JEZEBEL—–in The War Between the Belles, Bette Davis beat Vivien Leigh to the barbeque with the 1938 release of this mint julep; the antebellum antics of Gone With The Wind‘s potato-chomper 21 months in the future. Bette’s bayou bitch may have lost the war to the MGM Technicolor colossus, but her quick-thinking, over-reaching ‘Julie Marsden’ gives Scarlett O’Hara a run for the punchbowl when it comes to being a brazen hussy. ‘History will note’….*
New Orleans, 1852. A spoiled and manipulative Southern society coquette (Davis) courts ruin when her brash willfulness takes her tradition-bound suitors (Henry Fonda and George Brent) from exasperation to shame, into dueling and disaster, their personal honor issues eventually consumed by a yellow fever epidemic that threatens all with Biblical-tinged wrath and sacrifice.
Class-A period melodrama, directed by William Wyler, considered by many critics one of the premiere “women’s pictures” (Mom of The Chick Flick, for you whippersnappers), it earned one of the best, most fearless actresses of her time her second Oscar for Best Actress and sped her already plaudit-laced career into its most celebrated period. **
Fonda ably delivers low-key frustration (which he was also feeling in his career) and Brent, in the 7th of his 11 billings with Davis, comes off with a fine turn as a confident, chivalry-reared gentleman of leisure, for whom a duel is part of a picnic risk. “I like my convictions undiluted, same as I do my bourbon.” Fay Bainter has a plum role as the decent, dismayed aunt of the convention-flaunting girl, who admonishes “I’m thinkin’ of a woman called Jezebel who did evil in the sight of God.” (she won an Oscar for Best Supporting Actress). Donald Crisp gets a rousing speech denouncing a saloon full of big-mouthed cowards.
But it’s pretty much a Bette Ball, from her horseback arrival and flouncing entrance, through a variety of pouts, gestures,abrupt turns, eye-bats and teases; a purring cat with poisoned claws, shamed in front of a ballroom full of hushed guests, stunned by discovery of a rival, emboldened to fate by an assumption of duty. Brazen stuff, and few could have pulled it off with anything like her élan to guarantee that its excess is such wicked fun. At 29, she was a 5’3″ dynamo who could play bigger-than-life and still keep it within the bounds of reality. Wyler put her through his customary umpteen takes to get just the right degree of pride and pretense, hurt and steel; cameraman Ernest Haller caught the shadows and light so that her features were best accented; Max Steiner put a finishing touch to it with a lush score. Don’t forget the costumes: the legendary Orry-Kelly contributed the assorted dresses that signal mood shift and dramatic import in key sequences.
Writer-on-the-loose John Huston was brought in to goose the brittle dialogue in the script begun by Abem Finkle and Clements Ripley. Along with wins for Davis and Bainter, Oscar nominations went for Best Picture, Cinematography and Music Score. Budgeted at $1,250,000, it ranked 35th at the box-office, with grosses of $5,840,000.
103 minutes, with Margaret Lindsay, Richard Cromwell, Henry O’Neill, Spring Byington, Theresa Harris, John Litel, Eddie Anderson, Matthew Beard and Trevor Bardette.
* ….part of the GWTW vs. Jezebel lore, frequently mentioned in lazily researched discussions of both movies is that this was supposed to be compensation to Davis for losing Scarlett. Not quite, as the fiery Warner’s star was pegged for this in 1935, when Warners was negotiating to buy Owen Davis’ 1933 play. Studio archives show a memo to producer Hal B. Wallis: “(Jezebel) would provide a good role for Bette Davis, who could play the spots off the part of a little bitch of an aristocratic Southern girl. She should also look swell in the gowns of the period.” Margaret Mitchell’s titan was published in ’36.
Obviously, later on, Jack W. & Bros. (running their own plantation with tyranny) saw Jezebel as a handy vehicle to catch the rising breeze from ‘Wind‘. Across town, drawing battle plans for Atlanta, David O. Selznick was naturally pissed and MGMs Louis B. Mayer may have developed another fake heart attack, but Selznick had never given Bette no-never-mind, as he’d scorned a distribution deal from Warner’s offering her (and Errol Flynn as Rhett), telling intimates he’d take Katherine Hepburn before he’d deal with Davis. “Yankees!?” Fiddle-dee-no-thanks. For a great write-up on the film, ya’ll seek out the blog ‘Self-Styled Siren”—smart stuff.
** Davis off-screen love affair with director Wyler provided extra grit/s to their work here, to which they later added the superb The Letter and The Little Foxes, those coups securing two of her further eight Academy Award nominations. Davis and Brent also chalked up a two-year fling. Fonda and Wyler had both been married to Margaret Sullavan. It’s a testimony to the depth and breadth of professionalism and talent in ‘The Golden Age’ high-stakes swirlpool of Hollywood’s deals, affairs and scandals that so much quality art and dazzling craft emerged from the tangle of fragile egos and akimbo limbs.