Blu-ray Review: Jezebel (1938)

It’s been widely reported that Bette Davis (All About Eve) wanted to play Scarlett O’Hara in Gone With the Wind. When the role went to Vivian Leigh, she was very disappointed. Sometimes described as a consolation prize, Davis played Julie Marsden in Jezebel, winning an Academy Award for Best Actress. Directed by William Wyler (Mrs. Miniver), the film is based on a 1933 stage play by Owen Davis. Written for the screen by Clements Ripley, a young John Huston was among the writers brought in to punch up the script.

Set in New Orleans 1852, Julie Marsden (Davis) is a spoiled, strong minded Southern belle. Julie has been in an on-again, off again relationship with prominent businessman Preston Dillard (Henry Fonda, My Name Is Nobody). Currently on, the couple are engaged. Julie’s tempestuous nature continues to be a stumbling block, as their battle of wills comes to a head the night of the annual Olympus ball. While it is customary for all unmarried women to wear white dresses, Julie insists on wearing red. She creates a social scandal; people literally shrink away from her in horror. Preston flees to New York on business.

A year later, Preston returns. A chastened Julie declares herself ready to submit to his will and Judgement. However, he’s married a Yankee named Julie (Margaret Lindsay). Still, Julie believes that someday, she and Preston are destined to be together. When an outbreak of Yellow Fever strikes and Preston catches the highly contagious disease, someone must go with him to the quarantined colony as he fights for his life. Will it be his wife or the Jezebel?

While I have real affection for black and white films, I can’t help but think Jezebel would have benefited from the Technicolor process that helped Gone With the Wind attain its epic status. The scene at the Olympus ball stands out, that red dress would have looked phenomenal in Technicolor!

Bette Davis is surrounded by a strong supporting cast, including George Brent as Buck Cantrell, the man truly in love with Julie, the formidable Donald Crisp as Dr. Livingstone and Fay Bainter, who won the Best Supporting Actress Oscar for her role as Aunt Belle.

While it’s interesting to remember Jezebel as a possible ‘consolation prize’ for her Gone With the Wind snub, in a practical sense, this was a turning point in her career. Davis would spin Julie’s sense of entitlement into a tough persona, with occasional flashes of vulnerability that would highlight memorable performances in Dark Victory, Now, Voyager, All About Eve and more.

Warner Archive’s newly remastered Blu-ray is in a word, “fantastic.” Presented in its original aspect ratio of 1.37:1, the black and white image sports solid black levels and crisp whites. The image is sharp, with strong contrast and a nice level of shadow detail. There are no apparent age-related defects.

The DTS-HD Master Audio 2.0 mono sound mix matches the video. Max Steiner’s brilliant score comes alive, revealing the most subtle of sounds. The fidelity is amazing for a film of this age. Dialogue is clean, clear and concise throughout. There are no hisses, pops, crackles or other audio anomalies to report.

English SDH subtitles are included.

The following extras are available:

  • Audio Commentary with Film Historian Jeanine Basinger
  • Jezebel Legend of the South (HD, 23:57) An informative making-of-documentary featuring interviews with film historians Jeanine Basinger, Rick Jewell, Alain Silver, Rudy Behlmer, James Ursuni, and Drew Casper. Conductor John Mauceri and William Wyler’s son David, also offer some thoughts.
  • Melody Masters (HD, 9:13) Jimmy Dorsey and His Orchestra perform.
  • Daffy Duck in Hollywood (HD, 8:04)
  • Rambling ‘Round the Hollywood Studio (HD, 1:45) Brief promo featuring Bette Davis discussing her character in Jezebel.
  • Theatrical Trailer (HD, 1:57)

Jezebel (1938)

Movie title: Jezebel

Director(s): William Wyler

Actor(s): Bette Davis, Henry Fonda, George Brent , Donald Crisp, Fay Bainter, Margaret Lindsay

Genre: Romance, Drama

  • Movie
  • Video
  • Audio
  • Extras

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