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Bette Davis as JEZEBEL

In 1930 a very young William Wyler was making tests for a picture at Universal, the studio founded by his elder cousin, Carl Laemmle. One who tested was a then unknown Bette Davis. The wardrobe department did not have a dress that fit the busty Miss Davis. She recalled that the neckline was too low, “Much cleavage was in sight, much to my embarrassment,” she said. Wyler got the wrong impression. By her own description Davis was “heartbroken” when Wyler saw her and asked in a loud voice before rejecting her test, “What do you think of these dames who show their chests and think they can get jobs?”

By 1937 the feisty Bette Davis was at Warner Bros. and really coming into her own. An internal memo told Jack Warner in 1937, “Bette Davis is a female Cagney and if we give her the right parts her stardom will pay off the interest on the bonds every year.” 

In fact Davis was them the leading candidate to portray Scarlett O’Hara in the forthcoming and much anticipated Gone with the Wind (1939). And she really coveted the part. Davis had just won an Oscar, however, and Warner Bros. frowned on any outside work. The studio would not loan her to help a competitor when David. O. Selznick had no one of comparable status to loan in return. 

As compensation to Davis — especially since Jack Warner had dropped his option to make Gone with the Wind to spite Davis who had sued the studio for better parts and had lost in court — in January of 1937 Warners bought the next best thing for her, a failed and trite play called Jezebel which had opened on Broadway in 1933 and failed. 

Jack Warner was having second thoughts about passing on Gone with the Wind and wanted to capitalize on the growing Scarlett O’Hara mania. He was confident he could beat Selznick to the screen with this reasonable facsimile. He was encouraged by one internal memo that urged, “Bette Davis could play the spots off the part of a little bitch of an aristocratic southern girl.”

To direct, Warner arranged with Samuel Goldwyn to borrow the estimable services of William Wyler. He had just directed Dead End (1937), and even today, in terms of Oscars and Oscar nominations for his pictures, Wyler remains the most honored director in all movie history.

What Wyler determined necessary to make Davis’s character sympathetic was a scripting of “regeneration through suffering.” If Jezebel wasn’t already a woman’s picture, this touch would make it so. Or. as Jack Warner once put it to Bette Davis, “Who wants to see a movie about a spoiled, willful Southern Belle who has to decide if she should wear a red dress to some ball?” Davis fired back the answer to him, shouting, “Every woman in America!”

Eventually Davis and Wyler met to discuss the project. He did not remember meeting her previously, or the humiliating failed test. Davis did. She thought about little else for seven years. Wyler still didn’t remember, even after Davis scolded him for it, but he did believe her, and said in his defense after a long pause, “I am a nicer person now.” 

It wasn’t true. Wyler wasn’t any nicer. He was as temperamental and rude as ever. So was Davis. Naturally their affair began with in days. Davis said years later that Wyler was the love of her life. He was ruthless with her in front of the crew, but Davis recalled, “When I wasn’t hating him, I was loving him. He was the only man strong enough to control me.” 

Davis had never done more than two takes on any scene in a movie. The very first scene she made with Wyler, where she had to dismount from a horse and rush into a formal gathering, Wyler shot 48 times. Not twice. Not four times. Not eight times. 48 times, it was. Wyler sat and never once told Davis what he liked or disliked about any one of those 48 takes. Just do it again. Then again, etc. And he made the entire picture that way. It was how he worked. 

“What do you want me to do differently?” she pleaded with Wyler after being broken down. 

“I’ll know it when I see it,” Wyler would declare quietly, slouched in his director’s chair. He wore her out, toned her down, and got the performance he wanted and critics would praise. Jezebel was a critical and commercial success. Everyone was pleased except for David O. Selznick who complained to Jack Warner that the film plagiarized Gone with the Wind

The Motion Picture Academy nominated Jezebel for best picture and cinematography. Bette Davis won her second Oscar.