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THE LITTLE FOXES, 1940
Movie Review

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THE LITTLE FOXES,  MOVIE POSTERTHE LITTLE FOXES, 1940
Movie Reviews

Directed by William Wyler
Starring: Bette Davis, Teresa Wright, Herbert Marshall, Richard Carlson, Dan Duryea, Patricia Collinge
Review by Virginia De Witt


SYNOPSIS:

At the turn of the 20th century, in the American deep south, the Hubbard family gathers at sister Regina’s house for a dinner party in honor of a wealthy Chicago business man, William Marshall. Regina Giddens, and her two brothers, Oscar Hubbard and Ben Hubbard are intent upon becoming partners with Mr. Marshall in a new cotton mill and need $75,000 from Regina’s absent husband, Horace, to complete the purchase. Horace Giddens returns home after convalescing from a heart attack, but with not long to live, and informs Regina that he wants no part of the deal, or of the Hubbard family any longer. Regina and her siblings begin to scheme to acquire Horace’s money, with or without his consent.

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REVIEW:

Lillian Hellman’s 1939 Broadway play, “The Little Foxes”, was an examination of the world out of which Hellman herself had come; in her case, Alabama at the turn of the last century. It was a political play with a pointed theme; that of the human cost of unfettered greed. It was meant to comment upon the phenomenon of the rapid rise of the new industrial class in the post-bellum South replacing the old landowning class. The play’s emblematic exchange takes place between the warring Hubbards as the battle to claim Horace’s money reaches a crescendo. Horace lashes out at his wife and she spits her own particular brand of venom back at him:

“There must be better ways of getting rich than building sweat shops and pounding the bones of the town to make dividends for you to spend. You’ll wreak the town, you and your brothers. You’ll wreak the country, you and your kind, if they let you. But not me. I’ll die my own way and I’ll do it without making the world any worse. I’ll leave that to you.”

“I hope you die. I hope you die soon. I’ll be waiting for you to die.”

The icy matriarch, Regina Giddens, was based upon Hellman’s grandmother and the rather pathetic figure of sister-in-law, Birdie Hubbard, based on her own mother. Hellman adapted her play to the screen, with additional scenes and dialogue later added by Arthur Kober, Dorothy Parker and her husband, Alan Campbell. The result is one of the few times where a successful play benefits from abridgment for the screen. The opening dinner party scene on stage is too long and static and is laden with too much explication of Hellman’s political philosophy. The film version opens up the play with an introduction to the Southern society in which the Hubbards and the Giddenses live and thereby condenses the dinner scene considerably, allowing the narrative to progress more swiftly.

William Wyler, in his third collaboration with Bette Davis after “Jezebel” (1938) and “The Letter” (1940), handles the adaptation with his usual intelligence and skill. He surrounds himself with the highest quality cast and crew he can find and allows the story to take centre stage. Wyler is not a director who insists on drawing attention to his skill with flashy flourishes or signature visual touches. He is more interested in serving the story and the characters which he does wonderfully here.

Regina Giddens, second only to Blanche Dubois, has become one of the great contemporary roles for a mature actress in the American theatre. It is a demanding role that plays to all of Bette Davis’ considerable strengths. Davis was always a courageous actress, unafraid to appear older than she was or to be unlovable. Her Regina is cold, imperious and ruthless. She has the look and feel of a pinched, angry woman who is deeply resentful of her family and station. Regina is obsessed with moving up and out of the small southern town where she has spent her whole life. Davis and Wyler apparently fought over Davis’ decision to wear heavy rice make up to make her look older, but Davis was right. Not only does the chalky make up age her, but it gives her the slightly scary look of a decaying china doll.

Davis embodies Regina’s corruption completely. The great scene where Regina coolly watches as Horace, suffering from cardiac arrest, begs her for his medicine and then struggles to reach it himself is truly chilling. Our understanding of the scene is aided greatly by Gregg Toland’s deep focus cinematography, perfected by his recent work on “Citizen Kane” (1941). It allows us to initially observe Horace’s attack in the foreground as Regina paces behind him, bitterly complaining of their life together. Then, when it is clear to her what is happening to him, the perspective shifts and we are allowed to carefully monitor Regina’s reactions in close up, as Horace desperately struggles for his life in the background.

The rest of the cast offers Davis strong support. Four of the original Broadway cast members are featured in this film - Dan Duryea as Regina’s shiftless nephew, Leo Hubbard; Patricia Collinge as Birdie; Charles Dingle and Carl Benton Reid as Regina’s two scheming brothers, Ben and Oscar Hubbard. Herbert Marshall wears an air of defeat as the dying Horace Giddens. Teresa Wright makes her film debut as what is obviously meant to be Hellman’s alter ego, Alexandra Hubbard, the only member of the family to stand up to Regina and survive.

“The Little Foxes” is one of Bette Davis’ most memorable performances. Sadly, due to the amount of friction between her and William Wyler during the making of the film, it was to be the last time they would work together. Still the three films they collaborated on between 1938 and 1941 were high points in both of their extraordinary careers, with “The Little Foxes” being the strongest of the three.

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