The Bette Davis Project: The Little Foxes (1941)

The Little Foxes (1941)

Synopsis:

In the early part of the 20th century, in a Southern American town, ambitious Regina Giddens (Bette Davis) does everything in her power to outwit her scheming brothers (Charles Dingle, The Song of Bernadette, and Carl Benton Reid, In a Lonely Place) in a business deal.

Reaction & Thoughts:

When Regina icily tells her husband (Herbert Marshall, The Letter), “I hope you die! I hope you die soon! I’ll be waiting for you to die!,” the age of disillusionment was born. On the surface, Samuel Goldwyn’s The Little Foxes (from Song of Solomon‘s, “the little foxes that are ruining the vineyards, while our vineyards are in blossom”) is another well-crafted Hollywood period piece. However, framed in the context of pre-WWII, an era deeply immersed in naive humanism, the film is a bit of a shocker. It’s an abraded examination of the corruptibility of American capitalism.

There is also an intriguing feminist subtext behind the story’s main theme of avarice. Regina and the weakling aunt Birdie, played by Patricia Collinge (Shadow of A Doubt), are clearly by-products of patriarchy — they represent extreme reactions to gender inequality. Interestingly, Regina‘s daughter, Alexandra (Teresa Wright, Mrs. Miniver), in a coming-of-age subplot, slowly becomes a composite of mother and aunt. Falling squarely in the middle of theses two extremes, Alexandra is the modern ideal of womanhood — strong, resolute, and compassionate.

From a technical point of view, “90-take (William) Wyler” (Jezebel and The Letter) improves upon Lillian Hellman’s 1939 celebrated play of the same name, adding psychological depth via magnificently composed shots that capture the inner feelings of the characters. Hellman herself said that much of the story worked better as a movie, a nod to Wyler’s brilliance and cameraman Gregg Toland’s (Citizen Kane) genius. The use of deep focus and close-ups is particularly effective.

This absorbing, engrossing, highly entertaining drama has a collection of assured performances — everyone deserves an A-plus!

Davis’s performance — hilariously described by one film critic “as though she were balancing an Oscar on her high-coiffed head” — has been the source of endless debates. Wyler was dissatisfied with what she did with the role. Davis insisted that she simply played Regina as written. Personally, I thought she was sensational. I’m not exactly sure what Wyler had in mind, but the high quality of the final product is indisputable. Davis found a way to make Regina oddly appealing. She’s a morally reprehensible character, but you sort of understand where she is coming from — villains always work better when they have “a point.”

Marshall, Dingle, and Reid are excellent too. Collinge, in particular, gives a remarkably modulated performance. The cast includes Dan Duryea as the weasily nephew Leo and Richard Carlson as the town’s reporter David. Russell Hicks plays Mr. Marshall, the businessman Regina and her brothers are trying to impress. Jessica Grayson plays the Giddens’ maid Addie. Film debuts of Wright, Collinge, and Reid.

Conclusions & Final Thoughts:

The Little Foxes is as good as classic Hollywood gets — a powerful movie with timeless themes. I think only The Godfather and its sequels have explored the corruption of America in rawer manner. But unlike Coppola’s films, which tend to go for a broader scope, Wyler’s powerhouse places the seed of corruption in a family’s living room, where it belongs. B&W, 115 minutes, Not Rated.

Followed by the pre-sequel Another Part of the Forest (1948)

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2 responses to “The Bette Davis Project: The Little Foxes (1941)

  1. Pingback: The Amazing Mr. X (1948) | Diary of A Movie Maniac·

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