Saturday, April 23, 2011

Classic Movie Marathon Day 6: Jezebel (1938)

Welcome to day six of the Classic Movie Marathon. Half way to the end! Up next will be Ninotchka (1939).

There was an old theory that has become a Hollywood legend, which surrounds the making of Jezebel. They say that Bette Davis was upset that she didn't get the role of Scarlett O'Hara in the mighty Gone with the Wind, so Warners gave her a role as a feisty Southern Belle in a quite similar film as a consolation. Me, being the know-it-all on Gone with the Wind, must take this opportunity to lay this thing to rest. No, this movie couldn't have been given to her as a consolation. First of all, Bette Davis, taking a role as a consolation?! After all, she was the fifth Warner brother. Second, they hadn't even found 'the one' when this film was made and released. At that point in time, they were still testing actresses like Paulette Goddard and Susan Hayward, and looking across the country in expensive searches for 'Scarlett'. Vivien Leigh wasn't actually cast until Christmas Day 1938, well after this film had been released, so if Warners were going to console Davis, they would have done it then.

But the biggest reason, possibly, offers the biggest paradox. Have a little think about Gone with the Wind. Could you actually see Davis in the role of Scarlett O'Hara? How do you think the film would have been had she been in it? I don't think it would have worked. She just didn't have the 'Scarlett' in her like the gorgeous Vivien Leigh. I feel strange for thinking this, since she plays a very similar character in Jezebel, and she's totally kick-ass. If it were consolation Bette was looking for with this movie, then maybe she got it through revenge. Jezebel, for a small while, took the heat off David O. Selznick's unproduced Southern picture. And Bette Davis winning an Oscar for her performance as a Southern bitch who mistreats her man and then decides she actually wants him when it's all too late, led people to wonder whether Selznick's 'Search for Scarlett' was really worth it, since Bette did the best possible job in that kind of role. When she won the Oscar, Vivien was filming her role, and people were still doubting the choice of an unknown British actress. So Bette won, until December 15, 1939, when Gone with the Wind first hit the cinemas.

The comparison between Jezebel and Gone with the Wind are completely unavoidable. This film is actually known as the 'black-and-white version of GWTW'. However, other than the remarkably similar lead characters going through a change of heart during to a certain man, the two films aren't so comparable. Where GWTW is focused on the Civil War, Jezebel is focused on the 1850's, when the Yellow Fever was causing trouble in the South. Jezebel, also, is rich with Southern customs, as Julie (Davis) uses those customs as a knife to stab her beloved Preston's (Henry Fonda) Yankee wife Amy (Margaret Lindsay). Julie may as well be the Civil War all by herself. I also felt that Julie was willing to sacrifice a lot more, and that she actually realized that her actions aren't as great as she thinks they are beforehand. This is prominently displayed in the scene where she wears a red dress to a white ball. It's when she is put in the spotlight, as everyone moves off the dancefloor, she realizes that she's made a huge misstep in her road to social survival and her marriage to Pres.

Gone with the Wind comparisons aside, Jezebel is an extremely well made and performed picture. William Wyler, following on from his first critical success with Dodsworth, does a marvellous job of capturing the story beautifully. He works best when he is directing Bette, oozing her unique beauty onto the screen and making sure her talent is fully recognized. I believe that Wyler's direction made Bette's performance even better than it was, and provided Bette with the most important film in her career. Without this, she wouldn't have become the actress she was, as this was her first huge success, even though she had won an Oscar in 1935 for Dangerous. Bette is backed with brilliant supporting performances as well. Henry Fonda gave a restrained performance as the dapper gent in demand, but I felt more compelled by his looks for some strange reason. Fay Bainter almost steals Bette's thunder with her Oscar winning performance as the quiet, well-educated aunt whom everyone loves, save for the headstrong Julie. Bainter has such a presence which can only be restricted to a supporting role, as she has a way of quietly overpowering her co-stars uniquely. If one is looking for a movie to start them off on the Bette Davis train, then this small, sad romantic drama of sorts is one that should definitely been seen to first. Just be prepared for many comparable moments to Gone with the Wind.

What I got:


  1. I haven't even seen Gone With The Wind yet, yeah I know, my knowledge of American classics is pretty pathetic.

    I suppose I'll watch Gone With The Wind first as it seems like the better film.

    1. Jezebel is much better. GWTW has some good acting too, but production/direction most of the time is a joke, with a lot of goofs, historical errors, electrical bulbs in the streets in 1863! and so on. Vivien Leigh was 25 years old at the time and that's alright, but her mother was played by a 28 years old actress, and her sister, who says "I'm 13!" is played by a 21 years old actress. Also Vivien is in love with a 47 years old actor... adn well, everything is like that, seems a play by some kids at school. Jezebel: 9/10. Gone with the wind: 3/10.

    2. Gone with the Wind is my all-time favorite movie (and novel)!

  2. You have not seen Gone with the Wind??? I think that GWTW is the best movie ever made. Mind you, I think I'm the only person in the world who thinks that.

  3. No I've never seen it, but that's only a small part of my ignorance, I haven't even seen Casablanca either!
    I've never really been able to get into those old Hollywood classics for some reason...

  4. Never seen Casablanca?! Well, I guess I can forgive you. Old Hollywood movies are incredibly hard to get into, and I've always seen them as a more girly thing. Plus, you do have a pretty eclectic taste in film yourself, so I guess the classic movies can wait!

    1. They are not "hard to get into." They're fabulous, enjoyable treasures. There's so much good stuff out there that wasn't made in this decade or this country. People with good tastes seek it out.


You mustn't be afraid to dream a little bigger, darling.


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