At the turn of the 20th century, the Giddens family is preparing for a visitor. Regina (Bette Davis) is hosting a dinner in honor of Chicago industrialist William Marshall (Russell Hicks), who may be building a new cotton mill in the town where the family lives.
Regina’s daughter Alexandra (Teresa Wright), brothers Ben (Charles Dingle) and Oscar (Carl Benton Reid), Oscar’s wife Birdie (Patricia Collinge), and Oscar’s son Leo (Dan Duryea) will all be attending the dinner, hoping to impress Marshall and convince him to go into business with them.
Ben and Oscar become determined to extract money from their sister, in order to support the mill venture. Regina’s husband Horace (Herbert Marshall) is the head of the Planters Trust Co. bank, and the brothers enlist Regina to convince Horace to invest his money in the mill.
Complications ensue as greed places heavy stress on already-existing cracks within the family.
William Wyler directs 1941’s The Little Foxes. The screenplay was written by Lillian Hellman, based on her own play of the same name.
The Little Foxes aired during TCM’s Summer Under the Stars and I watched it back-to-back with another Bette Davis film I had recorded from her day, Housewife. As you’ll learn from my upcoming review, Housewife is not a film I enjoyed much, but I’m happy to report that The Little Foxes redeemed the double feature, making up for the disappointment of Housewife and then some!
Every time I review a Bette Davis film, I can’t help digging into the many Bette books in my collection of classic film-related tomes, so before I share my own thoughts on The Little Foxes, a bit of background:
The Little Foxes received plenty of critical praise. Howard Barnes of The New York Herald Tribune called the film “flawless and fascinating,” praising Davis’ performance as a match for the stage talents of Tallulah Bankhead. “It charts a whole new course of motion-picture making,” Barnes proclaimed in his review.
Even our pal Bosley Crowther liked the film, writing in his New York Times review that it “leaps to the front as the most bitingly sinister picture of the year and as one of the most cruelly realistic character studies yet shown on the screen.”
Davis notoriously walked off set during production and shares the details of her experience in Whitney Stine’s I’d Love to Kiss You, as well as in the book she co-wrote with Stine, Mother Goddam. “It was the only time in my career that I walked out on a film after the shooting had begun,” she writes in Mother Goddam. “I was a nervous wreck due to the fact that my favorite and most admired director was fighting me every inch of the way as regards my interpretation of Regina. I just didn’t want to continue. I felt there was no way I could give even a presentable performance under these circumstances. […] It took a little courage, to say the least. Goldwyn had it in his power to sue me for the entire cost of production.”
According to Davis, Wyler “hated the way [she] looked, spoke, moved, delivered [her] lines, [her] false eyelashes” — every single aspect of her performance. Meanwhile, she just wanted to stay true to Lillian Hellman’s play and character, telling Stine in I’d Love to Kiss You that Wyler would “grit his teeth and let me play it my way — or Lillian’s way, as I insisted.”
Bette may have struggled on set of this film in her clashes with Wyler, but she still wound up delivering a great performance. There are several trademark powerhouse Davis moments in the later portion of the film, her voice filling with emotion and her big eyes somehow becoming even larger.
The film is undoubtedly at its strongest when Bette is owning the screen, but the whole cast does very well in The Little Foxes, many of them reprising their roles from the Tallulah Bankhead-starring play. I would never have guessed from Teresa Wright’s stellar turn as Regina’s daughter that this was her film debut, as noted by Ben Mankiewicz in his TCM introduction to the film.
Though she had a great respect for her fellow cast, there was one issue aside from her arguments with Wyler that Bette took with the film. She believed the set and her wardrobe should have had a more worn, slightly outdated look, and that the glossy, refined look of the film downplayed the financial troubles of the family. I do have to agree with Bette on this matter. The sets and costumes are beautiful, but a bit too perfect. A touch of grit, or a slightly more rustic look would have added a bit more atmosphere to the film.
Still, this is a minor qualm. The Little Foxes stands as a powerful drama of greed and family dysfunction, filled with gripping and tense scenes. Lillian Hellman was a brilliant writer. She and Bette are genuine queens — you can’t go wrong with a film involving such talent! And, if none of that convinces you, the film contains one of old Hollywood’s very best slapping scenes.