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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