In retrospect, William Wyler’s Jezebel (1936) marks the true beginning of Bette Davis' golden period at Warner Bros. Moreover, it manages to capture much of the fiery disposition of Scarlett O’Hara without ever mentioning Gone With The Wind – a novel, then very much ingrained in the hearts and minds of a vast and growing readership, and very shortly destined to begin preproduction at Selznick International Studios.
Davis took home her second Best Actress Oscar playing spoiled Southern belle, Julie Marsden. It was an award almost as hard won as it was well deserved. Only a year earlier Davis had stormed out of her Warner contract and departed for Europe - determined to make movies abroad to prove to Jack Warner and the world that she was more than just the glam-bam dolly he was trying to make her over as.
Perhaps, Davis knew she couldn't win the lawsuit that Warner immediately filed. But it didn't matter. She won the battle, getting Jack Warner to take her career more seriously and allow her an unprecedented amount of autonomy to choose projects for herself. And more than anything else, Davis wanted to play Scarlett O'Hara.
But Selznick was not at all convinced that she could. In fact, Jack Warner had offered Selznick a sweet deal to co-produce GWTW with the loan out of Davis and Errol Flynn (for Rhett Butler). But Selznick balked and went with a smaller money deal over at MGM simply to secure Clark Gable for his film.
So Warner decided to do one better - snub Selznick the way he believed he had been snubbed - by trumping their deal and releasing a film that capitalized on GWTW's notoriety before Selznick had had a chance to even shoot a single frame of film.
Jezebel is based on a modestly successful stage play by Owen Davis, heavily rewritten for the film version by John Huston, Robert Buckner, Clements Ripley and Abem Finkel.
Like Margaret Mitchell's Scarlett, Jezebel's Julie Marsden (Davis) is a devious spitfire and a manipulative man trap. More than anything Julie wants to be loved. But her defiance against the rigid social conventions of her day brands Julie a rather wanton free spirit. Julie’s Aunt Belle Massey (Fay Bainter) is constantly urging her niece towards prudence and restraint.
But Julie will have none of it. After appearing at her own party in riding habit and with crop still in hand, Julie shops the New Orleans plaza for a suitable gown to wear to the Olympus Ball – the event of the social season. Her choice of a harlot-red gown audaciously flashing among the virginal whites humiliates and alienates Julie's rich lawyer beau, Preston Dillard (Henry Fonda) who breaks off their engagement and departs for a career in the North.
Emotionally shattered, Julie fills her days with superficial dalliances. Long suffering and self-professed gentleman with an air of petty larceny, Buck Cantrell (George Brent) seems the most promising prospect. Ah, but then Pres’ returns to the South with his new bride, Amy (Margaret Lindsay). Determined to destroy Pres’ happiness, Julie sets up a series of conventions that will lead to dire consequences for all concerned.
The last act of director William Wyler’s velvety smooth melodrama is reserved for a deadly outbreak of yellow fever that exacts its pound of flesh from the principle cast. It’s a rather problematic conclusion to what is essentially a woman’s picture with more venom than guts.
Still, the film holds together remarkably well under today’s scrutiny and that is in no small way due to Bette Davis’ towering central performance. As Julie, Davis is unrelenting; a demigod in angel’s harness whose final realization and sacrifice is both hauntingly tragic, yet morally satisfying.
Warner Home Video’s Special Edition DVD at long last provides an adequate mastering effort for this Oscar-winning classic. The B&W image exhibits a refined gray scale with fine details evident throughout. Blacks are still a tad weak, more dark gray than black, but whites are much improved for an image that is more crisp and solid than ever before.
Age related artifacts are still rather heavy in spots, despite an exhaustive digital restoration. The biggest plus is a complete absence of digital anomalies that were quite prevalent on previously released discs. The audio is mono but adequately represented. Extras include a brief featurette on the making of the film and an informative audio commentary. Recommended!
FILM RATING (out of 5 - 5 being the best)