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The Little Foxes

The Little Foxes
MGM Home Entertainment
1941 / B&W / 1:37 flat full frame / 115m./ Street Date September 18, 2001 / 14.95
Starring Bette Davis, Herbert Marshall, Teresa Wright, Richard Carlson, Dan Duryea, Patricia Collinge, Charles Dingle, Carl Benton Reid, Jessie Grayson
Cinematography Gregg Toland
Production Designer Stephen Goosson
Film Editor Daniel Mandell
Original Music Meredith Willson
Writing credits Lillian Hellman, Alan Campbell, Arthur Kober, Dorothy Parker from the play by Lillian Hellman
Produced by Samuel Goldwyn
Directed by William Wyler

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 quickly.

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 heartbreaking here. 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 (Richard Carlson). 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:
Movie: Excellent
Video: Good
Sound: Good
Supplements: None
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:

Friendly Persuasion
The Children's Hour
The Best Years of Our Lives
Roman Holiday
Mrs. Miniver

DVD Savant Text © Copyright 2007 Glenn Erickson

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