The Dark Underbelly Of Americana: ‘Kings Row’ (1942)

by Paul Batters

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“I only know that you have to judge people by what you find them to be and not by what other people say they are” – Madame von Eln (Maria Ouspenskaya) 

Every small town has its’ secrets and stories and Hollywood has found no shortfall in material in telling those stories nor directors wishing to tell them. Usually, Hollywood had depicted small towns as idyllic places, where values and morals to be admired where prevalent and family life created a world of stability and normality. This is certainly true in the Andy Hardy series, the then popular Henry Aldrich series and films such as Meet Me In St Louis (1944) and Our Town (1940), which was incidentally directed by Sam Wood. Capra’s films certainly celebrate the small American town, untainted by the complexities of the big city, as well as ‘the people’ characterised as being the ‘salt of the earth’.

Kings Row (1942) stands tall as a tale of an American Midwestern town at the turn of the 20th century, with all the A Grade production values that were a staple at Warner Bros. Directed by Sam Wood (A Night At The Opera, Goodbye Mr Chips, Pride Of The Yankees), Kings Row is a powerful film, with outstanding performances from its’ principal players and a talented supporting cast. Whilst certainly not a forgotten film, Kings Row is often overshadowed by some of the other big releases from Warner Bros. around the same time such as Now Voyager (1942) and Casablanca (1943). It certainly deserves our attention, as it is one of Warner Bros. finest productions and despite the surface themes of romance, relationship, loss and tragedy, there are far deeper concerns that are addressed in the film. At its’ very core, Kings Row is a story that reveals the uglier and darker undercurrent of the American Midwestern town, tearing down the façade of respectability, polite society and propriety to reveal hypocrisy, perversion, familial dysfunction and corruption.  This essay does not aim to avoid spoilers but to discuss these issues and examine their purveyance in the film. (So readers be warned!)

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From the opening scene, punctuated by Erich Wolfgang Korngold’s excellent score, perhaps one of the finest ever written for the silver screen, the focus is on the town. The audience’s focus is drawn to a sign which declares Kings Row is a ‘good town’, one which is a ‘good town to live in and a good place to raise your children’.  The camera moves across tree-lined streets and picket fences before being drawn to the characters. But the inference is quite clear, as Wheeler Winston Dixon points out, that the film intends to be a stinging indictment of American society…and a dystopian vision of the dark underside of Midwestern small- town life’.  

As the audience is going to discover, to go against the small-minded and morally suffocating rules and expectations of society means a heavy price must be paid.

The story has a two-fold focus in terms of the protagonists; specifically the close friendship of Parris (Robert Cummings) and Drake (Ronald Reagan), though it is Parris  with whom the audience connects with first and foremost.  Parris and Drake share a friendship since they were children and though different in demeanour, they are similar in their strength if character.

Parris is a young and gifted student being raised by his grandmother Madame von Eln (Maria Ouspenskaya) whose values and beliefs she has bestowed upon Parris, as well as her love and kind nature. Unbeknownst to Parris, his grandmother falls ill with cancer but she covers it up, not wanting to cause worry for her grandson. Parris, too, is a kind, thoughtful and passionate young man who begins studying medicine with the brilliant yet reclusive Dr. Alexander Tower (Claude Rains). His childhood friendship with the doctor’s daughter Cassie (Betty Field) will eventually develop into love and they pursue their passions despite the doctor’s warnings and Cassie’s growing anxiety. The two will consummate their love, although naturally this is only suggested in the film but the results will have dire consequences for Cassie.

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However, these ‘star-crossed lovers’ are doomed to a greater tragedy than Parris’ initial concerns for Cassie could anticipate. Cassie fears that she is going mad, as her mother did, and it appears that her insanity is not entirely an unfounded fear. As the audience discovers later in the film, Dr. Tower also suspects that Cassie has gone mad.  What follows is a shocking turn in the tale (which incredibly survived the Breen Office), is the murder-suicide that occurs in the Tower household. Cassie is killed and Dr Tower then turns his murderous hand on himself.

Parris is horrified and wracked with guilt that he earlier dismissed Cassie when she declared her fears to him. He also discovers that the authorities want to speak to him but before he races to the Tower house, Drake stops him and goes instead, claiming he had been seeing Cassie. Drake sacrifices his own reputation in the presence of Dr. Gordon (Charles Coburn) the father of Louise (Nancy Coleman) the girl he has been ‘seen’ with. Yet his faux declaration turns out to be unnecessary as Parris discovers that he is the recipient of something he never expected. Nevertheless, it adds further condemnation of Drake’s moral character (or lack thereof) in the eyes of Dr. Gordon.

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Parris will face greater challenges, with the death of his grandmother who, along with the tragedy of the Towers, spurs him to leave the town and seek something greater. Yet Drake also senses that Parris needs to leave and, sharing the deeper sentiments of Dr Tower, does not want to see his friend stay in Kings Row to become a mediocrity, with his potential drowned by the town’s darkness. Parris does leave for Vienna where he will pursue his career in medicine but specifically the new field of psychology.

Drake, will remain in the town and face his own challenges, not the least of losing his family fortune to an unscrupulous banker. Yet it does result in finding something stable and lasting in Randy (Ann Sheridan). The no-nonsense and tough Irish girl comes from the other side of the tracks and her hard-working family accepts Drake without judgment, indicating that the ‘poorer’ part of town has rejected the hypocrisy and double standards of ‘respected society’. 

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Kings Row spans a period of approximately 20 years, from the childhood of the principal characters into their adulthood. Of course, the tale being told is not only that of the people in the town but of the town itself. The divisions that exist in Kings Row are marked not only in the town’s psyche and fabric but by the very physical differences, classically signified by the train tracks. Drake’s ultimate slide from society is marked not only by his financial fall but also primarily by his moving over the train tracks to be with Randy. Ironically, his ‘punishment’ for doing so, is the horrific accident (and unnecessary operation that follows), which will give Ronald Regan his most famous scene in film history and a heck of a line of dialogue.

When Parris does return home, the expectation from the town is that he will set up a practice in Kings Row but Parris is not so sure. However, he will discover something that may keep him there and may give him the peace and stability that has eluded him.

His reunion with Drake is bittersweet and the love that they share is certainly undiminished by time apart. Yet Drake’s problems runs deeper than his physical trauma and Randy is hopeful that Parris’ return may help. The momentous climax is powerful and emotional, not only placing the cherry on top of Reagan’s performance but also reaching a finality for the key characters in conquering their own obstacles and defeating the very forces of the town, which had sought to crush their individuality.

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Stylistically, Kings Row is a dark melodrama, with Gothic undertones and is beautifully shot by legendary cameraman James Wong Howe, whose perceptive eye finds the inner emotions of the characters, as well as the nature of the town. The wide-eyed panic in Cassie is disturbing and her anxiety and terror reflects an undertow of repression in the town. Terrified of her own thought processes, Cassie tries to reject Parris but her love for him initially prevails only to be de-railed by her own dread and the final act of horror that will befall her. The camera focuses on her face, illuminated in the moonlight like a phantom and the accompanying score not only enhances the tragedy of Cassie’s mental state but also foreshadows the final moment of madness to come. Later, Louise will also face mental illness and instability, also impacted on by a cruel and domineering father. Again, the repressive climate of the town, which discourages individuality and demands subservience to what is considered ‘decent society’, has meant terrible repercussions.  Insanity is a long-running convention of the Gothic genre and in Kings Row it seems to be way too prevalent. But more pointedly, the town of King’s Row seems almost totalitarian in its’ societal laws and expectations. Patriarchy may be the most obvious reason for the power system in place but men also fall prey to the claustrophobia of the town’s façade of propriety; Drake pays a heavy price for his individuality and refusal to bow to the town’s societal norms and Dr Tower faces isolation (even if partially self-inflicted).  Parris will declare Dr Tower as a brilliant man whose intelligence and forward thinking is wasted in King’s Row. What compels him to remain in a hick town with such narrow-minded and stifling repression? It takes great strength of character and true principles set into foundations of integrity to withstand the onslaught.

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Certainly the town of Kings Row understands the art of the cover-up – so much so that even the ‘best’ that the town has to offer, i.e. Parris, has learned how to do it. Parris is more than happy to commit Drake’s former flame Louise to a mental asylum, to protect Drake from Louise revealing the truth behind her now-dead father’s operation on Drake. Parris would know full well the horrors of such a committal yet he is initially happy to humour Louise into a false sense that he will help her. In truth, this is not the act of a honourable doctor and our high opinion of Parris is rattled. But it fits perfectly with the very atmosphere of the town. To protect Parris from scandal when Cassie is murdered, Drake is happy to lie that he was seeing Cassie and ruin his own reputation, which he claims is ruined anyway.

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Perhaps the darkest element of the story deals with the secondary characters and the plot device upon which the film will turn and provide Drake’s character arc. The sadistic Dr. Gordon is later revealed to a self-appointed judge and jury within the town, abusing his position as a doctor and committing unspeakable and abominable operations upon those he considers due punishment for their transgressions. The fact that the good doctor is never questioned suggests the nature of the town protecting him and his activities – and it seems that his practice as a doctor is not exactly unseen by others. Parris, when discovering his grandmother is unwell and being treated by Dr Gordon, questions his mentor Dr Tower about Gordon’s reputation, professionalism and practice. The tone in which Parris asks his questions and the nature by which Dr Tower answers certainly suggests that rumours exist and Dr Gordon is whispered about. But Gordon’s abuse is not merely the act of a wayward or ‘mad’ doctor; it becomes the allegory for the abuse of power and authority by those who have it. Gordon is not only a doctor but in some sense a ‘respected’ leader within the town and its’ high society. His wife will certainly not question him and when his daughter threatens to expose him, he suggests how he will deal with her and seems more than ready to commit her.  The power of patriarchy is more than evident. 

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As a result, Drake’s ability to disempower what Dr Gordon has done to him, with help from Parris and Randy, is a great victory over this long-established patriarchy and becomes a moment of courage as Drake takes ownership of his liberation, breaking the imprisonment of his condition.

It is actually quite a feat that Kings Row was made from Henry Bellamann’s 1940 novel in the first place. Upon its’ release, the novel was a massive success, with studios engaging in an intense battle for filming rights. However, turning Bellamann’s novel into a film that would meet the requirements of the Production Code would be extremely difficult. Not only does the murder-suicide occur but also the original motive behind it is far more sinister and darker than what anticipates the heinous act in the film. As critic Tim Dirks points out, ‘Cassie was afflicted with nymphomania, not insanity. Dr. Tower’s diary revealed that the warped doctor had eliminated his wife and then committed incest with his daughter in order to study its psychological effects. He then killed Cassie when she threatened to leave him and go to Parris’. Parris and Cassie are certainly in love and there are allusions that the two are consummating their love. In the film, Dr. Tower’s motives are designed as almost valorous and noble. Parris interprets the doctor’s act as an attempt to ‘save’ Parris from the same fate as Dr. Tower – marrying an unbalanced woman and finding himself locked for life in a small town with small-minded people. Indeed, Parris even calls Dr. Tower a ‘brilliant man’ for his foresight, as well as his genius as a doctor. Murder-suicide is a heinous act and not one of brilliance or courage, yet there is a twisted logic in Kings Row, which has even reached Parris.

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Arguably, these considerations may not necessarily condemn Parris as a character and the difficulties and complexities of situations that we all encounter in life may have to deal with choosing the lesser of two evils. Nevertheless, it may appear that in Kings Row, such choices become very apparent and if the audience looks carefully, a darker and more sinister reality exists behind the picket fences and claims of being ‘ a good town’.

 Kings Row is a superb film which allows the audience to become consumed in the drama and absorbed by the depth of its’ characters. The quality of production typifies Warner Bros and Hal Wallis, then Head Of Production at Warners, knew how to build a picture and shape it to its’ finest results. The pedigree of Sam Wood as director is well known although by all reports he was less concerned with the visual impact of the film (still beautiful by James Wong Howe’s impeccable standards) and more so with the building of the key characters, particularly Parris.

There is a great courage in the production of this film, as already discussed and the more explicit themes and concerns of the novel are still present in the subtle and nuanced development of the story. Ultimately, Kings Row is far more than a melodrama but a revelation of the darkness of some places, where facades of propriety, community and ‘goodness’ are stripped down to reveal hypocrisy and abuse of power. On a larger scale, Kings Row becomes an allegory for the sinister corruption and hypocrisy that may not only exists in our own towns and cities but within our society as a whole. As an audience we learn that there is a price to pay if we care to challenge it, ignore it or even escape it; and we may well ask if that price is worth paying if it means our integrity and sense of self remains intact.

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.

Jezebel: Bette Davis’ Oscar Winning Role of 1938

by Paul Batters

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“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”.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.