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Warner Home Video presents
Jezebel (1938)

"Maybe I love her most when she's her meanest. Because I know that's when she's lovin' most."
- Aunt Belle (Fay Bainter)

Review By: David Krauss  
Published: May 30, 2006

Stars: Bette Davis, Henry Fonda, George Brent
Other Stars: Margaret Lindsay, Donald Crisp, Fay Bainter, Richard Cromwell, Henry O'Neill, Spring Byington, John Litel
Director: William Wyler

MPAA Rating: Not Rated for (nothing objectionable)
Run Time: 01h:44m:02s
Release Date: May 30, 2006
UPC: 012569753372
Genre: drama

Image Transfer
Audio Transfer
A AA-B+ B+

DVD Review

When Bette Davis lost the coveted role of Scarlett O'Hara in Gone With the Wind, studio chief Jack Warner dug up a similar property for his temperamental actress, and craftily rushed it into production so it would beat David O. Selznick's epic into theaters. Jezebel may have been a Broadway flop, but it would be an unqualified success for Davis, winning the star her second Best Actress Oscar and launching a decade of slick, prestigious vehicles meticulously designed to showcase her unique talent and magnetism. Though the story lacks the scope and sweep of Margaret Mitchell's magnum opus, Jezebel paints a thoughtful, often riveting portrait of the antebellum South, and features a heroine so brazenly willful and manipulative, she makes Scarlett look like her goody-two-shoes rival, Melanie Wilkes.

Julie Marsden (Davis) scandalizes New Orleans society with head-spinning regularity, and her on-again, off-again romance with banker Preston Dillard (Henry Fonda) and dalliance with rascal Buck Cantrell (George Brent) incite plenty of gossip. The spoiled Julie, however, couldn't care less; she lives life on her own terms and refuses to kowtow to any mandated moral or social code. Yet she finally goes too far when she wears a "vulgar" red dress to the all-white Olympus Ball, mortally embarrassing Preston, her Aunt Belle (Fay Bainter)—with whom she lives—and even herself. The upstanding Pres breaks off their engagement, but when he returns to Louisiana a year later after a stint up North, a repentant Julie seeks to reclaim him. Those plans go awry when Pres drops a bombshell, which in turn jolts Julie out of her funk and provokes her to resume her wicked ways. Factor in a raging yellow fever epidemic that threatens to wipe out the Mississippi Delta, and it's tough to determine what's more deadly—nature's wrath or Julie's.

Jezebel marked the first of three collaborations between Davis and director William Wyler, and his influence upon her cannot be overstated. Tough yet tender, and with steadfast convictions, Wyler refused to be Davis' doormat, and fought with her tooth and nail over the most miniscule details. He exasperated her no end, but earned her undying respect (and love), and transformed her into a motion picture actress of the highest order. When left to her own devices (or paired with a namby-pamby director), Davis was prone to wildly indulgent histrionic displays, but Wyler somehow reined her in, toned her down, suppressed her mannerisms, and helped her truly become her character. Rarely does Davis raise her voice in Jezebel, yet she contributes such a powerful performance, we hang on her every word, gesture, and nuance. Her work is so strong that, for a moment or two, we almost forget we're watching Bette Davis—and that's perhaps the highest praise this legendary performer could desire.

Davis dominates Jezebel like Julie rules New Orleans, and though she receives ample support from Fonda, Brent, and Bainter (who also won a well-deserved Oscar for her role), her true co-star is Wyler. Jezebel walks a fine line, as it both honors the genteel Southern culture and indicts the close-mindedness that would hasten its demise, and the director superbly depicts the dichotomy. He also manages to maintain a sense of intimacy in large-scale scenes, never allowing the characters to be dwarfed by the sumptuous sets and costumes. Best of al, no lulls or lags plague the film; even sequences of minimal consequence crackle with a subtle tension that keeps us engaged. (A few uncomfortable racial stereotypes break the spell, but such was the unfortunate tenor of the times, and it's tough to fault a film for reflecting its period.) It would have been easy for Wyler to try and outdo—or at least compete with—Gone With the Wind, but he wisely maintains a tight focus, even during the yellow fever epidemic, and the film is far stronger because of it.

Davis always credited Wyler's contributions, even if it meant diminishing the impact of her own work. In her 1962 autobiography, she wrote, "He made my performance. He made the script. Jezebel is a fine picture. It was all Wyler. I had known all the horrors of no direction and bad direction. I now knew what a great director was and what he could mean to an actress. I will always be grateful to him for his toughness and his genius."

And so will we.

Rating for Style: A
Rating for Substance: A


Image Transfer

Aspect Ratio1.33:1 - Full Frame
Original Aspect Ratioyes

Image Transfer Review: This is the second go-round for Jezebel on DVD, and this time Warner has struck a brand new transfer from restored picture and audio elements. The improvements are marked, and begin with image clarity. The previous edition of Jezebel (from MGM) was plagued by a fuzzy haze, heavy grain, overexposure, and plenty of specks and scratches, but Warner technicians have cleaned and buffed almost every frame of the film, and produced a presentation that's as silky smooth as Julie's red satin gown. Black levels are deeper and richer, contrast is more distinct, and only a few errant marks dot the print. Light grain remains, adding texturing and shading, but it never overwhelms the picture. Without question, this is a superior rendering of a classic film, and well worth an upgrade for Davis, Fonda, and Wyler fans.

Image Transfer Grade: A-


Audio Transfer

 LanguageRemote Access

Audio Transfer Review: The mono audio is also infinitely cleaner and more robust. Gone is the annoying hiss that pervaded the previous track, and as a result, the dialogue sounds brighter and much more distinct. Max Steiner's sweeping score also benefits from the remastering, losing the tinny quality that lent the music a syrupy, antiquated tone. The strings now sound lush instead of shrill, and the dramatic passages possess greater range and fidelity. Some minor age-related defects still crop up on occasion, but can't tarnish this fine audio effort.

Audio Transfer Grade: B+


Disc Extras

Static menu with music
Scene Access with 28 cues and remote access
Subtitles/Captions in English, French, Spanish with remote access
1 Original Trailer(s)
1 Documentaries
1 Feature/Episode commentary by film historian and archivist Jeanine Basinger
Packaging: generic plastic keepcase
Picture Disc
1 Disc
1-Sided disc(s)
Layers: dual
Layers Switch: 56m:24s

Extra Extras:
  1. Musical short, Jimmy Dorsey and His Orchestra
  2. Classic cartoon, Mice Will Play
Extras Review: Warner offers up a nice smattering of supplements, beginning with an audio commentary by film historian and archivist Jeanine Basinger. Basinger is pleasant to listen to and makes several cogent points, but spends too much time during the film's first half analyzing and explaining the plot. More biographical excerpts, quotes from studio memos, and behind-the-scenes anecdotes punch up the second half, but Basinger never quite meets the standard she set with her commentaries on Laura and The Philadelphia Story. Those new to Jezebel (and the films of Hollywood's Golden Age) will certainly learn a lot, but diehard fans won't find enough fresh information to make the time investment pay off.

Jezebel: Legend of the South is a comprehensive, stylishly produced documentary that chronicles the film's production history and evaluates its various technical elements through stills, film clips, and analyses by an army of film historians. The 24-minute piece looks at the South's stringent codes and indigenous subculture, and how the movie had to be true to both the period in which the picture takes place and the ideals of its contemporary audience to be a success. Considerable time is spent dissecting the genius of director William Wyler and assessing the contributions of the film's stars, but examinations of the cinematography (by Ernest Haller), costumes (by Orry-Kelly), sets, and music also enhance our appreciation for Jezebel and the scrupulous attention to detail that distinguishes it.

Mice Will Play, a mildly amusing Looney Tunes cartoon, and Jimmy Dorsey and His Orchestra, a rather static but still entertaining big band short, add a bit of froth to this serious disc, while a re-release theatrical trailer wraps up the extras package.

Extras Grade: B+


Final Comments

Those who dismiss Jezebel as merely a poor man's Gone With the Wind obviously don't appreciate the finely drawn portrayals, superior production values, and potent themes of this engrossing drama. Bette Davis sinks her teeth into Julie Marsden and files one of her best performances, while director William Wyler proves yet again he's one of Hollywood's most brilliant craftsmen. Warner's stunning restoration revitalizes this classic film, and at long last makes MGM's previous barebones release obsolete. Highly recommended.


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