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Jezebel (1938)

Directed by William Wyler

Based on the play Jezebel by Owen Davis Sr.

Written by Clements Ripley, Abem Finkel, John Huston

Starring: Bette Davis, Henry Fonda, George Brent, Donald Crisp, Fay Bainter, Margaret Lindsay

Julie (Davis), a young Southern belle, loses the man she loves when her stubborn pride and vanity get in the way of reason. Now she’s seeking a way to win him back and redeem herself.

It’s long been rumored that the lead role in this film was offered to Bette Davis (All About Eve) after she failed to get the part of Scarlett O’Hara in Gone with the Wind. After almost 70 years it’s impossible to see Davis in that iconic role, and it’s impossible to not see her in Jezebel. This film was based on Owen Davis Sr.’s 1933 stage play of the same name. William Wyler (The Big Country) directed the film, using a script adapted by Clements Ripley (Old Los Angeles), Abem Finkel (Sergeant York), and John Huston (The African Queen). In addition to Davis, the cast includes Henry Fonda (The Ox-Bow Incident), George Brent (Dark Victory), Fay Bainter (State Fair), Donald Crisp (How Green Was My Valley), and Margaret Lindsay (Scarlet Street). This film was nominated for five Academy Awards, including Best Picture.

This is a fascinating story that focuses on the actions of a young lady, and the consequences she is forced to live with. The world of the story is crafted through a series of early scenes that give the setting its own personality. These early moments also establish the motives and morals of the central characters. The writing also integrates moments that establish the rules of the Antebellum South. (This includes a very racist approach to black characters in the film, as well as a somewhat stereotypical approach to Southern society.) The story is at its best when it focuses on Julie and the wake she creates in the lives of those around her. Her development is not some magical transition from sinner to saint. Rather it’s a rocky road from selfish desire to an understanding of the harm she’s done to others. This one has great dialogue that mostly avoids the stereotypical speech of similar movies. (The major exception being the dialogue written for the black characters.) There are a couple of unexpected twists in this one, but it’s not hard to see where the story is going.  There is also something somewhat disingenuous about the way the film ends. This doesn’t ruin the story, but it does feel like a somewhat unrealistic Hollywood ending.

The list of actors who star in this movie feels like a who’s who of 1930s Hollywood. Bette Davis leads the list with an incredible performance that helped to establish her position as a leading lady. She does a great job in showing the evolution of her character from a young privileged girl to a woman faced with the consequences of her choices. Her ability to bring out the emotions of the role help to make her character relatable and sometimes even sympathetic. She also has great chemistry with Henry Fonda and George Brent. Henry Fonda was the perfect choice to play a man of consistency and principals. He does great work opposite Davis. They share a combination of chemistry and friction that make their complicated relationship feel genuine.

George Brent also does a great job in this one. His performance fits into the expectations of a Southern gentleman, but also leaves room for character flaws. Like Fonda, he also has a complex relationship with Davis in the film. Fay Bainter also does some great work in this movie. Her performance adds an important voice to the story, and she brings something special out of her role. Margaret Lindsay and Donald Crisp also add nice performances to the movie. These actors all did good work bringing the most out of the script. Jezebel would earn Bette Davis her second Oscar for Best Actress, with Fay Bainter winning for Best Supporting Actress.

The visuals in this movie benefit from sets and costuming that look really great. Legendary costumer Orry-Kelly (Some Like It Hot) did an incredible job matching his work to the tone of the story. In particular, he was able to craft looks for Davis that accentuate her characters transformation. Cinematographer Ernest Haller (Mildred Pierce) earned an Oscar nomination for Best Cinematography. This film also earned a nomination for Best Original Score thanks to the work by Max Steiner (Casablanca).

This movie is a unique classic that showcases the talent of the cast and crew. Fans of Davis and Fonda should make sure to check this one out. I would also recommend this to fans of classic drama. While the story has some issues, there’s a lot to like from the experience. I give this one 4 out of 5 stars.

Rating: Approved

Running Time: 104 Minutes


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