Friday, December 27, 2013

Jezebel (1938)

Director: William Wyler                                  Writers: Clements Ripley & Abem Finkel
Film Score: Max Steiner                                Cinematography: Ernest Haller
Starring: Bette Davis, Henry Fonda, George Brent and Margaret Lindsay

Warner Brothers’ answer to Gone With the Wind, this is the vehicle that really launched Bette Davis into stardom and allowed her to carve out a career path at the studio when they had little interest in women’s pictures or actresses in general. Of course, she had already won an Oscar for Dangerous in 1935, but still found herself mired in low-budget films and playing bit parts. But Jezebel changed all of that. Though the film came out a year before Selznick’s Civil War epic, the novel by Margaret Mitchell had been a huge best seller the year before, and Warners was clearly attempting to capitalize on its success. Based on a 1933 Broadway play, the film was set in the Antebellum South and featured a scheming woman as its protagonist, everything readers had been captivated by in Mitchell’s novel.

The film begins in a saloon for gentleman in New Orleans, 1852. When George Brent overhears a disparaging comment about his former girlfriend, he quickly challenges the gentleman to a duel and wounds him seriously the next day. The next evening Brent appears at a party for Bette Davis, but she shows up late, still in her riding clothes, shocking everyone there. Meanwhile banker Henry Fonda, Davis’s intended, is being manipulated by her when he won’t leave a business meeting to see her fitted for a dress for the upcoming ball. When she buys a red dress out of spite, instead of the expected white, he takes her anyway in order to embarrass and punish her. Then, delivering her back to her house, he breaks off the engagement. It’s a crushing blow to her, but her pride keeps her from apologizing and Fonda goes away for a year. Her machinations upon his return are the real drama in the picture.

Not only did the picture earn Davis an Academy Award, it also solidified the type of characters that she would play for the rest of her career. And while these are not the type of roles that I particularly like watching, she certainly does it well. Her supporting cast was also responsible in large part for the success of the film. Fay Bainter, who was brilliant two years later in Our Town, also won an Oscar for her role as Davis’s aunt. Henry Fonda does a solid job, but there’s little in his part that couldn’t have been played by a number of other young actors at the time. George Brent, of course, is masterful, confident as always and threatens to steal the picture at times. Also good is Donald Crisp as the town doctor and, in a bit part, John Litel as one of the bank officers.

There are further connections with Gone With the Wind than just the subject matter, however. Selznick liked the camera work by Ernest Haller so much that he hired him to shoot his film as well. And the great Max Steiner wrote the score for both films, too. William Wyler was brought in as a freelance director on the project but wound up angering Jack Warner to no end with his methodical ways. Not only did he work more slowly than most of the studio’s regular directors, but he shot nearly four times the footage, doing multiple takes that were nearly indistinguishable from each other and going weeks over schedule. Though it’s a polished production, seen today, it pales in comparison to scope and grandeur of GWTW. Nevertheless, Jezebel is an important film, deserving of its status as a classic.

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