appeared in Jezebel. Bette Davis is what holds the film together with her magnetism and star performance. It's almost impossible to think of another actress of that period giving as good a performance, as Ms. Davis'.
There are also people that have compared Jezebel with Gone with the Wind. The only thing they had in common is the fact that both take place in the period before the War between the States, but that's as far as the similarities end. This was a stage play, which by the way, was not very successful when Miriam Hopkins and Tallulah Bankhead appeared in it.
This is a film to be treasured thanks to William Wyler.
Bette Davis gives one of her most memorable performances in this
atmospheric melodrama, and Henry Fonda, her co-star, is pretty good as
well. They and the rest of the cast make good use of the opportunities
in the story, which centers around Davis's turbulent character. William
Wyler pieces it all together effectively with good story-telling.
The character of the headstrong Julie (Davis) could easily become a cliché, but Davis gives her depth and presence, while also effectively portraying her spirited nature. She's unpredictable, yet her nature remains consistent. She leaves you guessing as to exactly what she is up to and what her motivations are, especially towards the climactic scenes.
Henry Fonda should not be overlooked. He does not get as many chances for dramatics, but his role is important in providing a complement for Davis. The supporting cast, which includes George Brent, Spring Byington, and Donald Crisp, also helps out.
The atmosphere in the Deep South also works well, and it used effectively in the story. The climactic sequence ties the setting and characters together well, and it leaves a memorable impression when it is over.
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