Jezebel (1938 film)

Jezebel is a 1938 American romantic drama film released by Warner Bros. and directed by William Wyler. It stars Bette Davis and Henry Fonda, supported by George Brent, Margaret Lindsay, Donald Crisp, Richard Cromwell, and Fay Bainter. The film was adapted by Clements Ripley, Abem Finkel, John Huston, and Robert Buckner, from the 1933 play by Owen Davis Sr. Tallulah Bankhead was originally slated for the stage role, but fell severely ill during rehearsals and was replaced by Miriam Hopkins.

Jezebel (1938 film poster).jpg
Theatrical release poster
Directed byWilliam Wyler
Produced byWilliam Wyler
Written by
Based onJezebel
1933 play
by Owen Davis
Music byMax Steiner
CinematographyErnest Haller
Edited byWarren Low
Warner Bros.
Distributed byWarner Bros
Release date
  • March 10, 1938 (1938-03-10) (New York)
  • March 26, 1938 (1938-03-26)
Running time
103 minutes
CountryUnited States
Budget$1.25 million

The film tells the story of a headstrong young Southern woman during the antebellum period whose actions cost her the man she loves.


George Brent (second from left) and Bette Davis in Jezebel
Fonda and Davis

In 1852 New Orleans, spoiled, strong-willed belle Julie Marsden (Bette Davis) is engaged to banker Preston "Pres" Dillard (Fonda). In an important meeting, Pres is trying to convince the board to invest in railroads, as Northerners are doing, and supporting Dr. Livingstone's (Crisp) plea for measures to prevent an otherwise inevitable outbreak of yellow fever.

In retaliation for Pres refusing to leave the meeting and accompany her to the last fitting for a ball gown, she buys a brazen red satin dress ordered by a notorious woman. At the Olympus Ball, the most important social event of the year, unmarried women are expected to wear virginal white. All of Julie's friends are horrified, but no one can convince her to give up her whim.

At the Olympus ball, Pres and Julie's entrance is met with shock and disgust by all present. She finally realizes the magnitude of her social blunder and begs Pres to take her away, but instead he forces her to dance with him while all others withdraw from the floor and turn their backs. When the orchestra stops playing at the instruction of one of the ball's sponsors, Pres orders the conductor to continue. Pres and Julie finish the dance.

Afterwards, Pres takes his leave of Julie, implicitly breaking their engagement. In a final act of spite, Julie slaps him in the face. Aunt Belle Massey (Fay Bainter) urges her to go after Pres, but she refuses, confident that he will return to her. Instead, he goes North on business. Julie shuts herself up in her house and refuses to see visitors.

A year later, Pres finally returns, bringing his Northern wife, Amy (Margaret Lindsay) to the homecoming party planned for him at Halcyon Plantation, Julie's estate. Aunt Belle cannot find Julie to warn her. Wearing a luminous white gown, before Pres can stop her, Julie humbles herself and begs for his forgiveness and a return of his love. Pres introduces her to Amy.

Dismayed but controlled, Julie eggs on her longtime admirer, skilled duellist Buck Cantrell (Brent), to quarrel with Pres, but the scheme goes awry. It is Pres's inexperienced brother, Ted (Richard Cromwell), who is goaded into challenging Buck. In an unexpected twist, Ted shoots and kills Buck.

Then something happens that overshadows everything else. As Dr. Livingstone foretold, a deadly epidemic has swept the city. They fight it with cannon and smoke and, believing that yellow fever is highly contagious, a quarantine so rigid that people who try to escape the city are shot. In New Orleans, Pres is stricken and, like all other victims, is to be quarantined in the leper colony on Lazaret island. Julie persuades Gros Bat (Anderson) to take her through the woods to Dr. Livingstone's, where she nurses Pres for a night and a day. The family arrives, thanks to a pass from the governor. When the wagon comes for Pres, Amy begs to go with him, but Julie tells her that she is not equipped to fight for Pres. She does not know the creole words for food and water, or how to deal with the conditions or the people there. Julie begs to go in Amy's place, as an act of redemption. Amy agrees, but asks if Pres still loves Julie. Julie declares that he loves only his wife. Amy blesses them, and Julie holds her head high as the wagonload of victims and caregivers, including a nun, bears them into an unknown future.


The Turner Classic Movies Database states that the film was offered as compensation for Bette Davis after she failed to win the part of Scarlett O'Hara in Gone with the Wind.[1] Despite a radio poll showing Davis the audience favorite for the role in that film, David O. Selznick never seriously considered her for it. Jezebel was her second Best Actress Oscar win after winning for Dangerous three years earlier. This win established her as a leading lady from this point on.[2]

Selznick reportedly hired Max Steiner to score Gone with the Wind (1939) on the strength of his work on Jezebel.[3]

Main cast and charactersEdit

  Bette Davis as Julie Marsden   Henry Fonda as Preston Dillard
  George Brent as Buck Cantrell   Donald Crisp as Dr. Livingstone
  Fay Bainter as Aunt Belle Massey


Contemporary reviews were generally positive and praised Davis' performance in particular, although some found her character's redemption at the end of the film to be unconvincing. Frank S. Nugent of The New York Times wrote that the film "would have been considerably more effective ... if its heroine had remained unregenerate to the end. Miss Davis can be malignant when she chooses, and it is a shame to temper that gift for feminine spite ... It is still an interesting film, though, in spite of our sniffs at its climax."[4] Variety reported that the film was "not without its charm" and "even completely captivating" at times, but found it detracting that the main character "suddenly metamorphoses into a figure of noble sacrifice and complete contriteness," and described the ending as "rather suspended and confusing."[5] Film Daily called it "a really outstanding screen triumph for Bette Davis. She plays an emotional role that calls for running the gamut of emotions, and she handles the part with consummate artistry."[6] Harrison's Reports called it "Powerful dramatic entertainment ... It is not what one would call cheerful entertainment, and may not appeal to the rank and file, but it should please those who like good acting."[7] John Mosher of The New Yorker wrote, "Something went wrong with 'Jezebel,' possibly nothing more than the plot, and all its rich dressing-up can't make it alive ... no scene quite comes off, and at the end, when the she-devil suddenly turns into a saint and a martyr, one isn't even interested. This Jezebel just seems daffy."[8] The film has scored more positive reviews in later years, and has a 94% rating on Rotten Tomatoes.[9]


Bette Davis in Jezebel

In 2009, Jezebel was included in the annual selection of 25 motion pictures added to the National Film Registry by the Library of Congress as "culturally, historically or aesthetically" significant, and recommended for preservation.[10][11][12]


DVD commentaryEdit

In 2006, film historian Jeanine Basinger recorded a comprehensive scene-by-scene commentary as part of the re-issued DVD of the film. In her commentary about Davis, Basinger relates that this film is distinctive in the realm of women's pictures because of Orry-Kelly's brilliant costume designs for the actress. Basinger states that the viewer is compelled to watch Davis in four stylings in particular: the riding crop/outfit in the beginning of the film, the scandalous scarlet red dress at the Olympus Ball, the virginal white dress she wears when she attempts to woo back Henry Fonda, and finally the cape she dons at the end of the film when she must go to help care for Fonda. In Basinger's opinion, this was the performance at the height of Davis's career and Jezebel is the quintessential American woman's film.

See alsoEdit


  1. ^ "Jezebel: Trivia". Turner Classic Movies.
  2. ^ Haver, Ronald (1980). David O. Selznick's Hollywood. Bonanza Books. p. 243. ISBN 0-517-47665-7.
  3. ^ "Jezebel (1938) - Articles -". Turner Classic Movies. Retrieved 2020-04-23.
  4. ^ The New York Times Film Reviews, Volume 2: 1932-1938. New York: The New York Times & Arno Press. 1970. p. 1479.
  5. ^ "Film Reviews". Variety. New York: Variety, Inc. March 16, 1938. p. 15.
  6. ^ "Reviews". Film Daily. New York: Wid's Films and Film Folk, Inc.: 6 March 11, 1938.
  7. ^ "Jezebel". Harrison's Reports. New York: Harrison's Reports, Inc.: 50 March 26, 1938.
  8. ^ Mosher, John (March 19, 1938). "The Current Cinema". The New Yorker. New York: F-R Publishing Corp. pp. 73–74.
  9. ^
  10. ^ "25 new titles added to National Film Registry". Yahoo News. Yahoo. 2009-12-30. Archived from the original on January 6, 2010. Retrieved 2009-12-30.
  11. ^ "Complete National Film Registry Listing | Film Registry | National Film Preservation Board | Programs at the Library of Congress | Library of Congress". Library of Congress, Washington, D.C. 20540 USA. Retrieved 2020-05-01.
  12. ^ "Michael Jackson, the Muppets and Early Cinema Tapped for Preservation in 2009 Library of Congress National Film Registry". Library of Congress, Washington, D.C. 20540 USA. Retrieved 2020-05-01.

External linksEdit