Directed by William Wyler, Jezebel is a melodrama centred around a young woman from New Orleans in 1852 named Julie Marsden, played by Bette Davis, and her brazen and headstrong behaviour which loses her the affections of the man she loves, Preston Dillard, played by Henry Fonda.
The falsehood often repeated about Jezebel is that it was made as an inferior imitation of Gone With The Wind, with Davis being offered the lead as a consolation for missing out on the part of Scarlett. As with many tales from the classic Hollywood era, there is a kernel of truth within the inaccuracy. When MGM decided to adapt Gone With The Wind from its source novel in 1936, they did not envision the casting process becoming a complex contractual tangle that took almost two years to work out. During the delay MGM generated significant public interest in their search for Scarlett, and crafted a publicity campaign around the immense size of the production for their civil war-era epic. Warner Bros had in fact offered MGM Bette Davis, Errol Flynn and Olivia de Havilland for the lead roles in exchange for the film’s distribution rights, but were turned down by producer David O. Selznick, who was determined to cast Clark Gable.
Warner Bros did not seek to copy Gone With The Wind exactly, but they did take notice of the amount of column inches it was getting – despite being nowhere near release – and decided to capitalise. In the summer of 1937, the head of production at Warner Bros, Hal Wallis, asked William Wyler if he would direct Jezebel. The story was based on an unsuccessful Broadway play by Owen Davis, and Wyler was familiar with adapting from stage to screen, having previously worked on These Three (1935), Dodsworth (1936) and Dead End (1937). He also had the luxury of a clause in his contract with Samuel Goldwyn which allowed him to work elsewhere, and was attracted to the large scale, high-quality production and all-star cast Wallis was offering him.
The two films share obvious similarities in their setting and melodramatic tone, and it can be tempting to draw overt comparisons between their female leads. However, Bette Davis was not the type of woman who would accept a consolation prize. It is true that she had wanted the role of Scarlett very much, but in the months leading up to Wyler’s signing for the film she had been in legal proceedings with the studio, settling disputes over her contract. Davis had grown increasingly dissatisfied with the low quality pictures and uninteresting roles she’d been offered since winning her first Academy Award for Dangerous (1935), and refused most of what Warner Bros sent her. The press portrayed this as petulance and a lack of gratitude from the actress, but Davis was deeply concerned about the damage being done to her career and professional reputation by these inferior roles. Each offer she turned down landed her a suspension, which in turn extended her contract. Sick of being treated like an object owned by the studio, she took Jack Warner to court in an attempt to free herself from her legal bindings, but was unfortunately unsuccessful. To further rub salt in the wound, Warner dropped his option on Gone With The Wind.
It was undeniably a low point for Davis, but she was about to rise from the ashes in spectacular style. Once they’d secured Wyler to direct, Warner Bros knew they needed Davis if the film was going to be a success. No one else in Hollywood had her reputation for such reliable excellence; Davis was the last word in Acting with a capital ‘A’. After all he had put her through, Jack Warner had to get Davis back on side. He paid her legal expenses for their lengthy court battle, and finally offered her the kind of role she’d been longing for in Julie Marsden.
Julie is repeatedly shown to be wilful, spoiled, and self-absorbed. She is incensed when her fiancé Pres refuses to drop everything to go shopping with her, and decides to act out. The two are due to attend the upcoming Olympus Ball, an important society event at which unmarried women are expected to wear a white dress. Julie orders a red one, to the shock and consternation of her friends – although this is nothing compared to the reception it receives at the ball itself. Julie is overwhelmed by the scorn and disapproval being heaped upon her by her fellow guests, and begs Pres to take her home. He refuses, forcing her to dance with him, before breaking their engagement and leaving.
Her aunt begs her to go after him and seek his forgiveness, but Julie refuses, sure that he will soon come back to her. She is wrong – Pres leaves for a year, away on business, and when he does return it’s due to concerns over an outbreak of yellow fever. Julie – wearing a big white dress to symbolise her change of heart – prostrates herself before him, begging him to forgive her for how she behaved in the past. It’s too late, however; whilst away in the north Pres has married Amy (played by Margaret Lindsay). Hurt by his rejection, Julie attempts to initiate a duel between Pres and Buck Cantrell (George Brent), but it is Pres’s brother Ted who takes up the challenge, and he kills Buck. The consequences of Julie’s behaviour are now far more serious than the ruffled feathers caused by a dress faux pas at a society ball.
But before Julie can truly process this, disaster strikes: an epidemic of yellow fever is overwhelming New Orleans, and Pres is one of the victims who must be shipped off to a quarantined island. His wife Amy is planning to accompany him, but she is stopped by Julie who begs Amy to let her go in her place, feeling certain that this is her only chance for redemption. In the heartbreaking final scene, Julie assures Amy that Pres is no longer in love with her, and is committed only to his wife:
“See I never know how to be gentle or brave as you are. Had there been any love in his heart for me, I’d have taken him from you. I tried in vain…because he loves only you.”
Far from her emotional outbursts in earlier scenes, Julie is now stoic and reserved, determined to redeem herself by restoring Pres back to health (and to his wife). It is a masterful performance by Davis, one completely deserving of the accolades it brought her (including her second Academy Award).
The release of Jezebel marked a turning point in Davis’ career, and she was hugely successful in Hollywood throughout the remainder of the 1930s and beyond. Her performance finally earned her the kind of respect she’d been asking for (and deserving of) from the studio since the beginning, and the quality of roles she received improved dramatically. Davis cited her experience working with Wyler as one of the most significant of her career, helping her to realise her full potential as an actress, and the pair would work together twice more on The Letter (1940) and The Little Foxes (1941). Jezebel allows Davis to portray a complex, multi-faceted woman who is at once unlikable and unrepentant, yet also possessing of great inner strength and determination, although these traits are most often deployed for less than noble means.