by Paul Batters
“I’m thinkin’ of a woman called Jezebel who did evil in the sight of God”. Aunt Belle (Fay Bainter)
By the late 1930s, the major studios had worked to perfect their film making craft and the signature elements of production had firmed themselves. It was also a period where cinema had recovered economically from the financial strain of the Great Depression, found form and approach in terms of sound and would produce some of the best work of the pre-WW2 period. For one of the biggest stars on the Warner Bros. lot, 1938 would be an important year, which would see the arc of her stardom move into the realm of screen legend.
Bette Davis is today remembered as one of the greatest actresses of all time, with a number of critics suggesting she tops the list. But whilst she was a star in 1938, Davis had been battling with Jack Warner for better roles, scripts with substance and respect for her talents as an actress. Her infamous and well-publicised court case with Warner Bros. saw her forced to return to the studio but despite this seemingly chastened position, the studio began to realise that Davis indeed was deserving of better treatment. As Davis would later state, she was surprised that Warner “bent over backwards to be nice” to her, with increased salary as well as the script for Marked Woman (1937) which would do well at the box office. (Full review here) Things were changing for Bette. Her battles with J. L would continue for some time but 1938 would finally see a shift in the roles and scripts being offered.
Her Oscar-winning performance in Jezebel (1938) would be the film, which truly put that shift into gear. As the biblical connotations of the film’s title suggests, the title role was one encompassing a dangerous and sinful woman and Davis would shape the character, especially through the direction of William Wyler, beyond the initial limitations of the script.
The story had failed in its’ initial form on the stage in 1932, ironically starring Miriam Hopkins whose rivalry with Davis was legendary and only second to the infamous Crawford-Davis feud. According to Ed Sikov, Wyler’s interest in filming the stage play had existed as far back as 1933 when he saw it as a vehicle for his then wife, Margaret Sullavan. When Warner Bros. purchased the rights from Miriam Hopkins in January 1937, the studio’s head of story department, Walter McEwen, was determined to see Davis in the role of the “little bitch of an aristocratic Southern girl”. The conventional wisdom regarding Davis’ turn in Jezebel and one implied by her biographer James Spada is that it was a ‘consolation’ for not winning the role of Scarlett O’Hara for Gone With The Wind (1939), which is a story that this review will not go into here. However, Ed Sikov suggests that such a suggestion is debatable and unfortunately comparisons of Davis’ performance to perhaps the most famous Southern belle ever put to screen will always be made.
The other key fundamental in shaping Jezebel was its’ director, William Wyler. Initially, Edmund Goulding was appointed director but his views for direction didn’t gel with production head Hal Wallis and Wyler was approached to direct. Bette received Wyler’s appointment with mixed feelings. When Bette was at Universal in 1931, she had been terribly humiliated at a screen test with Wyler (see link). Sikov relates the story that before shooting Bette and Wyler met and she brought up the story, which Wyler had largely forgotten. Apologising profusely, Bette recalled that she believed his apology to be sincere. By the end of filming, the two would be caught up in a passionate love affair, which Bette would remember as one that was highly-sexually charged and remember as one of the great loves of her life. But Wyler would do far more for Bette and her performance in Jezebel, which would be publically acknowledged when she received the Oscar for Best Actress. Wyler would challenge and extend her work beyond what she had previously experienced and as Spada points out, she revelled in working with a “director who was strong enough to match her in every way”.
Jezebel is a pre-Civil War tale set in New Orleans, with Wyler establishing context through a tracking shot down one of the town’s main boulevards, taking in the grandeur and business of the street. As Ed Sikov conveys, the continuity of the shot is beautifully set and the subtleties along with the grandeur create an imposing start to the film. The time is set approximately ten years before the outbreak of the Civil War and there are moments in the film where the tensions between North and South will come to the fore. Davis plays Julie Marston, a headstrong Southern belle who tries to emotionally manipulate those around her, including her fiancé Pres Dillard. (Henry Fonda). Pres is a banker who is also a strong and upright character but usually defers to Julie because of his love for her.
Davis’ entrance on screen as Julie Marsden is not as grand as the opening sequence but the nature of her character is clear from the get-go. Riding up to the front entrance of her home plantation, complete with feathered hat and riding crop, Julie hands her horse to a slave boy who is scared of the horse. Despite Julie’s advise not to be scared, the boy is afraid that the horse bites, to which Julie responds, “bite him back”. With incredible arrogance and defiance, she then saunters into her own party for which she is terribly late, inappropriately dressed and in complete disregard for the etiquette and expectations of the occasion. It’s a brilliant moment of film, perfectly establishing character and a scene that was completed in 48 takes. It was also the moment when Davis realised Wyler’s directorial genius and his ability to create with detail to every shot.
Pres is tied up in serious business at the bank and shows his foresight regarding the North and how the South needs to regard North-South relations. He is supposed to join Julie for a dress fitting in anticipation of the Olympus debutante ball, where the two will formally announce their engagement. As Julie wait for him in her carriage, her arrogance and lack of respect for her fiancé is more than evident when she fully expects him to obey her summons and states that she “has been training him for years”. However, Pres makes it clear that he is busy only then to be interrupted by Julie in the middle of the meeting. Not caring that Pres is in “the fight of my life”, she plans a spiteful lesson and much to the shock of her Aunt Belle (Fay Bainter) chooses a bright, red dress for the ball. She adds that she “has never been more serious in my life”.
Pres later arrives at her home, only to be advised by Julie’s guardian, General Theopholus Bogardus (Henry O’Neill) that she “needs a firm hand” and indeed Pres storms upstairs, his patience pushed to the limit. Julie’s coquettish and flirting ways melts his anger and she also shows the dress she will be wearing. He sees that she is “nursing a spite” and expects her to do the right thing and wear appropriate attire. But on the night of the ball, she still wears the dress as well enticing a former beau Buck Cantrell (George Brent) to inflame Pres’ jealousy.
However, Pres will not be deterred by her spite nor her desire to cause a sensation and attends the ball with her.
The fifteen-minute Olympus ball scene is the highlight of the film and Wyler expertly exploits the reverse crane shot to full effect. The ornate balcony is filled with people watching the dancers underneath a grand chandelier, all reflecting the requirements and expectations of the elite of New Orleans society. It is into this scenario that Pres enters with Julie on his arm, resplendent in bare shoulders and red dress, sending a wave of shock at such a scandal. Further to the point, Julie is supercilious and glides into the ballroom with incredible arrogance and expectant triumph. Pres remains staunch and has already decided that Julie needs to be taught a lesson.
As they are ostracized by the people they know and stared at by others, Julie begins to realize that she has miscalculated and overreached herself as the extent of her brazen act becomes apparent. Now desperate to escape her awful predicament, she asks Pres to take her home. Yet Pres defiantly responds, “we haven’t danced yet” and takes her onto the dance floor. As the two swirl to the waltz being played, Wyler moves the camera above them showing the other dancers leave the floor and highlighting the couple’s naked isolation and disgrace. The high angle now makes Julie look small and her defeat looks all the more terrible. Begging with resignation, Julie whimpers again for Pres to take her home. Once the waltz ends, Julie rushes from the ball with Pres grim-faced and defiant as he takes her home. She has become a spectacle rather than a sensation.
Yet despite this lesson, Julie has not fathomed that she had used up Pres’ patience and pushed him beyond his limits. After taking Julie to her door, Pres says goodbye, making it clear that their engagement is over. Slapping his face and calmly saying goodbye, Julie watches him leave and her arrogance restores itself. Aunt Belle pleads with her to call him back but she refuses, stating:
“No, he’ll come back. Wait and see. And tonight, I think. If he does, say I’ve retired. And then I’m sleepin’ late in the morning. Not to come around ’till afternoon tomorrow…”
The Olympus debutante ball scene took five days to shoot, much to the annoyance of Hal Wallis. Bette also found the shooting difficult but as James Spada points out was delighted at the attention to detail that Wyler was giving the scene, having learned quickly to appreciate his direction. Fonda reportedly was not overtly pleased yet other sources suggest he didn’t complain too much. However, nobody could doubt the power of the scene and its’ importance to the driving of the story.
A year later and Pres has long since headed North to continue with his financial business whilst Julie has remained reclusive. Yet they discover that Pres is returning much to Julie’s excitement and, it seems, she has learned her lesson. She plans to humble herself before him and beg forgiveness, believing that they will be married. Yet this reaction is still indicative of her arrogance and self-centredness and indeed is still a signal of her emotional manipulation of others. When she finally meets Pres and discovers he is married to a Northerner named Amy (Margaret Lindsay), she reverts to her old ways and her spite and malice rises to the surface and she plans to use all means at her disposal to get her way.
Julie’s machinations, however, are not oblivious to all. At a formal dinner, she flaunts herself at Buck to which Pres’ brother makes comment that she’s acting “like a Gallatan Street girl” (i.e a prostitute), tries to encourage an argument between Pres and Buck and later makes a sexual advance towards Pres himself, which he rejects. Julie makes all manner of insinuations and engineers a duel, which will end tragically and not meet the desired outcome. Most telling, the key characters involved in the duel make clear that they know what Julie had been attempting and this key moment in the film gives lead to the film’s title, which is delivered by the kindly, refined and most gentile Aunt Belle:
“I’m thinkin’ of a woman called Jezebel who did evil in the sight of God”.
Greater tragedy is to come when New Orleans is stricken by ‘yellow jack’ (yellow fever). The montage, with elements of German Expressionism- the jagged writing exclaiming ‘yellow jack!’, the heightened orchestral music – emphasis the catastrophe and the panic that has hit as martial law has been declared. But it will foreshadow the personal tragedy that Julie will face and provide the climax of the film. This reviewer will not reveal any spoilers here but the audience is left to decide whether Julie’s final act is one of redemption or one of selfishness.
Jezebel is a solid film with some outstanding moments rather than a powerful A-film. What lifts the hackneyed storyline out of cliché is Wyler’s direction, which drew from Davis a strong performance. At a professional and personal level, Jezebel would be a difficult yet exhilarating time for Bette Davis. During filming, she was so physically and mentally drained that she became seriously ill. Additionally, her sense of self and confidence was challenged despite the excitement of discovering the extent to which a great director could take her work. The end of filming saw the death of her father with whom she had a difficult relationship and left a complex and bitter taste for a woman who had sought her father’s approval. Yet winning a second Oscar for Best Actress certainly placed in the echelon of great Hollywood stars. She attributed the success of her performance to Wyler during her acceptance speech and it was clear that he had taught her a great deal about her abilities and talents.
Davis is the shining light in Jezebel. Fonda is solid as Pres but not particularly inspiring whist George Brent plays a role, which for most of the film feels one-dimensional. Fay Bainter as Aunt Belle gives a tempered performance in keeping with the cultured, gentile and kindly woman who is always there for her niece. She would also be acknowledged for her work, receiving the Oscar for Best Supporting Actress.
Jezebel was a stand-out film for Bette Davis. Not only did she deliver a measured performance but it saw the start of a run of successful films both commercially and critically that have endured. If Bette Davis is remembered today as one of the greatest actresses of all time, this is the film, which truly set her on the path of being remembered.
This review of Jezebel (1938) is an entry in the The Made In 1938 Blogathon hosted by Crystal at ‘In The Good Old Days At Hollywood’ and Robin at Pop Culture Reverie. Click on the links to read some other fantastic entries on great films from 1938! A special thank you to both hosts for the opportunity!
Paul Batters teaches secondary school History in the Illawarra region and also lectures at the University Of Wollongong. In a previous life, he was involved in community radio and independent publications. Looking to a career in writing, Paul also has a passion for film history.