Budding southern belle Regina Giddens (Bette Davis) will use anyone to orchestrate her rise to greater wealth – including her wheelchair-bound husband Horace (Herbert Marshall) and their growing daughter Alexandra (Theresa Wright). Regina’s brothers Ben (Charles Dingle) and Oscar (Carl Benton Reid) have inherited the Hubbard and Sons family industry, but Regina is intent on getting more than her fair share via a possible factory contract. Amid nephew Leo’s (Dan Duryea) banking scams and drunken warnings from sister-in-law Birdie (Patricia Collinge), Regina relies on the charming calculations to ensure she’s the last one standing.
William Wyler (Ben Hur) directed little foxes, the 1941 adaptation by Lillian Hellman (These three) based on his acclaimed game of greed and bitterness at the turn of the 20th century in the South. Titular quotes from the Song of Solomon 2:15, distinguished protocols, Gibson Girl styling and a horse-drawn carriage ride through Spanish moss set the scene. However, the screams across the street from the introductions remain dated and scenic when the first ten minutes could have been skipped in favor of an opening with the delicate, in business only for a lucrative dinner. Dominating, wealthy men think they’re the best, and the women of this world are either made soft or need an equal shot. With such off-putting attitudes, badly treated black servants and investments in cotton mills, one would naturally think The little foxes was created fifty years ago if there was not the slim figure of women. Unlovable people revel in past greatness, laughing at first cousins marrying to keep the whole family’s terrible cutthroats behind their fanciful facade. Nonchalant men in the bathroom plot to steal bonds and safes, and excellent mirror-on-mirror conversations reflect their duplicity. Unique camera angles and visual layers ensure the conspirators don’t look each other in the eye when the razors are on their necks. Front rooms and background interiors allow movement for the actors while curtains, shadows and stairs provide places for waiting in the wing drama to stand beneath sparkling chandeliers. Ailing parents are coerced into immediate agreements by shouting arguments upstairs while parties below conceal suspicious asides and whispers. The siblings keep secrets and steal shares – ready to part ways or hope one of them dies soon. Loans, wills and inheritances ignore the wrong people among lawyers, close calls to the bank, blackmail and drunken regrets. The camera perfectly captures the coldness of the heart as the back is turned to the rainy window as the weak endure the eerie, patient, fatal contempt. Trouble brings this family together, and death is gain when the mere investment of $75,000 reaches 75% of all business. Double crosses and prison threats lead to having it all – but at what cost?
I always have to remember that Bette Davis did not winning Best Actress here in her fourth of five consecutive nominations (or for All about Eve) after having already won Dangerous and Jezebel. Regina hates the conversation before a hot breakfast and broadcasts concise business discussions with good port. She had to earn everything in life through her father, her brothers or her husband, but yearns to travel and stays alone for all the things she doesn’t have. Regina jokes with her brothers about what to do if they were very rich – cleverly slipping in how she should have a bigger share and making the men think it was their idea. Regina’ is always literally on top of the others, thanks to the balcony or the stairs, as the camera angles let her figure prominently in the frame and support the visually pushed brothers. She appeases one, then pits the others against each other, as no one will interfere with the plans that benefit her the most. Regina is almost admirable in demanding her due, but she only pretends to care for her husband and keeps the doors between their rooms closed. She bows in style as others bow, and Davis has a perfect command of period accessories – fanning and billowing dresses to accent as needed or conform perfectly to the shape of the Victorian sofa. Sparkling black dresses and veils reflect his evening mystique while white ruffles are for his seemingly devoted wife. Regina resents all the men in her life who gave her nothing and confesses complete contempt for her husband, but when she finally gets everything she wants, what is there to show?
While The little foxes goes too far with its holy score, that of Herbert Marshall (The letter) Horace, a sickly, kind-hearted husband, is treated with multiple drugs and a lot of cruelty. The visual parallels of his inferior sitting posture better reflect his disinterest in making money off the backs of others. Horace doesn’t hate his wife just because he loved her, but he’s happy to ruin Regina’s plans, and she despises him as weak with an unwelcome touch in defiant insults hitting his manhood. Like her father, the tall little girl, with a soft, unconscious angelic glow, is having a field day for Teresa Wright in the role of Alexandra. The nanny insists ‘Zan’ brushes her hair fifty times, and she can’t understand her uncle’s pressure to get married – instead drooling over a piece of cake, climbing trees and still dressing like a child as if the character was supposed to be much younger. Unchaperoned Zan is happy to bring her father home and take over his care, but some of Wright’s scenes feel unnecessary. Rather than realize the icy twist, Alexandra only stands up to her mother in honor of her father after too many people give her the same clues.
It’s surprising Wright was nominated for Supporting Actress compared to her sequel Mrs Miniver win, as Zan remains unaware of Richard Carlson’s intentions as poor reporter David Hewitt. David’s character is apparently not in the source piece, and the shoehorn shows in uneven scenes both innocent and older influences pushing Zan to fight back. Initially, Patricia Collinge (Shadow of a Doubt) as Aunt Birdie seems to be an embarrassed talkative person. She’s told to shut up and apologize for waking her husband up early, but she’s the one from a bigger plantation past. Even those who are nice to Birdie roll their eyes at her old stories, never wondering why she babbled sentimentally before Birdie was cut and corrected – accused of being nervous, sulky and difficult when she did nothing wrong . The camera accentuates her tragic story as Birdie sits in a corner in the background, to one side and made smaller as they either laugh or reject her if she recognizes her at all. Her son steps on it and rips her hem but keeps walking, so Birdie’s husband will do her adapt, and it’s shocking to see the slaps when domestic abuse wasn’t often discussed on the big screen. She thought her husband loved her but he only loved his plantation so now she drinks, despises her own son and warns Zan not to end up like her. Collinge also played the role on stage and should have won the Academy Award for Supporting Actress for little foxes, but unfortunately she probably split the vote with Wright. Carl Benton Reid also drops by as Oscar Hubbard, expanding on the cotton story for their potential business partner before bullying his wife and shaking hands with the brother-in-law he has. intention to defraud. Their banker son, Dan Duryea, is also a creep, sneering that he could taunt a lot of villains before plotting safes and finally revealing his cowardice. Unfortunately, there is from time to time the enslavement of blacks in The little foxes with servants portrayed as happy to know their place or treated as idiots who cannot remember or read when not chatting about fancy guests and cold squalls. Ironically, this secondary cast conveys the expected linguistic rhythms, as the main cast does not attempt any generic Southern accents and The little foxes never really says where we are in the Deep South.
Although nominated for numerous Oscars, The little foxes won none. The bitterness and abuse are surprising to see amid the Hays Code’s requirement to play innocence, but corrupt revelations and one-on-one family malice are better than superfluous young love scenes. The little foxes needed a tighter fit, and the pace is uneven with the passage of time, travel, ages, and disease progression. Those two hours will be slow for contemporary audiences who expect a minute-long scandal instead of multiple back-and-forth scenes on the same case. Fortunately, The little foxes is a character study waxing a life of brewing scams. It’s from the era it portrays but has an air of interwar superiority and old southern ideologies that read terribly modern – making it a fascinating sociological journal.