Jezebel (1938)

Jezebel (1938)


In 1850s New Orleans, Louisiana, a high-strong Southern belle, Julie Marsden (Bette Davis), gets her kicks from going against society’s expectations and that makes her beau, Preston Dillard (Henry Fonda, The Grapes of Wrath), very angry. Preston eventually breaks off the engagement, but Julie is determined to win him back.

Reaction & Thoughts:

“I’m thinking of a woman called Jezebel who did evil in the sight of God.”

Jezebel has all the trademarks of a great movie. Ernest Haller’s (Rebel Without a Cause) gorgeous cinematography, Max Steiner’s (Now,Voyager) lovely music score, William Wyler’s (Mrs. Miniver) meticulous direction, the story, the acting, etc., all elements come together to create a rewarding cinematic experience.

People theorized at the time that Warners’ Jezebel was produced solely for the purpose of competing with David O. Selznick’s Gone with the Wind. Even Selznick accused Warners of trying to steal the wind out of his pet project. While there is some truth in all that (Warner Bros. did want to cash in on the GWTW fever that was sweeping the nation), saying that Jezebel is merely a GWTW wannabe is grossly unfair. Plot similarities aside, Jezebel stands on its own merits — it’s drama of the highest order.

The film is based on a successful 1933 stage play by American dramatist Owen Gould Davis. The screenplay — credited to Clements Ripley (Buffalo Bill), Abem Finkel (Sergeant York) and future director John Huston (The Maltese Falcon and The African Queen) — is particularly well-constructed. Melodrama and sociopolitical issues interact in fascinatingly complex ways throughout the whole movie.

For example, Jezebel does a superb job exploring sexism in a patriarchal social structure. The film’s heroine, Julie Marsden, is on the surface a bull-headed woman who goes too far with her manipulations. But under closer examination, she is just trying to nip at the heels of an unjust gender-biased society. It’s something to think about while enjoying the drama and great performances.

Jezebel made Bette Davis a mega-movie-star. After much struggle and suffering, Davis finally got what she was craving: A great role in a Class-A movie. Her brilliant work was rewarded with an Oscar for Best Actress. Davis always gave director Wyler all the credit for her improvement as an artist, and I agree with her. He’s clearly the very first director to take Davis’s “nuclear energy” and channel it into productive work.

I was also impressed with Fay Bainter’s (The Secret Life of Walter Mitty and The Children’s Hour) performance as Aunt Belle. She’s the conscience of the movie. Like Davis, she nabbed an Oscar for her stupendous work.

The huge cast includes George Brent (The Great Lie) as Buck Cantrell, Donald Crisp (Juarez) as Dr. Livingstone, Spring Byington (You Can’t Take It with You) as Mrs. Kendrick, Henry O’Neill (Marked Woman) as General Theopholus Bogardus and Eddie Anderson (Cabin in the Sky) as Gros Bat.

Conclusions & Final Thoughts:

Warners’ Jezebel is an intelligent, interesting, and utterly entertaining movie. It also contains one of Bette Davis’s best performances. Although many notches below Gone with the Wind, Jezebel is a near-perfect movie — a must see for all classic movie lovers! B&W, 104 minutes, Not Rated.

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