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THE LITTLE FOXES (1941)
Starring: Bette Davis, Teresa Wright, Herbert Marshall, Patricia Collinge, Richard Carlson, Carl Benton Reid, Charles Dingle, and Dan Duryea
Directed by William Wyler
Nominated for nine Academy Awards:
Best Director, William Wyler
Best Actress, Bette Davis
Best Supporting Actress, Teresa Wright
Best Supporting Actress, Patricia Collinge
Best Adapted Screenplay, Lillian Hellman (based on her play), Dorothy Parker, Alan Campbell, Arthur Kober
Best Art Direction
"Take us the foxes, the little foxes that spoil the vines, for our vines have tender grapes."
THE LITTLE FOXES was an enormous success on Broadway and had a successful run with Tallulah Bankhead in the role of heartless Southern belle, Regina Hubbard Giddens as she schemes and maneuvers her way to unlimited fortune. The play was written by Lillian Hellman, who wrote a compelling story about a family whose loyalties to each other are about as solid as a bridge made out of straw. Naturally a film would be in the works sooner or later, and in 1941 the long defunct RKO studio bought the rights and gave the lead to Bette Davis, who at that time was at the top of her game. Davis had a tremendous amount of respect for Bankhead, despite Bankhead not being particularly fond of Ms. Davis, and wanted to give the role the justice she believed it deserved. But in the end she was not satisfied with her performance, even going as far as saying it was one of her worst. I would have to disagree, for her performance is one of her very best and she does what she always did best, and that was play a woman with fire in her heart and in her mind.
The story revolves around the Hubbard family, who made their fortune by cheating and stealing from others. There is older brother Ben (played perfectly by Charles Dingle), who never married and appears to be a soft spoken and gentle man. But he is rotten and deceitful but never shows it, and because of that he is all the more dangerous and sly. Middle child and second brother Oscar (Carl Benton Reid), is a man who doesn't shelter away his ruthlessness, and his target for cruelty is that of his sweet natured wife, Birdie (Patricia Collinge), a woman whose family once was prosperous with their land, but had it taken over when Oscar married Birdie (who of course only married her for that reason alone). And then there is youngest child Regina (Davis), a woman who shares that of the morals of her brothers, which isn't a compliment on her behalf. Her husband Horace (Herbert Marshall), has been away for months due to a bad heart, and has been resting in Chicago and away from his greedy wife. But something has come up, as the Hubbard brothers are getting ready to invest money into a factory that makes cotton and prove them all with a healthy profit. But more money invested the better, and plead with Regina to get Horace back home so he to can invest money into the factory, but so far his letters have mentioned nothing about any involvement. Regina decides to send daughter Alexandra (Wright), to fetch her father and bring him home (she is unaware as to the real reason he is wanted back). She does bring her father back but he is not interested in the deal. He knows what his wife and her brothers are, and he won't allow Regina to move up in life with more power and money, and refuses to invest any of his money into it. Oscar however goes ahead and invests Horace's money for him by having his moron son Leo (Duryea), who works in Horace's back, to steal bonds from Horace's safe deposit box, bonds which are worth over $75,000 dollars. However, they did not include Regina in on their plans, but she certainly puts the discovery to good use when she ultimately discovers what her two brothers have been up to by turning the tables on them and blackmailing them for a larger profit.
The film works on so many levels, and best of them is that of Davis's performance. It has generated a lot of discussion over the years, as some of saw it as a failure to mix in sexuality for manipulation purposes (something Bankhead's performance did have), while others saw her for what she was, a greedy, self-centered, evil creature who rarely finds it necessary to hide herself from the world. She is a woman who wasn't born into the riches of life and refuses to allow it to slip through her fingers and Davis embodies Regina as a cold and ruthless monster hidden but still exposed enough to be recognized under a sweet voice and lady like mannerisms. There is one particular scene that is memorable, and that is when Marshall suffers a serious heart attack after confronting Davis. She explains to him her true reasons for marrying him and staying with him as long as she did, and Marshall begins to grasp for air, begging for her rush upstairs for his medicine. But she sits down on the sofa, arms extended on each sofa arm and doesn't move an inch. As the camera focuses in on her, we see Marshall making a half-hearted attempt to climb the stairs, but Davis sits there with a stone cold expression on her face. She doesn't blink, she doesn't even breath. It is a truly extraordinary scene and one of Davis's finest moments onscreen.
The supporting players are also in fine form, with Wright, in her film début, delivering a great performance as the naive daughter who finally sees her mother for what she truly is in the end. There is also a sub-lot involving her and Richard Carlson which is nicely played out, and makes for a welcome comic relief during a few scenes. Dingle and Reid are spectacular as the two scheming brothers, and Duryea does a fine job as the sniveling and ignorant knucklehead Leo. And Patricia Collinge gives an emotionally charged performance as a woman who drinks to much to escape the verbal and mental abuse brought on by her husband. There is one great scene where she begs Wright not to love her because she is afraid her niece will end up just like her one of these days, an emotionally fragile shell of a woman.
Though a lot of the scenes work beautifully, the film depicts its black characters in an unflattering light. They are shown to be incompetent, illiterate and possess the minds of children. Unfortunately, a large portion of black characters in films where drawn out like this, which was the norm in those days but feels awkward watching today
Of course the film is best known for the raging wars that went on between Davis and director William Wyler. Wyler had directed Davis twice before, the first time with JEZEBEL which earned Davis her second and final Oscar. And then again with THE LETTER in 1940. They once again make cinema magic here, but both had different visions for the way Regina should be played out. It's hard to say who won the battle and got what they wanted, but the two would never work together again. They however remained friends (Davis even visited Wyler on the set of several of his movies, including a visit when he was directing BEN-HUR), but they obviously vowed never to work on the same film again (Wyler even warned director Joseph L. Mankiewicz when Davis was hired on to star in ALL ABOUT EVE about her hot temper).
Though THE LITTLE FOXES is not pitch perfect, it remains a pretty riveting experience about revolving around a dysfunctional family (films that depicted families in a harsh light where beginning to pop up everywhere by this time). I would highly recommend it for the powerhouse performances though.
A prequel in 1948, ANOTHER PART OF THE FOREST, would follow the Hubbard children and their rise to fortune. Dan Duryea was hired on as a young Oscar, the character who was his father in this film. It's unavailable on VHS or any other format though. But I suppose their exploits is enough for one film, and it ends beautifully here, with Davis getting everything she wants in life, but still destined to face the future alone.
My Grade: B+