Jezebel (1938)

Bette Davis and Henry Fonda
Bette Davis and Henry Fonda

'Jezebel' is a romantic movie drama made in 1938, directed by William Wyler and starring Bette Davis, Henry Fonda and George Brent. The movie was adapted from the 1933 stage play of the same name by Owen Davis Sr. The movie won two Academy Awards, for Best Actress for Bette Davis (her second after 'Dangerous' in 1935), and Best Supporting Actress for Fay Bainter. In addition it was nominated, unsuccessfully in three further categories, for Best Picture, Best Cinematography and Best Original Music Score.

'Jezebel' made an impressive profit for Warners of over $400,000, which is almost $5.5 million when adjusted for inflation.

In 2009, the movie was selected for by the Library of Congress for inclusion in the National Film Registry.

Search Amazon for 'Jezebel'


The action takes place in early 1850's New Orleans before the Civil War. Bette Davis plays Julie Marsden, a spoilt Southern Belle who loves her fiancé Preston Dillard, played by Henry Fonda. When she arrogantly breaks convention in a very public way by wearing a red dress at a ball where all the other girls are in white, she loses him and he leaves the city. When he returns he brings his new wife with him. It takes a bout of yellow fever which sweeps the city to give Julie a chance to redeem herself by giving her time and energy to helping Preston.


The 1933 Broadway production of Owen Davis's play, 'Jezebel' had flopped. It had starred Miriam Hopkins and her contract gave her a claim to any film rights.

William Wyler saw the stage production of 'Jezebel' and recommended it to his current studio, Universal, as a vehicle for Margaret Sullavan, to whom he was engaged.

Warner Bros. negotiated for the play's movie rights for 2 years before purchasing them from Miriam Hopkins in 1937 for $12000 with the promise that she would be the first actress to be considered for the role of Julie Marsden. Hopkins took them at face value and assumed the role was hers. Warners did consider her, as promised, but rejected her out of hand, in order to give the part to Bette Davis. Davis had narrowly missed being chosen for the part of Scarlett O'Hara in 'Gone with the Wind' and the Southern Belle role in 'Jezebel' was Warner Bros.' compensation for her. The role marked the beginning of Bette Davis's reign as one of the superstars of Hollywood.

Actors considered for the male lead of Pres included Jeffrey Lynn and Franchot Tone.

Shooting began in October, 1937 and finished in January 1938, twenty-eight days over schedule and almost $400,000 over budget. William Wyler was renowned as a perfectionist who constantly repeated takes without giving any reasons to the actors. But his methods got results and he soon won over the cast. In particular, Bette Davis and he were drawn together and began an affair. Davis later called Wyler the great love of her life. When filming ended she sobbed uncontrollably. The affair was ending and she was pregnant with Wyler's child. She later had an abortion. Bette was a busy girl because she was rumored to also have a romantic attachment to George Brent during the filming of the movie.

For the red dress that scandalized polite New Orleans society George Orry-Kelly created a gown that was actually rust-colored which would look more dramatically red than red on black and white film.

Main Cast

The acting is uniformly superb from a brilliant cast.
'Jezebel' was Bette Davis's first big-budget feature as well as her first historical drama. Its success, critically and financially, would cement her position as the studio's top female star and one of the most famous actresses in Hollywood. Although she did not win another Oscar, she was nominated eight more times including five straight nominations between 1939 and 1943.

Bette Davis … Julie Marsden
Henry Fonda … Preston Dillard
George Brent … Buck Cantrell
Donald Crisp ... Dr. Livingstone
Fay Bainter ... Aunt Belle Massey
Margaret Lindsay ... Amy Bradford Dillard
Richard Cromwell ... Ted Dillard
Henry O'Neill ... General Bogardus
Spring Byington ... Mrs. Kendrick
John Litel ... Jean La Cour
Gordon Oliver ... Dick Allen
Janet Shaw ... Molly Allen
Theresa Harris ... Zette
Margaret Early ... Stephanie Kendrick
Irving Pichel ... Huger
Eddie Anderson ... Gros Bat


Director ... William Wyler
Producers ... Henry Blanke, Hal B. Wallis, William Wyler
Screenplay ... Clements Ripley, Abem Finkel, John Huston, Robert Buckner
Based on ... The play 'Jezebel' by Owen Davis Sr.
Music ... Max Steiner
Cinematography ... Ernest Haller
Format ... B & W
Distributed by ... Warner Bros. Pictures
Release date ... March 10, 1938
Running time ... 105 minutes

Academy Awards

Two Wins:
Best Actress ... Bette Davis
Best Supporting Actress ... Fay Bainter
Three Unsuccessful Nominations:
Best Picture ... Henry Blanke, Hal B. Wallis
Best Cinematography ... Ernest Haller
Best Original Music Score ... Max Steiner