The Little Foxes

It’s challenging to engage moviegoers in stories in which most of the characters are awful people. Even directorial talents like Mike Nichols and Martin Scorsese can’t consistently pull it off. But it’s a superlative cinematic experience when it works, as evidenced by William Wyler’s 1941 classic The Little Foxes.

The plot: As the 20th century dawns in the Deep South, the Hubbard clan are scheming to entice a Chicago businessman to enrich them by building a cotton mill in their town (“lowest wages in the country!”). But they are already squabbling about the division of their investment and the profits thereof. Brothers Ben (Charles Dingle) and Oscar (Carl Benton Reid) already have money inherited from their father, while their sister Regina (Bette Davis) is financially dependent on her wealthy, ailing, and unloved husband Horace (Herbert Marshall). Oscar is also in a loveless, transactional marriage with his gentle, browbeaten wife Birdie (Patricia Collinge), whom he married solely to gain control of her family’s plantation. And Oscar has more cold-hearted plans, namely to have his wastrel son Leo (Dan Duryea) marry Horace and Regina’s sweet-natured daughter Alexandra (Teresa Wright) to gain control of Horace’s money when he dies. Genteel nastiness and double crosses ensue.

Lillian Hellman’s literary reputation has declined significantly over time, as evidence has mounted that she lied so often that she makes Johann Hari look honest. But her Little Foxes largely holds up today, both as a play and a movie. In addition to some quotable lines (most of them delivered acidly by Davis) Hellman is particularly acute at portraying the different ways that women react to oppression. Birdie responds to her husband’s exploitation and denigration of her by becoming fragile and alcohol-addicted, whereas Regina reacts to being cut out of her father’s will by becoming ruthless and avaricious. The story shows that despite her flaws, Regina’s not unsympathetic in that, had she been male, she would have inherited some of her father’s estate and not need to manipulate and battle men to survive.

On the other hand, the deferent Black servants of the Hubbard family are all flatly drawn. Hellman’s script thus doesn’t extend compassion to those underfoot across racial lines.

Made up as deathly pale, Davis delivers one of her career-defining performances. Most of the movie’s cast came from the stage version, but Tallulah Bankhead was replaced as Regina by Davis due to the latter being seen as a bigger box office draw. Davis’ Regina is tougher and nastier than Bankhead’s apparently was, and is a joy for her many fans. The rest of the cast also sparkle, particularly Dingle and Collinge.

Early in his legendary career, William Wyler had to make movies quickly and on the cheap (He directed 19 films in 1927!), but with growing reputation and budgets he transformed into the meticulous “40-take Wyler”. His actors — certainly including Davis who fought him throughout this production– were sometimes exasperated. But they also knew that their best performances were likely to emerge under his direction.

Wyler’s craft is evident here not only in the sterling performances by the entire cast, but also in the blocking and staging of each scene. Most directors direct the viewers’ gaze to a particularly point, but Wyler was comfortable with audiences choosing where to look. Sometimes the most interesting actor to watch in a Wyler film is the one who isn’t speaking (no wonder an incorrigible scene stealer like Davis put up with him).

Of course all that marvelous blocking and staging and opportunities to choose where to direct your eyes work enormously better because of Gregg Toland being behind the camera. In another of my recommendations, The Bishop’s Wife, I analyzed how deep focus opened up new possibilities in film beginning in the 1940s. That reality is even more on display here. The set is so, well, deep, with Hubbards huddling and repositioning themselves physically just as they are doing so emotionally and tactically throughout this delightfully vicious family drama.