#248) Jezebel (1938)


#248) Jezebel (1938)

OR “Belles Are Ringing”

Directed by William Wyler

Written by Clements Ripley & Abem Finkel and John Huston. Based on the play by Owen Davis Sr.

Class of 2009

The Plot: It’s New Orleans during the antebellum period and Julie Marsden (Bette Davis) is an independent but selfish southern belle. Julie’s engagement to mild-mannered banker Pres Dillard (Henry Fonda) is jeopardized when she insists on wearing a red dress to the highly important Olympus Ball, where unmarried women are expected to wear white. Embarrassed in front of high society by Julie’s actions, Pres calls off the engagement and heads north for work. When yellow fever breaks out near New Orleans, Pres returns to help, and spends the weekend at the country plantation of Julie’s Aunt Belle (Fay Bainter). Julie uses this time as a chance to win Pres back, but is it too late for Julie to change her spoiled ways?

Why It Matters: The NFR admits the film has “its melodramatic underpinnings” but praises Davis to the hilt, calling her performance “flawless” and “[c]ast to perfection”. There’s also an essay by William Wyler expert Gabriel Miller.

But Does It Really?: I’m all for more Bette Davis on this list (she’s only got three entries), and “Jezebel”, while not her breakthrough role, is certainly the first to solidify her standing as a major Hollywood player. On the whole, the film is fine. Davis is great of course, but “Jezebel” doesn’t quite gel the way it should. Julie’s character arc doesn’t hit the marks it needs to (especially towards the end), and to make matters worse, the film is swarming with “happy slaves” that tarnish any modern viewing. It’s also one of those pre-feminism films where the leading lady is strong and independent, but still defined by her man. “Jezebel” is iconic enough to warrant NFR inclusion, but it’s definitely on the list for what it represents rather than what it actually is.

Shout Outs: Not a direct shout out per se, but this film exists partially to cash in on the anticipation leading up to the film version of “Gone With the Wind”. GWTW producer David Selznick angrily wrote Jack Warner about the similarities between the two projects, and Warner was quick to point out that the stage version of  “Jezebel” preceded the original novel of “Gone With the Wind” by two years. Side note: Either Warner Bros. wouldn’t let Bette Davis be considered for Scarlett O’Hara or she was considered, only to be rejected by Selznick. Accounts vary.

Wow, That’s Dated: It’s the antebellum period and the film is a precursor to “Gone with the Wind”. As you can imagine, we’re in trouble right from the start.

Title Track: Aunt Belle references the famous biblical figure just once to prove a point to Julie.

Seriously, Oscars?: “Jezebel” was nominated for five Oscars, including Best Picture. The big winner that year was another film based on a play; “You Can’t Take It With You”, but Bette Davis managed to take home her second Best Actress Oscar for “Jezebel”. Fay Bainter won Best Supporting Actress for this film, no doubt aided by her Oscar-nominated lead work in that year’s “White Banners”. Bainter was the first performer in Oscar history to be nominated for both lead and supporting in the same year. Despite much of the “Jezebel” team (including Davis) singling out William Wyler for its success, Wyler missed out on a Best Director nod.

Other notes

  • The main story with this movie is its somewhat difficult production. Wyler demanded countless retakes, which both Davis and Fonda initially took issue with until they started seeing the dailies. Filming went anywhere from 25 to 30 days behind schedule.
  • For those curious about John Huston’s involvement on the screenplay, it was just another project when he worked at the Warner Bros. script department, all with the goal of ultimately writing and directing his own movies. Another one of Huston’s early projects was the screenplay for “Sergeant York”.
  • Why is everyone in New Orleans from Kentucky?
  • Bette Davis makes a hell of an entrance in this film: riding a horse side-saddle and using her riding crop to lift up her skirt. You flout those conventions!
  • Uh-oh, Fonda’s trying an accent. He’s okay, but it definitely wavers.
  • Speaking of Fonda, it was during production of “Jezebel” that Henry’s daughter Jane was born. And when is she gonna make this list?
  • Fay Bainter strikes me as a proto-Maureen Stapleton. She also seems to be stuck with Laurie Metcalf’s Resting Concerned Face.
  • All this talk about a red dress in a black & white movie. Seems a little weird, don’t you think?
  • Someone invent the phonograph so Julie’s entrance to the ball can have a record scratch.
  • One of the servants is named Uncle Cato? Does he attack the family without warning to keep their senses sharp?
  • Uggggggh, anti-abolition talk. This is why you never discuss politics at the table.
  • Contrary to what Preston says, “I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it” is not a Voltaire quote. It’s actually from Evelyn Beatrice Hall in her biography “The Life of Voltaire”.
  • Man, Davis and Fonda are just so…young in this film. I can’t get over it. I guess I’m used to their later work.
  • The duels in this film are not as exciting as “Hamilton” has led me to believe.
  • Amy’s going for the Elliot Page Record for Most Expository Questions per Minute.
  • Running down a spiral staircase in a hoop skirt must be difficult.
  • That ending goes where it needs to go, but as previously stated, it’s just not the bulls-eye it needs to be. Even the great Bette Davis can only do so much.


  • “Jezebel” solidified Bette Davis as a leading lady to be reckoned with, and not just a flash-in-the-pan Hollywood starlet.
  • Bette Davis would collaborate with William Wyler on two more films based on plays, each leading to more Oscar nods for both of them: 1940’s “The Letter” and 1941’s “The Little Foxes”.
  • Some good came from the “Jezebel” vs. “Gone With the Wind” debate: Selznick liked Max Steiner’s score for “Jezebel” so much he hired Steiner to compose GWTW’s now iconic music.

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