Monday, August 23, 2010

The Little Foxes (1941)

It’s the turn of the 20th century and the wealthy Hubbard-Giddens family wants to add more to their coffers through perverse means, in The Little Foxes (1941), a Lillian Hellman play-to-film adaptation. Regina Giddens (Bette Davis), the queen bee, needs her ailing husband’s money to invest in a cotton mill with her brothers. Horace Giddens (Herbert Marshall), who has made his wealth as a banker, wants no part of their “filthy tricks to make a dime” off the backs of  slave wage workers. But Regina usually gets exactly what she wants.
Powerful and elegant Regina Giddens

Although Bette Davis onscreen and Tallulah Bankhead onstage each famously chewed up the scenery with a strong performance, Hellman wrote a letter to Davis stating  “I never meant Regina to be a violent woman or a fiery woman….”

According to the Elizabeth Taylor Archives, the playwright enjoyed Ms. Taylor’s more vulnerable performance of Regina in 1981. “I like [Elizabeth Taylor’s] approach. Regina has frequently been played too much as a villainess.”

Director William Wyler wanted Ms. Davis to “exorcize Bankhead‘s ghost from her performance,” and manipulate with warmth and charm. One imagines, then, that it was more than Regina’s brother Oscar (Carl Benton Reid) who said  it is “unwise for a good looking woman to frown. How many times have I told you? Softness and a smile do more to the hearts of men.” However, Ms. Davis, as does her character, has her own way, for the most part.

Witnessing the mayhem in the family are the younger generation -  the unscrupulous Leo Hubbard (Dan Duryea) and his cousin,  the innocent “ray of hope,” Alexandra Giddens (Teresa Wright), who is controlled by her mother.

Regina manages everyone, and by the end, says author Peter McNally, the matriarch “is left with her material possessions only -- a life that will most likely lead to psychosis, similar but different from her sister-in-law Birdie.”
Birdie pours a drink and is dominant in the frame, but Addie is at the apex of the triangle, suggesting her importance in the group.

According to Elizabeth at Reel Classics, Birdie (Patricia Collinge) is  “the most sympathetic character in the film” because she is “married for her cotton land and … has been abused by [her husband] and his family ever since.”  She is certainly the most prominent abused character; the audience is privy to her back-story and to her life of interminable  physical and emotional pain. However, when Birdie is dismissive of housekeeper, Addie (Jessica Grayson) on several occasions, one is made aware of how much the servant has suffered at the hands of this abused woman. Unlike Birdie, however, she has done so in silence.

At an impromptu tea party that Addie throws for the “good” people in the family while the malevolent ones are away, Birdie dominates the frame and the conversation, similar to Regina’s actions in an earlier dinner scene.  The servant sits in much the same position as Birdie does when Regina is in the room - in the shadows,  not fully part of the group.  We are not given any information about Addie’s past, we are only allowed to see her as one who embraces the thankless task of salving the emotional wounds of the Hubbard-Giddens family despite her own subjugation. 

Bringing youthful romance and “a few much-needed moments of levity in the film,” is David Hewitt (Richard Carlson), town reporter and friend to Alexandra. The two young friends are adorable, and an hilarious scene unfolds when he escorts Zan to the train without trousers.

David is not a character in the play, which, frankly, is a good thing. His  conversations with the impressionable Alexandra about greed in her family have a faint manipulative quality. The young lady is introduced to the idea of flaws in her relatives before the she has had a chance to notice them on her own. There’s a huge risk that by the end of the film Zan simply moves from one Svengali- her domineering mother - to another-  the doctrinaire David. In the play,  Alexandra’s own critical thinking is a catalyst to fight evil, which suggests a  much more mature, discerning character then her onscreen counterpart.
Battling for Alexandra

Hellman, who also penned the screenplay, Wyler and cinematographer Gregg Toland seamlessly open up the stage bound plot and add visual depth to the underpinnings of the one-set play.

The author praised the finished product, saying  "most of The Little Foxes, a good fifty percent, is done better in the picture than it ever was in the play.”

Indeed, two of my favorite visual treats would not have been performed onstage. When David, our moral conscience, the Jiminy Cricket of the film, notices the Hubbard men on their way to work, he mocks them from inside his house. The film helps David belittle them by placing him in the foreground and the crooks almost Lilliputian in the background, framed by a window. It‘s as though they are little puppets on a stage, David‘s own personal entertainment.

Another visual delight occurs when Leo steals from Horace’s bank. We see only a few seconds of the nervous young man’s reflection by gaslight as he walks past the brass plaque bearing his uncle’s name on the side of the building. An efficient piece of visual storytelling.

Nominated for eight Academy Awards, Little Foxes holds up well, and will continue to be a subject of discussion for theatergoers and cinemaphiles for some time.

4 comments:

  1. Excellent, excellent article! Brava!

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  2. Thanks, Joseph. I really like your blog, by the way.

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  3. This is one of my absolute favourite movies, and it's near my favourite Davis performance. She's so restrained!

    And of course the gorgeous Herbert Marshall and his so soothing voice are always welcome. He's such a victim in this movie.

    It's interesting what you said about Hellman intending Regina to be sympathetic (Wyler also wanted this! He and Bette fought about it) because I find Regina, as she is, quite sympathetic anyway. She's a bitch, but her greed is made all the worse because of the time when she lives.

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  4. eva,

    You make a very good point about the Regina character already being sympathetic because of the time frame.

    Regina says that her father left all the money to her brothers, which, as a then-unmarried female, means she was very desperate indeed. It doesn't excuse her cruelty, and she probably would have been mean even if she had all the money she wanted, but still I pity her.

    Thanks for dropping in.

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