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Jezebel had been a Broadway flop written by Owen Davis, Sr. (a Pulitzer Prize-winner for Icebound) for Tallulah Bankhead. When illness forced her to withdraw from rehearsals, Miriam Hopkins inherited the role and bought a half interest in the production from producer-director Guthrie McClintic. The show ran for just 32 performances in 1933.

Warner Bros. head of production Hal Wallis had considered a film version for Bette Davis as early as 1935, but decided against it after being advised that the leading role, a Southern belle who ruins her life by insisting on wearing a red dress to an all-white ball, was too unsympathetic to appeal to audiences.

To settle a contract dispute with Davis, Warner's finally bought the rights to Jezebel.

Making the thought of a film adaptation of Jezebel more attractive was the runaway success of Margaret Mitchell's novel Gone with the Wind, which had created a renewed interest in the old South.

Studio head Jack Warner had optioned Gone with the Wind in 1936 as a possible vehicle for Bette Davis. That was during their most heated contract disputes. In one of their many arguments about her desire for better roles, he promised that if she filmed the latest bad script he had sent her, he had a great role in a yet-to-be-published book waiting for her. "I bet it's a pip," she said, storming out of his office. When she tried to walk out on her contract, he let his option on the book pass.

Independent producer David O. Selznick then picked up the rights to Gone with the Wind. When the novel became a best seller, fans started sending him their casting choices. Clark Gable was the runaway leader to play Rhett Butler. The field for Scarlett O'Hara was wider, but Davis was the clear winner, with 40 percent of the vote.

By this time, Davis had returned to Warner Bros. after a costly court case that had forced her to go back to work for them. Selznick wanted to borrow her for the role, but the deal fell through. Davis always claimed that Warner insisted that Errol Flynn be cast as Rhett. Knowing he wasn't good enough for the role, she refused the loan. Other sources suggest that Warner insisted on distributing the film himself if Davis starred, but Selznick had already signed a distribution deal with MGM.

Jezebel offered Jack Warner the perfect opportunity to give Davis a consolation prize for losing out on Gone with the Wind and take advantage of the publicity over the future Civil War epic. With a smaller-scale production, they would even beat Selznick's film to the screen by 20 months.

The only roadblock to Davis' staring in Jezebel was Miriam Hopkins, whose contract for the Broadway run gave her a claim on any film rights. Warner got her to sell her share for $12,000 and the promise that she would be the first actress considered for the role. She took this to mean the role was hers, only to learn that she had been considered and rejected almost immediately.

The studio gave Jezebel a budget of $800,000 (high for its time). This was the biggest budget ever for a Davis film, officially marking their recognition of her as a top star.

The first director assigned to Jezebel was Edmund Goulding, who had directed Davis in That Certain Woman (1937). He left the project after complaining that the leading character was too nasty to hold an audience. Next up was Michael Curtiz, who left the project to take over The Adventures of Robin Hood (1938).

Warner's finally hired William Wyler to direct on loan from independent producer Samuel Goldwyn. His fee was $75,000 for 12 weeks work. He had proven very effective working with Miriam Hopkins on These Three and Ruth Chatterton on Dodsworth (both 1936).

When Wallis informed Davis he wanted to hire Wyler to direct the film, she hoped for a chance to get back at him for an earlier slight. During her first years in Hollywood, as a contract player at Universal, she had tested for his film A House Divided (1931). Rushed into an ill-fitting costume, she had shown up on the set with her bosom more exposed than she might have liked. Wyler took one look at her and cracked, "What do you think about these dames who show their chests and think they can get jobs?" Davis performed poorly in the test, and the role went to Helen Chandler. When they finally met to discuss Jezebel, with Davis in a position to reject him as a director, she mentioned that they had met before, but Wyler couldn't remember it. When she told him her story, all he could say was, "I'm a much nicer person now."

Since Wyler was still tied up finishing Dead End (1937) for Goldwyn, he asked Warners to assign an old friend of his, John Huston, to work on the screenplay and represent him in script development meetings. Huston had recently sold a story to Warners and signed a writing contract to develop it for the screen.

Actors considered for the male lead of Pres included Jeffrey Lynn and Franchot Tone.

Henry Fonda had already worked well with Davis on That Certain Woman and the two had known each other -- and even dated once -- during their days in the theatre. Wallis signed him to play Davis' fiancé, Pres Dillard, because Warner worked out a deal with independent producer Walter Wanger, who held Fonda's contract. With his wife pregnant, Fonda insisted on a clause freeing him from the film in December 1937, in time to be with his wife for the delivery of his first child, Jane.

by Frank Miller




















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