As I continue to go through every Bette Davis film I can get my hands on, I finally come to Jezebel, one of her most famous roles right after All About Eve, which cemented her reputation as a big star at the time. My expectations were high, but I found this isn’t really among the best of her films that I have seen so far.
One of the myths about this film which has been so often repeated that is appears as a “fact” on the Turner Classic Movies website hold that Davis was given the title role of Jezebel as consolation after she was passed over for the role of Scarlet O’Hara. While Davis was a popular contender for the very coveted Scarlet role, this rumor hardly makes sense. The long casting process of Gone With the Wind was still ongoing when this film was completed, so the chronology is wrong. Furthermore, Gone With the Wind was David O. Selznick production, and Davis was under contract to Warner Brothers, so it is not as if her studio owed her any favors. But there is quite a bit of similarity between the two films, with Jezebel even being called “the black-and-white Gone with the Wind.”
Unlike Gone With the Wind, this film does not take part over several years straddling the Civil War, but in 1852-53. But the central character of the spoiled, head-strong Southern belle who can’t get over the man she believes belongs to her is the same. In this case what gets her in trouble is her insistence on wearing a brazen red dress to a New Orleans party where traditionally all unmarried women don only white. This embarrasses her fiance (Henry Fonda in an early role) who is at a loss as to what to do that he leaves town for a year and marries a Yankee. The whole red dress business was all too silly and inconsequential to make me care much for the character, as I was wishing she would at least make a stand about something that matters. Of course, later in the film she does, as a epidemic of yellow fever breaks out in the city, but it was a bit to late for me. Henry Fonda, who was a last-minute replacement for the male lead, seems slightly miscast as the impetuous Southern suitor. Davis is, of course, perfect in this film which was bought as a cheap property for her and molded to her talents. She excels at the temper tantrums at the beginning of the film, but is also able to handle the more somber scenes near the end of the film, foreshadowing the more dramatic roles she would soon be taking on.