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In the decade before the Civil War, Julie Marsden defies the standards of New Orleans society by refusing to play the conventional southern belle. She consistently flaunts social etiquette by doing as she pleases instead of following a tradition of subservience. She thinks nothing of playing the aggressor in her romance with Pres, attends her own party in a riding habit and -- worst of all -- wears a red dress to the Olympus Ball, an action she knows will create controversy. When her audacity ruins her relationship with Pres, she determines to win him back, even after he returns to New Orleans with a new wife.

Producers: Henry Blanke, Hal B. Wallis, William Wyler
Director: William Wyler
Screenplay: Clements Ripley, Abem Finkel, John Huston, Robert Buckner (based on the play by Owen Davis, Sr.)
Cinematography: Ernest Haller
Music: Max Steiner
Film Editing: Warren Low
Art Direction: Robert M. Haas
Costume Design: Orry-Kelly
Cast: Bette Davis (Julie Marsden), Henry Fonda (Preston Dillard), George Brent (Buck Cantrell), Margaret Lindsay (Amy Bradford Dillard), Donald Crisp (Dr. Livingstone), Fay Bainter (Aunt Belle Massey), Richard Cromwell (Ted Dillard), Henry O'Neill (General Bogardus), Spring Byington (Mrs. Kendrick).
BW-105m. Closed captioning. Descriptive Video.

Why JEZEBEL Is Essential After years of delivering dynamic performances at Warner Bros. in second class films, Jezebel was Bette Davis' first big-budget feature as well as her first historical drama. Its success, critically and financially, would cement her position as the studio's top female star and one of the best actresses in Hollywood.

Jezebel was the first film to team Davis and director William Wyler, one of the most acclaimed director-actor collaborations in film history. Davis would always credit him with helping her refine her acting technique for the camera, showing her how to hold back and taming her notorious nervous mannerisms. They would re-team for The Letter (1940) and The Little Foxes (1941).

This was one of the first Hollywood films to suggest the power of the screen to reveal character with a richness usually found only in plays and novels. Wyler's use of long takes to allow Davis to reflect her character's thoughts and feelings through body language was a revelation to serious critics of the cinema.

Jezebel is one of the Davis films most consistently cited by feminist critics for her depiction of a woman fighting to maintain her independence. Most of the film's conflict stems from her refusal to let others, particularly men, exercise any power over her.

In his one outing working with Wyler, Warner Bros. star and frequent Davis co-star George Brent had a rare opportunity to demonstrate his acting abilities. Many critics have hailed his work in Jezebel as the most fully rounded male performance in the film.

Warner Bros. had considered producing Jezebel as a vehicle for Davis as far back as 1935, before anybody had heard of Gone with the Wind. On the strength of her breakthrough performance as the vixenish Mildred in Of Human Bondage (1934), the studio almost bought the rights to Owen Davis, Sr.'s failed play about a southern belle whose scandalous decision to wear a red dress to New Orleans's Olympus Ball ruins her chances for happiness. But they decided the female lead was too unsympathetic and passed on it.

Jezebel looked a lot better after Gone with the Wind hit the bestseller lists. Davis was actually a front-runner to play Scarlett in the film version. But studio head Jack Warner insisted on a package deal that would have cast Errol Flynn as Rhett. Although she desperately wanted the role, Davis knew that Flynn could never carry off the male lead and refused the loan.

In an effort to find a vehicle that would move Davis into the top rank of film stars, the studio returned to Owen Davis's play. To complete the package, they cast Henry Fonda in the male lead and hired one of Hollywood's top directors, William Wyler.

Filming began in late October 1937, with perfectionist Wyler soon falling behind schedule as he demanded take after take. As December drew nearer, Warner executives panicked. Jack Warner considered replacing Wyler with William Dieterle. When Davis got wind of this, she stormed into Warner's office, stating that she couldn't possibly keep up her level of performance with another director. She offered to work until midnight to keep the film from falling further behind.

He was doing her a great deal of good off screen. Drawn together by their powerful personalities and dedication to filmmaking, director and star began an affair. Davis would later call Wyler the one great love of her life. When their romance burned out and he married starlet Margaret Tallichet (another Scarlett O'Hara hopeful), Davis was shattered.

Jezebel finished shooting in January 1938, twenty-eight days over schedule and almost $400,000 over budget. But the results were worth it. Davis won some of the best reviews of her career and landed on the cover of Time magazine. On Oscar® night, Davis was a shoo-in for Best Actress and happily credited Wyler for her performance. She was also happy to see costar Fay Bainter honored as Best Supporting Actress for her subtle, understated performance as the sympathetic Aunt Belle.

by Frank Miller

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