Reviewed by Glenn Erickson
The Little Foxes is so fresh and immediate an experience, that it's hard to believe that
was made in 1941, sixty years ago. An almost perfect play adaptation, its simple theme has not
dated at all. Unlike most movies, the only way to tell its vintage is through the faces of its actors -
this could be a 1952 movie, easily.
1900. The avaricious Hubbard family has pretty much sewn up the economic opportunities
in their southern hometown, but the prospect of a deal with a Chicago investor to build a
cotton gin has brothers Ben (Charles Dingle) and Oscar (Carl Benton Reid) hot for
more riches. The problem is their sister Regina (Bette Davis), whose sickly husband Horace
(Herbert Marshall) is too ethical to allow his savings to be used on the deal. The heartless Regina
wants the money so badly, she doesn't care whether her husband lives or dies. Oscar pushes his dimwit
bank teller son Leo (Dan Duryea) to simply steal Horace's money from his safe deposit box.
The only comfort to Horace is his virtuous daughter Alexandra (Teresa Wright). She doesn't understand
how venal her relatives are, but by observing her mother Regina, gets a chance to learn
Savant spun up this Goldwyn classic expecting to see another Bette Davis acting-fest,
which admittedly can be very good experience. Even a weird soap like Mr. Skeffington is
engaging when Davis is involved.
The Little Foxes is not just a movie-star picture, but a director's movie. I'm finally
rounding out seeing most
of William Wyler's movies. With each one it is becoming more obvious that shot-for-shot he's
a supremely superior director. His scenes are built around the drama instead of a strong personal style
so he's not as distinctive as Hitchcock, Ford, or Hawks. But after you've seen a few, especially
those films he made with Gregg Toland, his style jumps out immediately.
The prime principle in studio films was to make everything seamless, for cuts to be 'invisible'
and for showoff technique to be shunned in the service of drawing the audience into the story. MGM
achieved at least the first half of this theory in most of its movies, which unfortunately have a
dull sameness -
you can scarcely tell a Tay Garnett, from a Robert Z. Leonard, from a Victor Fleming. But Wyler's
camera was always distinctive, his scenes blocked in perfectly judged masters, his camera firmly in
the exact right place. He's visually more varied than Ford, and more fluid than Hawks. You get the
idea that Wyler is expressing less his personal attitudes toward the material, than letting the
material express itself. Just about the only Wyler-ism that I've seen crop up in every film, is the
staging of crucial scenes around staircases of one kind or another. The Heiress,
Come and Get It, The Desperate Hours and this picture have such strong 'stair' scenes
that just the appearance of a staircase in something like Friendly Persuasion or The Best
Years of Our Lives draws our attention immediately.
Savant is less a judge of actors, but can see that Wyler's knack for bringing out the best in his
collaborators is no fluke. Not only did a great like Bette Davis make her best pictures for him, but so did
everyone from Fredric March to Charlton Heston. In The Little Foxes Davis
is one of ten performers that Wyler orchestrates on screen, and never do you get the idea that this is
a star vehicle. Newcomer Teresa Wright (so young!) is adorable in every scene. Nefarious relatives
Charles Dingle and Carl Benton Reid do great work. Dan Duryea plays such an annoying jerk so
convincingly, that you want to reward him with some starring roles instead of the string of villains
he ended up with for a career. 1
I'd only seen Patricia Collinge in
Shadow of a Doubt, and she's even more
She only made seven films, but I remember her in six of them.
And Davis herself is something of a marvellous mystery. Her Regina Giddens character goes against
every rule of Hollywood star casting: she's old, unyielding, unattractive, cold, hateful, and gives
the ingenue a hard time. She's icily charming in formal situations and an offensive snoot in every
other personal interaction. Yet Davis makes her fascinatingly complex. A friend pointed out a
mannerism she does (Inherited from the play? Invented?) of plucking a single errant hair out of her face
and putting it back into place. She crosses her eyes slightly to see it, so for a second, she
seems vulnerable and human, and then resumes her hard-woman act. It's the only thing she does that
breaks the iceberg pattern. Besides a simpleton explanation that Regina 'can't stand to have a single hair
out of place,' its exact meaning eludes me.
The play itself is uncommonly thoughtful and profound. The Hubbards are opportunist vultures, but
Hellman doesn't taint all of society with their greed. Their attempt to grab up the economic future
with their cotton mill scheme, their readiness to become millionaires by exploiting the unemployed
in their city, is an attitude now worn proudly by companies and millionaires, instead of being
something to be ashamed of. Hellman's Regina remains interesting because of her determination, and
because she's a woman fighting it out in a male-dominated arena. She's at the center of the clash
between the values of the Hubbards and the Giddens. Surrounded by relatives who despise
him and a wife who only wants the use
of his money, Horace Giddens has already seen a fairer way of doing things, and digs in his
heels against them. The struggle for control of the situation plays out beautifully.
Hellman's youthful and idealistic alternative to the greedy elders is handled even better. Alexandra
begins at a position of total ignorance and by the end of the play is disillusioned
toward practically everyone she knows. She's obviously a Hellman substitute, written with affection.
Alexandra starts out as a literal child patronized by all, including her boyfriend David Hewitt
Hewitt is a newspaperman, a local boy who's gone out into the world and come back. He has the
bravery to stand up to Regina Giddens and the Hubbard clan, and the wisdom to urge Alexandra toward
knowledge while letting her discover it for herself. 2
So many 'liberal' dramas simply set up their idealistic characters to verbally spout their'author's
messages', that by comparison The Little Foxes is a model of maturity.
MGM's DVD of The Little Foxes would seem to be a reasonable repressing of HBO video's earlier
disc, and looks and sounds fine. The Toland photograpy is very well represented, with his deep-focus
mastershots looking especially good on a large monitor. Alternate French and Spanish
language tracks are included, but they're of a very poor quality.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
The Little Foxes rates:
Packaging: Amaray case
Reviewed: October28, 2001
1. Duryea and Wright appear to have been Goldywn discoveries; Duryea did
indeed get a number of plum leading roles, but always as conflicted noirish types - starting out as
the hero of Dark Angel, he's eventually revealed to be the villain!
2. I haven't stressed the fun of watching the cast in this picture. In comparison
to Wright and Duryea, Richard Carlson was already a seasoned movie actor by 1941. We all know him from
his '50s science fiction movies, and it's a delight to see him here with his bright youthful face,
doing so well with such superior dialogue.
Savant Reviews of other William Wyler Movies:
The Children's Hour
The Best Years of Our Lives
DVD Savant Text © Copyright 2007 Glenn Erickson