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Red proved a fitting substitute for Scarlett when Warner Bros. presented diva-in-residence Bette Davis with a consolation prize for losing the lead in Gone With the Wind. As Julie Marston in Jezebel (1938), she gave the performance that made her a major box-office star, winning a well-deserved Oscar® in the process. In addition, the film introduced her to the director who would help her refine her screen acting technique and who became the great love of her life, William Wyler.
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, 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.
She was right about her performance. Wyler was the first really strong director she had worked with. He showed her how to pace herself, and he toned down her famous mannerisms by threatening to put a chain around her neck to keep her from moving her head.
He was doing her a great deal of good offscreen. 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.
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.
by Frank Miller