Director: William Wyler
Writers: Clements Ripley, Abem Finkel, John Huston (screen play); Owen Davis, Sr. (play); Robert Buckner, Louis F. Edelman (uncredited contributors to treatment)
Stars: Bette Davis, Henry Fonda, George Brent, Donald Crisp, Margaret Lindsay, Fay Bainter
Synopsis: Although Gone With the Wind, the other Southern belle drama of the 1930s, is overall a superior film, Bette Davis’ performance in Jezebel is not to be missed.
Jezebel helped make Bette Davis a box office superstar, for which she won her second Best Actress Oscar, and costars Henry Fonda in the prime of his dashing youth.
Davis plays Julie Marsden, a Southern belle in New Orleans who loses her fiancé because of her rebellious petulance, then seeks to win back his favor. She is labeled a “Jezebel” by her aunt (in an Oscar-winning performance by Fay Bainter) for her attempts to meddle and manipulate others, and like the Jezebel of The Bible, an undue amount of her scandal comes from her brazen attire.
Modern audiences may be a bit startled by the moralizing, the degree to which Bette Davis’ Julie is punished for her willfulness and for wearing the wrong clothing – though in fairness, her harshest criticisms come from manipulating others with tragic consequences. And like Gone With the Wind, the film is a casual apologist for racism, whitewashing the atrocities of slavery by having Davis sing with the well-kept, happy plantation slaves.
Jezebel is the first Bette Davis film I’ve seen of her in her youth, being far more familiar with her raspy, throaty performances in All About Eve, Whatever Happened to Baby Jane, Death on the Nile, and – my first Bette Davis film – Return From Witch Mountain. I knew her as a talented actress, but I was unprepared for her beauty and her melodic voice. It no longer seems surprising to see her cast as an ingénue. But even then, the power of her acting is apparent. Witness, for example, the range of emotions her expressive face conveys during her first meeting with Amy.
Though it is widely reported that Jezebel was offered to Bette Davis after she failed to win the role of Scarlett O’Hara for Gone With the Wind, it was filmed long before Gone With the Wind finished casting, and David O. Selznick apparently never seriously considered her for Scarlett despite her being the audience’s favorite in a radio poll. But the two films have striking similarities, albeit important differences. Both show the ravages of the American South, one through the Civil War, the other through an epidemic outbreak of yellow fever nearly a decade before the war. Both feature willful Southern belles who need to be “put in their place” and taught a lesson. Both heroines seek to redeem themselves of their childish selfishness, one through achieving personal independence, the other through self-sacrifice. And both went on to win the Best Actress Oscar.
In the end, Gone With the Wind is overall a superior film, but Bette Davis’ performance in Jezebel is not to be missed.
Rating: 3 ½ stars