One of Warner studio’s most celebrated actresses in the 1930s was a defiant and feisty young woman named Bette Davis. She was a woman who often made waves on and off the screen. She even dared to challenge Warner’s authority by fleeing to Britain in 1937 to get out of her contract because she believed Warners wasn’t doing enough to enhance her career. She eventually and ungraciously returned to Hollywood with her tail between her legs after Warners won a legal case against her from working overseas. After she returned back to Hollywood, Bette Davis missed out on getting the leading role for Gone With The Wind (Selznick never seriously considered her for the role regardless of all the hype). With Davis apparently somewhat disappointed, Warner Bros came to the rescue with their very own Antebellum period drama called Jezebel. Interestingly, it is said that Jezebel was offered to Davis not so much as compensation for missing out on the female lead in Gone With The Wind, but as a peace gesture between the studio and Davis, considering their recent shaky past.
In a nutshell, Jezebel is often described as Hollywood’s second most famous portrayal of a spoiled Southern belle that made Bette Davis a superstar. It is a romantic melodrama like no other, directed by the great William Wyler. Though, with plenty of scandalous twist and turns and even time for heroic redemption, it’s kind of a shame that its largely overshadowed by Gone With The Wind. But despite that Jezebel is fine film remembered for its strong performances and amazing elaborate sets and costumes that evoked opulent images of New Orleans of the 1850’s. One of its most notable scenes involves Bette Davis character arriving to a southern society ball wearing the wrong dress. As the scene unfolds Bette Davis and Henry Fonda’s characters love for each other falls apart. It is here that Davis’ character is shunned and humiliated in front of the ballroom’s crowd by her fiancé (Fonda), who forces her to dance in her scandalous dress.
Finally, if we are to remember anything about Jezebel, it should be Bette Davis’ willingness to play such a seemingly unlikeable character in Julie Marsden. Her performance would ultimately win her acclaim from all quarters, even an Academy Award for Best Actress.
Photo credit: The header image is a promotional still from the 1938 film Jezebel which first appeared on the front cover of National Board of Review Magazine. It is in the public domain. I am not the uploader of the You Tube clip embedded here.
I originally wrote a different version of this article for Sean Munger’s website. You can view it here.