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Article added on January 5, 2010

Jezebel is a 1938-movie that made Bette Davis a star. The title gets explained when the film character Julie Marsden (Bette Davis) emotionally asks her aunt (Fay Bainter): “Well, say it. What are you thinking?” The lady responds calmly: “I'm thinking of a woman called Jezebel who did evil in the sight of God.”

Fay Bainter

Throughout the movie, the character actress Fay Bainter (1893-1968) is reacting to Bette Davis' Julie Marsden in a subtle manner, making viewers understand what is going on.
Both Bette Davis and Fay Bainter won an Academy Award for their performances in Jezebel (for Best actress and Best Supporting Actress).

Fay Bainter was a stage actress since 1910, who gave her Broadway debut in 1912. Her first movie appearance only came in This Side of Heaven in 1934. But she immediately established herself as a reliable artist.

The dresses in Jezebel

Jezebel is the story about a woman who decides to break the social rules of the South in the 1850s (spoiler alert). The movie starring Bette Davis could also have been named “Dresses”. Her disrespect for the dress code and her later conformity to it, when it is too late, makes Jezebel a women's movie.

Mainly four dresses and fashion mistakes by Julie Marsden (Bette Davis) are at the center of attention: 1) A scarlet dress (associated to a whore's dress) instead of the traditional white dress for an unmarried woman makes her an outcast within society and makes her lose the love of her life. 2) After several minutes into the film only, Bette Davis' character is introduced, wearing an inappropriate riding dress for a reception for which she is late as usual. I
t took her 45 takes to lift her riding skirt with her crop in the fabulous scene introducing her character. 3) She is wearing a white dress when the man she loves comes back from New York at a time when it is too late to please him with such a gesture. 4) Finally, it's about putting on a sober grey cape - covering up a beautiful dress - when she has to take care of the man she loves on Plague Island at the end of the movie.

The dresses worn by Bette Davis address several topics of the movie such as the place of women in society and social conventions in the antebellum South. In the dressing scene were Julie first tries on the white hoop squirt and then the red one, we can see how difficult it was for a woman just to dress; in fact, she could not do it alone.

Incidentally, in black and white movies, white dresses reflected the light incorrectly. Therefore, all the white dresses, most importantly in the Olympus ball scene, were in a slightly grey color, but looked virginal white on screen. The red dress was in fact dark brown edged with black, but looked credibly red in the black and white movie.

A pity the 1938-movie is in black and white. Orry-Kelly's (1897-1964) costumes would have been great to admire in color. The Australian-born costume designer remains one of the finest in the entire Hollywood history. Orry-Kelly worked for all major studios and won three Academy Award's for Costume Design, namely for An American in Paris (1951), for Les Girls (1957) and for one the the all-time best movies, Some Like It Hot (1959). Other great movies with Orry-Kelly costumes include The Maltese Falcon, Casablanca and Arsenic and Old Lace, to mention just a few.

Jezebel: a Bette Davis character

Julie Marsden is the quintessential Bette Davis character. A calculating tough character who is going to have it her way, even if it means the destruction of relationships, of other people or - as is often the case - of herself. Julie Marsden is a complex character, both aggressive and yielding.

The Jezebel characters of Bette Davis and Henry Fonda have a rocky relationship behind them. We learn that it is not the first time they have been engaged. Their relationship will be at its climax at the ball, when Julie realizes that she had made a mistake wearing a red dress but Pres won't let her off the hook, dancing with her to the bitter end.

The remark by the character of Julie Marsden that 1852 is no longer the dark ages was also a reference to 1938, where Bette Davis was still controlled by the studio bosses. Warner Bros. had taken her to court for a breach of contract. She had made two movies in England and wanted to have more control over the films in which she had to appear. She lost her case in court. She was unable to break the studio system with its tight grip on the careers of actors and actresses. However, Jezebel was an expensive Bette Davis vehicle by Warner Bros. The company tried to placate its star. It was an expensive and brilliant movie.

Jezebel (Bette Davis) lives in the old south, a world of magnolias and Spanish moss. A doomed world full of slaves, all depicted as generally happy, helpful and caring about their masters in this 1938-antebellum movie. The audiences in the South expected these stereotyped portrayals of slaves and reacted badly to more realistic films. Censure boards in places like Atlanta and Birmingham would simply cut more negative scenes out, explains film professor Rick Jewell.

The play and the movie Jezebel and their link with Gone with the Wind

The movies Jezebel and Gone with the Wind are linked. Although the movie starring Vivien Leigh was finished only one year later, the book Gone with the Wind had already been published. Without its success, the play Jezebel may not have become a movie. Interest in the antebellum South was huge thanks to Margaret Mitchell's epic.

At the time of the shooting of Jezebel, it was still unclear who would star in Gone with the Wind, which was in its pre-production. In the end, Vivien Leigh got the part, despite Bette Davis' stellar performance in Jezebel. Anyway, it was not Jack Warner but David O. Selznick who had bought the film rights to Margaret Mitchell's novel in 1936 for the then record amount of $50,000.

Jezebel was an unsuccessful Broadway stage play that had some 30 performances in late 1933. This allowed Warner Bros. to acquire the rights for Jezebel for very little money.

The original Julie Marsden in the stage play by Owen Davis was played by Bette Davis' archrival on the theatre scene, Miriam Hopkins (1902-1972), who later starred in several movies by William Wyler: The Heiress (1949), Carrie (1951), The Chilren's Hour (The Loudest Whisper) (1961). Unlike Miriam Hopkins, who was born in Savannah and raised in Bainbridge (both in Georgia), Bette Davis was no real Southern Belle. For the Old South melodrama Jezebel, taking place in New Orleans, she had to transform herself.

Bette Davis's career before Jezebel

Bette Davis (1908-1989) made her stage debut in 1928 in a repertory company directed by George Cukor. She was dismissed two months later. However, she managed to make her Broadway debut in the play Broken Dishes in 1929. The following year, she caught the attention of Universal Studio's talent scout David Werner. She was signed to a $300 a week contract. Her first movie appearance came in 1931 in The Bad Sister. The studio men unflatteringly referred to her as the “little brown wren”. Five forgettable movies followed. Warner Bros. were about to drop her.

Bette Davis' career only took off after the English actor, author, playwright and filmmaker George Arliss (1868-1946) cast her as the female lead opposite him in the movie The Man Who Played God directed by John G. Adolfi in 1932. It was her first leading role. Studio makeup artist Perc Westmore turned Davis into a blonde. The actress felt herself on screen for the first time. Westmore made up Davis in some 25 subsequent films. Incidentally, Arliss and Davis also co-starred in The Working Man in 1933, another film directed by Adolfi.

After The Man Who Played God, Warner Bros. signed her to a five-year contract. In just thirteen months, she made nine movies. Real fame for Bette Davis came in 1934 with the film Of Human Bondage, based on the W. Somerset Maugham's novel, for which, incredibly, she had not even been nominated for an Oscar. Ironically, for her best performance so far, Betty Davis had been loaned out to RKO. In Of Human Bondage, she played a calculating and vulgar waitress with a heavy Cockney-accent. It was her first “ Bette Davis' character. In the film noir Bordertown in 1935, she proved again that she could play a complex and ruthless character. Dangerous, also from 1935, reinforced her image as a tough woman. She won an Oscar for that performance, which she considered a consolation prize for Of Human Bondage. In Jezebel, Bette Davis would play a spoiled, but sophisticated Southern Belle, again a bitchy, but more complex character.

The director William Wyler

William Wyler (1902-1981) won three Academy Awards himself (for Mrs. Miniver, 1942, for The Best Years of Our Lives, 1946 and for Ben Hur, 1959). Both Bette Davis and Fay Bainter won one under his direction for their performances in Jezebel (Best Actress and Best Supporting Actress). Among the many other actors who won Academy's under his direction were Charlton Heston (in Ben Hur) and Barbra Streisand (in Funny Girl). All Wyler movies together ended up winning him and his cast and crew and incredible 38 Academy Awards and 127 Oscar Nominations.

William Wyler was born in Germany  in 1902 to a Jewish family, a Swiss father and a German mother. At the time of his birth, the Alsace region was part of Germany, at present it is a part of France. Wyler wanted quality and therefore pushed his actors to the limit, taking as many takes as he thought necessary. The Warner Bros. philosophy was quite the opposite: “One will be enough, thank you”, remarks film historian Jeannine Basinger. Wyler did not tell his actors what to do exactly (he was of German mother tongue and may have had some difficulties expressing himself), but he recognized what he wanted when he got it.

The executive producer at Warner Bros., Hal Wallis, hired William Wyler to direct Jezebel. Wyler was under contract with the independent producer Samuel Goldwyn. Jezebel was for him a vehicle to show off his skills. The script was not finished when Wyler began shooting. Therefore, he asked for John Huston to be brought in to act as the middleman between him and the writers.

At Warner Bros., instead of his usual cinematographer Gregg Toland at Samuel Goldwyn, William Wyler worked with the director of photography Ernest Haller, who won an Academy Award Nomination for his work in Jezebel and an Oscar for Gone with the Wind.

For both Ernest Haller and Bette Davis, Jezebel was a key stone in their respective careers.
In addition to Jezebel, the two other movies Bette Davis shot with director William Wyler were the Somerset Maugham adaption The Letter (1940) and The Little Foxes (1941).

David O. Selznick was so impressed with Ernest Haller's work that he hired him for Gone with the Wind, for which Haller won the mentioned Academy Award. Haller was the cinematographer on two of Bette Davis' Academy Award winning performances, Dangerous and Jezebel. In total, Haller himself got one Oscar and six other nominations. Wyler liked long takes with deep focus, favored by Haller, which allowed the director to show an incredible amount of details.

As the story gets more and more tragic, the lightning of the scenes in Jezebel gets darker and the shadow effects get more and more pronounced, according to film historian Rick Jewell.

In a TV interview decades later, Bette Davis said that William Wyler was her first great director and that he had made her “a permanent, above-the-title star.” Under his direction, she dropped her mannerisms. He taught her the power of silence and simplicity. Wyler and Davis were having a love affair during the shooting of Jezebel. It was The talk on the set. When the filming of the movie came to an end, so did their affair, says film historian Jeannine Basinger.

Wyler had tested Bette Davis for a Universal Movie before shooting Jezebel. In the screen test for A House Divided, Wyler had made a disparaging remark regarding Davis for wearing a low-cut dress. He apologized on the first day of shooting of Jezebel.

William Wyler was a meticulous worker who always took the time he needed. He shot all the difficult and more expensive scenes first, which bought him time for the rest, running some 28 days behind schedule without risking to be shut down. He concentrated the money on certain scenes. One of them is the opening scene showing a street in New Orleans in 1852. Wyler and director of photography Ernest Haller moved the camera along the dolly, following people riding, walking and talking, showing New Orleans' diversity in one shot taken at the a ranch in Chatsworth, ten miles from the Burbank studios.

For William Wyler, close-ups were unusual, but very much used in a successful way in Jezebel. The close-ups showed Julie Marsden's character as well as her feelings at a given moment. They helped her win a well-deserved Academy Award.

Incidentally, in 1938, both William Wyler and Henry Fonda were ex-husbands of the actress Margaret Sullivan (1909 - 1960 suicide by barbiturate poisoning). Fonda split with the difficult actress after only two months.

Henry Fonda in Jezebel

During the shooting of Jezebel, Henry Fonda was sometimes allowed to go and see his second wife Frances Ford Seymour who was to give birth to Jane Fonda in late December. Henry Fonda had a contract clause allowing him to end shooting on December 17, which he did.

Jeffrey Lynn was originally cast in the role of Pres Dillard but was not released in time by the producers of the play he was appearing in. Henry Fonda replaced him in the last minute. The early release of Fonda meant that Bette Davis had to shoot some difficult close-ups just facing a mirror.

At the time of the shooting of Jezebel, Henry Fonda was already a lead actor who had received praise for his performances. The Fritz Langgangster movie You Only Live Once had established him. He had already starred in That Certain Woman (1937) opposite Bette Davis. They were rumored to have had a one-night stand when they were both young theater performers at the East Coast. Jezebel elevated Fonda to a higher level, playing men of integrity and honor, for which he is known. His real fame came in John Ford movies shot in 1939 and 1940. Henry Fonda was the master of low-key acting. Bette Davis the queen of pushing the emotional envelope to the maximum, without foolishly overacting. They perfectly complemented each other in Jezebel.

Pres Dillard, a banker at Dillard and Sons, Henry Fonda's character in Jezebel, is a new kind of Southerner. He has traveled North and found his wife in New York City. Although he believes in many of the old manners of the South, he understands that New Orleans has to evolve and that slavery is no longer an option. He represents modernity. In a discussion, Henry Fonda's character argues: “New York and Boston are steadily laying in rails to the Northwest. They're tapping the whole trade of that country. Chicago, St. Louis, Cincinnati, the whole Great Lakes country beginning to ship east by rail. And New Orleans is missing the parade.”

George Brent

uck Cantrell, the character played by the Irish actor George Brent (1899-1979), represented the old-fashioned Southern gentleman, a relic of the past. Logically, he gets shot in a duel. Cantrell (Brent) and Dillard (Fonda) represented the Old and the possible New South. Marsden (Davis) tries to play them against each other to get it her way.

George Brent was a notorious Hollywood womanizer. After five movies with him, Bette Davis became involved with this ladies man. Decades later, she said that he fell in love with her in Dark Victory. They never married because she said she would never marry a fellow actor.

The photography and the decor

Film historian Rudy Behlmer talks in a DVD special about the great lengths the Jezebel crew went to find the right street lamps and table settings, to mention just two details. This was no low-cost production. Film professor Drew Casper mentions the expensive full ballroom set. Something very different from the other cost-conscience Warner Bros. productions. In addition to the authentic period clothes by Orry-Kelly mentioned above, the sets as such and the furniture by art director Robert Haas set the tone from the opening scene: This is an important and expensive movie. In 1944, Robert Haas worked on another Bette Davis film, Mr Skeffington.

According to the film historian, Bette Davis had an interesting face that was attractive when viewed from the front or the side but not as great in profile. Director of photography Ernest Haller found ways to shoot her in a satisfactory way for her. That's why she loved working with him.

The music by Max Steiner

The music in Jezebel was by Max Steiner (1888-1971) whom many regard as the father of film music, the first to use an original background score for movies. He composed many legendary film scores, including the one for
Casablanca. Like William Wyler, Steiner (born in Vienna, Austria) was a man of German mother tongue. With his film music, the composer underscored what was going on and what the emotions of the character were in Jezebel. There is for instance the dangerous yellow fever music and the dark side of Davis' character music.

In short

Jezebel was a prestige picture, a crowd and critic pleaser. It gave Warner Bros. a higher standing. Although Bette Davis
considered the Oscar for her performance in Jezebel a consolation prize for Of Human Bondage, it made her The Warner Bros. star for the decade to come.

, 1938. Restored and remastered edition. The cover above is the one from the German edition, which is the main source for this article, together with the What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? special edition 2-disc DVD. Order Jezebel on DVD from or

Deutsch Politik Geschichte Kunst Film Musik Lebensart Reisen
English Politics History Art Film Music Lifestyle Travel
Français Politique Histoire Arts Film Musique Artdevivre Voyages

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© Copyright  Louis Gerber  All rights reserved.