Saturday, May 16, 2009

Review: The Little Foxes

"Take us the foxes, the little foxes, that spoil the vines: for our vines have tender grapes". Song of Solomon, Chapter 2, verse 15. It was this biblical reference which acted as the on-screen prelude and general theme to one of the richest characterizations of avarice put to film. The Little Foxes tells the story of a prosperous family in the Deep South during the turn of the 20th Century, whose overwhelming greed and corruption, corrodes their already deteriorating clan.

The film was directed by legendary William Wyler, produced by legendary Samuel Goldwyn and starred legendary Bette Davis, who gives a masterful performance. But that being said, it's not necessarily a Bette Davis movie as say Dark Victory (1939) or Now, Voyager (1942) were. It's part Bette Davis movie, part William Wyler movie and part Samuel Goldwyn movie, all tied together with a screenplay by Lillian Hellman, authoress of the original play. Each of these creative powerhouses contributing his or her own expertise to conceive a film classic.

Hellman had brought her play to Broadway in 1939, starring the infamous stage actress Tallulah Bankhead in the juicy role of vicious Regina Giddens. The films director, William Wyler immediately wanted to cast Bette Davis as Regina. The two had worked together on two previous films, Jezabel (1938) and The Letter (1940), as well as allegedly having a torrid affair. Warner Brothers, Davis' home studio, never loaned their biggest star out to anybody. However, Jack Warner arranged to have her loaned out this one time as a trade for Gary Cooper, who he wanted to star in Warner's upcoming biopic Sergeant York (1941). It was the only time between 1934 and 1949, when her contract ended at Warners that the studio loaned her services out.

Davis, famous for tour de force, eye-popping, shoulder jerking performances, underplayed the role to great effect. Her Regina is cold and calculating as she and her equally greedy brothers (Charles Dingle and Carl Benton Reid) try to manipulate her gravely ill husband (Herbert Marshall) into investing money in a cotton mill venture that could make them all wealthy beyond their wildest dreams. She is a vision of controlled, steely determination, in the fine period dress and rice powder makeup provided for her by famed make-up artist Perc Westmore.

The film is visually sumptuous. Producer Samuel Goldwyn, well known for his use of high production values in his films, displayed these abundantly with lush interiors. Through architectural nuances, like bold archways and rich decor of dark wood and exquisitely upholstered furnishings, the old south aristocracy is brought vividly to life. As it does in many examples of director Wyler's work, the use of sweeping staircases creates a dramatic stage on which his actors perform, as well as a visual focal point, with much of the action taking place on or around the grand corridor. Master cameraman Gregg Toland uses deep focus photography to capture a sharp and realistic image, enhancing the intensity of the unfolding drama.

Besides Davis, the ensemble cast showcases some superb performances from Dan Duryea as Regina's lazy, imbecilic nephew Leo, Patricia Collinge as the pathetic, drunken Birdie and Teresa Wright, who, in her film debut, gives an Oscar nominated portrayal of Regina's naive but maturing daughter Zan. In all The Little Foxes received 9 Academy Award nominations, including Best Picture, Best Actress for Davis and Best Supporting Actress for both Wright and Collinge.


  1. A great film. Thanks for the usual insights.

  2. Rupert,
    You never amaze me. One of my faves. I love this devious movie. We were talking about Rogue's earlier. This movie has so many evil people in it. You know what is going to happen in the movie but you have to sit there and watch it and Bette Davis does is so superbly, you think you are going to hate her but you end up dispising her. You are never ready for it. Wonderful movie. I must say you put a person right into the scenery, into the feel of the film especially if they haven't seen it. You should be writing books my friend.

  3. One of the best aspects of this film is the fact that it enabled Cooper to play Sgt York!!! I am not a great fan of American period pieces and don't do them as well as the Brits. They always seem very stiff and formal and the acting is often stilted. But Bette does it as well as anyone and this is a fine film, even if it does not make my top 20 Bette films. I prefer her in her 30s films as a wise cracking or tough blonde... Gregg Toland along with James Wong Howe was one of the great cameramen and readers should check out any of his films particularly relating to Val Lewton films. They rock.... Dan Duryea should get special mention as he was a great actor but this one was out of the box as he genre was definitely film Noir, yet he is great in this. He gets that southern insouciance just right... keep up the fine writing Rupe...

  4. Outstandingly objective subjectivity! Your syntax is fluid and best of all, jaunty and wry - thus lending to your fun-to-read style. I haven't seen this one for a while, but I do remember Miss Davis' "iron maiden" performance. There were (rarely) times when she could be "over the top" (What Ever Happened to Baby Jane?), but she's definitely in my top ten of actresses. Rupert, you sure have mastered the use of colorful and appropriate adjectives. Nice quote to set the tone as well! Keep 'em coming!

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  6. Hey there. Great writeup on this film. I haven't seen this film in years. I really enjoyed your post. Good job as usual. I hope you're having a good weekend. Don't forget to stop by my blog and leave some comments when you get the chance. Thanks. Cheers!

  7. Rupert thanks for another great review. I first saw "The Little Foxes" when I was in college. It blew me away back then, but I have grown to appreciate it more with each successive viewing. Like Keith, I haven't seen the film in years, and it deserves another viewing soon.

  8. Nice Review on this,Rupert! An excellent film,on so many levels,amonge the more porminent performances,let us not forget Ricahrd Carlson, as David Hewitt.A strong-willed,forthcoming,and integrity laiden character,who becomes a significant figure of prophetism,and hope to Alexandra,and to us also.Among my many favorites scenes is David's facial expression,as he listens to Birdie's sad,and emotional testimony to Alexandra's inquisition of her Aunt's unhappy situation. Richard Carlson ability to convey such empathy,and heartfelt sadness for Birdie,in a brief gaze...Brilliant acting!simply

  9. Davis was a life-long liberal, and this often showed, as it does in Foxes, by the dignity allowed the black characters. Even allegedly slow-witted Cal is no fool: (to Horace) "That Mr. Leo ... actin' mighty sweet ... like his mouth was filled with meltin' butter."

    But Addie, above all, is a bulwark of moral good. She sees them all clearly, and caters and protects the weak Horace, the pathetic Birdie and the naive Xan.

    A great movie resulted, but Davis and Wyler never fought more bitterly than during the filming of Foxes. She won the battle against making Regina sexier and keeping the rice makeup, arguing that she should look old enough to have a daughter of Xan's age. (Davis was actually 33 in 1941.) But she was also annoyed -and lost that fight- that the mansion didn't look more run-down, adding a measure of panic to the greed that consumed its mistress. When completed, Foxes also marked the end of the Wyler-Davis love affair; they never worked together again.

    As I’ve read, the David Hewitt character did not exist in the original play, but it was decided when the movie version was considered, some embodiment of hope for the South was wished, and Hellman herself created the character for the screenplay. Many critics, and Davis herself, was against this, but Hewitt supplies some muscle behind the voice for good, one that isn’t hampered by naiveté, alcoholism, illness or racial strictures.

    It puts me in a small group, I know, but I think Foxes is my favorite Davis film. Bette is as bad as she could be, essentially committing murder by inaction. She gets what she wants, including both of her brothers under her thumb at the end, but at the cost of the permanent disillusionment and estrangement of her daughter.
    "Would you like to talk with me, Alexandra? Would you like to stay in my room tonight?"
    "Why Mama? Are you afraid....?"

    The final shot is outstanding, Alexandra leaving the house forever with David, while Regina is left alone with Horace's still-warm corpse.

    I'll take this performance any day over Fontaine's in Suspicion, that year's eventual Best Actress winner. Warners was not going to spend money promoting a win for Davis in a movie that wasn't home-lot, and RKO and Goldwyn, with no further call on Davis, had little incentive to campaign for her either.



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