Jezebel was based on a Broadway play written by Owen Davis Sr., which starred Miriam Hopkins. Hopkins thought she was contractually set to star in the film, but Walter McEwan of the Warner Brothers story department lied to her about the terms of the contract, which said only that she would be considered for the role. The screenplay was written by Clements Ripley, Abem Finkel and John Huston. The movie was produced from October 1937 to February 1938, and was released in March 1938. William Wyler, the director, ended up 28 days over schedule, even though he tried to control costs by filming the most expensive scenes earliest. Wyler’s habit of multiple takes (up to 45, in one case) was criticized by studio management. The producer, Hal Wallis, wrote in a memo at the time, “Possibly Wyler wants to see those big numbers on the slate, and maybe we could arrange to have them start with number 6 on each take, then it wouldn’t take so long to get to nine or ten.” The shooting schedule was planned to finish before the birth of Henry Fonda’s child in December 1937 (it turned out to be his daughter Jane) however, because the production ran long, Davis had to finish some of their scenes together in closeup without Fonda being there.
Bette Davis won her second Oscar for best actress and Fay Bainter won best supporting actress for their performances in this picture. Ernest Heller’s work on the film was nominated for best cinematography, Max Steiner’s scoring was nominated for best music, and the film itself was nominated for best picture. The scene of Julie Marsden at the Olympus Ball was based on a similar event at the Mayfair Club Ball in Hollywood in 1927 where Norma Shearer wore a red dress instead of the suggested white one. The film remains a powerful melodrama, despite some of its stereotyped views of blacks in slavery reflecting opinions about history that were current at the time. And Max Steiner’s "Jezebel Waltz", in my opinion, is certainly among the most compelling and beautiful pieces of music that have ever been written for the movies. I hope you enjoy watching Jezebel tonight.