The Little Foxes (1941)

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Today’s Cinema Adventure is William Wyler’s Hollywood adaptation of Lillian Hellman’s play about a scheming family of Southerners manipulating their way to financial domination of their small town, which was was made in 1941 and provided a vehicle for Bette Davis (already a double Oscar-winner) at the peak of her star power. She was reluctant to take the part – Talullah Bankhead had played it onstage, and Davis felt she had captured it perfectly – but she ultimately relented, and in Regina Giddens, the ambitious sister in a trio of ruthless siblings who is bent on beating her brothers at their own game, she found a role that seemed to perfectly match the intelligence, strength, and temperament of her persona. However, she plays the role with so much bile that she comes off as a selfish woman of no compassion, despite the strong subtext that suggests a character desperate to escape the stifling oppression of a life she has been locked into since childhood – a theme which extends to the story’s other female characters, Birdie (the faded southern belle married for her land and her social standing and now relegated to a life of irrelevance and misery by an abusive husband – played with heartbreaking perfection by Patricia Collinge) and Alexandra (Regina’s teen-aged daughter, slowly awakening to the ugly reality of her family’s predatory nature – played with believable idealistic zeal by a young and fresh Teresa Wright). Playwright Hellman famously disliked Bette’s performance, preferring Elizabeth Taylor’s more vulnerable approach in the much-later stage remount of the play to the outright villainy with which Davis infused the role; but Davis, in her defense, claimed to have been compelled into taking a different direction than Bankhead’s original, emphasizing Regina’s cold and steely resolve over a more empathetic interpretation. In any case, it seems clear that Davis, well-known to be a woman who held her own in a man’s world, was channeling her own steely determination into Regina – a character to whom she must have related, in that way – and it’s a treat to watch her work, whether or not her choices were in keeping with the integrity of the playwright’s intentions.

The rest of the cast – a staunch roster of supporting players, the best that an A-list studio “prestige” picture could hope to offer – are every bit up to the standard set by their leading lady (Charles Dingle, as Regina’s mendacious older brother, is particularly delicious), and director William Wyler, one of the great masters of the old studio system and a filmmaker capable of building a movie that could not only contain Davis but complement her over-the-top splendor (though on this project, they famously clashed over everything from her subtext to her makeup), ensures that the movie never comes off as a filmed play, but a confident piece of old-school cinema in its own right. He’s helped in that by the screenplay, which was penned (mostly, although there was additional dialogue contributed by Dorothy Parker, among others) by the playwright herself; Hellman seamlessly opened up the action to other locations to avoid a stage-bound feel, and managed to keep the film’s perfunctory romance (added at the studio’s insistence, no doubt) from detracting from the weight of the story by creating a new character in the form of a progressive young newsman (played by a handsome and lively Richard Carlson) who could not only provide a love interest for Wright but give voice to her own socialist sentiments.

In fact, it’s those political ideals that give “The Little Foxes” a weight and resonance today that make it hold up better than some of the other classics of its era. In this turn-of-the-century tale of greedy capitalists pursuing private gain by exploiting not only the community in which they live but also the people who are foolish enough to love them, it’s pretty obvious to see a direct thread running all the way from the era of slavery, through the carpetbagging of the post-Civil War South and the industrialist expansion of the late 19th Century into the dangerously fascist-leaning pre-WWII era which gave rise to both the play and the film – and by extension, into our own age of kleptocracy and corporate profiteering. Hellman was a fierce fighter against the commodification of humanity, and it’s no mere plot device that, in this piece, she made the Hubbard clan’s scheme dependent on the exploitation of workers – it’s central to everything she was trying to say. Because of this, even the dated, now-embarassing portrayal of the film’s many black characters (the descendents of slaves, still serving the children of their former masters) plays a subtle part in reinforcing the underlying radicalism of the theme; the cultural politics of their interactions with the white characters, presented without comment or irony, speak volumes, and while no doubt the studio (and most audiences) were oblivious to this undercurrent, it’s impossible to believe that Hellman and some of the other more socially aware members of the creative team were blind to it, or that it was not, in fact, an important piece of intentional messaging.

If, when watching “The Little Foxes,” one has any illusion that it is meant only as a “Dynasty”-style bitch-fest (an interpretation embraced and perhaps preferred by a generation of Bette-worshipers who want only to see their idol as an emblem of personal power claimed in the face of a hostile culture which denies it to those deemed “other”), the title alone should be a clue that there was much more on the mind of it’s creator. It’s a reference to a verse in the Bible, Solomon 2:15, which reads “Take us the foxes, the little foxes that spoil the vines, for our vines have tender grapes.” In other words, it’s a story about corruption, and how those who exploit the natural wealth of the world for their own benefit subvert and inhibit its growth. Seen this way, it’s hard to find any sympathy for Regina (especially the way Davis plays her), who is as complicit in the technically-legal-but-inherently-immoral machinations of her family as her brothers – no matter what her motivation or good intentions may be. In this light, she is fully deserving to be left at the end, as she is, utterly alone – with only the coldness of her wealth to comfort her against the prospect of a lifetime spent maneuvering to protect it from those as ruthless as she.

“The Little Foxes” was nominated for 9 Academy Awards, including Best Picture, Best Actress, Best Supporting Actress, Best Director, and Best Adapted Screenplay. It didn’t win any of them. Also, although it was a box office hit, thanks to the high percentage received by producer Samuel Goldwyn, its distrubutor (RKO Pictures) lost money on it. A few years later, Hellman wrote a “prequel” play, “Another Part of the Forest,” which chronicled the rise of the Hubbard clan and went on be made into another critically-acclaimed film in 1948, starring Fredric March and Florence Eldridge. Although the characters from “Little Foxes” all appeared as their younger selves, actor Dan Duryea (who played ne’er-do-well nephew Leo in the earlier film) was the only cast member who returned – this time portraying his previous character’s father, Oscar (played in “Foxes” by Carl Benton Reid).

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Isle of Dogs (2018)

isleofdogs_poster_trailerToday’s Cinema Adventure originally appeared in

The Los Angeles Blade

For fans of filmmaker Wes Anderson, the arrival of a new movie by the quirky auteur triggers an excitement akin to that of a ten-year-old boy opening a highly-coveted new toy at Christmas.  For them, something about the director’s style conjures a nostalgic glee; the puzzle-box intricacy with which he builds his cinematic vision combines with the detached whimsy of his characters to create an experience not unlike perusing a cabinet of curiosities, bringing out the viewer’s inner child and leaving them feeling something they’re not quite sure of for reasons they can’t quite put their finger on.

Those who love his work – and there are a lot of people in this category – find it immensely satisfying.

Those who don’t are left scratching their heads and wondering what the point was to all that tiresome juvenilia.

Anderson’s latest, “Isle of Dogs,” is likely to meet just such a split in opinion – and this time, thanks to accusations of cultural appropriation, marginalization, and outright racism, it’s not just about whether you like the directorial style.

His second venture into the field of stop-motion animation (the first was “Fantastic Mr. Fox” in 2009), it’s an ambitious fable set in a fictional Japanese metropolis named Megasaki, twenty years into the future.  The authoritarian mayor, the latest in a long dynasty of cat-loving rulers, has issued an executive decree that all the city’s dogs must be exiled to “Trash Island” – including Spots, the beloved pet and protector of his twelve-year-old ward, Atari.  The boy steals a small plane and flies to the island, where he enlists the aid of a pack of other dogs to help him rescue Spots from the literal wasteland to which he has been banished.  Meanwhile, on the mainland, a group of young students works hard to expose the corrupt mayor and the conspiracy he has led to turn the citizens against their own dogs.

In usual fashion, Anderson has made a film which expresses his unique aesthetic, marked with all his signature touches: his meticulously-chosen color palette, the rigorous symmetry of his framing, the obsessive detail of his visual design, and the almost cavalier irony of his tone.  These now-familiar stylistic trappings give his movies the feel of a “junior-adventurer” story, belying the reality that the underlying tales he tells are quite grim.  The cartoonish quirks of his characters often mask the fact that they are lonely or emotionally stunted – and the colorful, well-ordered world they inhabit is full of longing, hardship, oppression, and despair.

“Isle of Dogs,” though ostensibly a children’s movie, is no different.  Indeed, it is possibly the director’s darkest work so far, and it is certainly his most political.  Though it would be misleading to attribute a partisan agenda to this film, it’s not hard to see the allegorical leanings in its premise of a corrupt government demonizing dogs to incite hysteria and support its rise to power, nor the social commentary in the way it portrays bigotry based on the trivial surface characteristic of preferring dogs to cats.  Make no mistake, despite its cute and fluffy surface and its future-Japanese setting, “Isle of Dogs” can easily be read as a depiction of a world possessed by the specter of Nationalism, and a clear statement about life – and resistance – in Trump’s America.

In terms of visual artistry, Anderson has outdone himself with his latest work.  The painstaking perfection of the animation is matched by the overwhelming completeness of the world he and his design artists have executed around it.  Myriad elements from Japanese culture are used to build the immersive reality of Megasaki (and Trash Island, of course), and the director adds to his own distinctive style by taking cues from countless cinematic influences – Western and Eastern alike.

Of course, the film’s setting and story invite comparisons to the great Japanese filmmaker Akira Kurosawa – whose iconic Samurai movies were an acknowledged influence.  Anderson mirrors the mythic, larger-than-life quality of those classics; he uses broad strokes, with characters who seem like archetypes and a presentation that feels like ritual.

These choices may have served the director’s artistic purpose well – but they have also opened him up to what has surely been unexpected criticism.

Many commentators have observed that, by setting “Isle of Dogs” in Japan (when he himself has admitted it could have taken place anywhere), Anderson is guilty of wholesale cultural appropriation, co-opting centuries of Japanese tradition and artistry to use essentially as background decoration for his movie.  In addition, he has been criticized for his tone-deaf depiction of Japanese characters; his choice to have their dialogue spoken in (mostly) untranslated Japanese serves, it has been said, to de-humanize and marginalize them and shift all audience empathy to the English-speaking, decidedly Anglo actors who portray the dogs.  There has also been objection to his inclusion of a female foreign exchange student as the leader of the resistance, which can be seen as a perpetuation of the the “white savior” myth.

Such points may be valid, particularly in a time when cultural sensitivity and positive representation are priorities within our social environment.  It’s not the first time Anderson has been criticized for seeming to work from within a very white, entitled bubble, after all.

Even so, watching “Isle of Dogs,” it’s difficult to ignore the fact that it’s a movie about inclusion, not marginalization.  It invites us to abandon ancient prejudices, speak up against institutionalized bigotry, and remake the world as a place where there is room for us all.

It’s a message that seems to speak to the progressive heart of diversity.  Whether or not the delivery of that message comes in an appropriate form is a matter for individual viewers to decide for themselves.

For Anderson fans, it will probably be a moot point.