Review by Matt Bailey
Posted on 11 July 2004
Source MGM DVD
In a small town in the deep South in the spring of 1900 live the Hubbards. They own everything — or just about everything — in the town. There is Ben, the elder Hubbard brother, who owns some cotton land, and there is Oscar, the younger Hubbard brother, who also owns some cotton land — just not as much as Ben. There is also Regina who, being a woman, owns nothing, but who happens to be married to the president of the town bank, Horace Giddens. The Hubbards are what used to be called “new money.” They did not accumulate their fortune through inheritance or land; they made it by marrying those who had money or by buying land when those who previously owned it could no longer maintain it. They have finally become powerful enough in their nameless small town to demand a deal for the construction of a cotton mill so that they no longer have to pay the expense of shipping cotton out of town. The deal rests upon the financial involvement of the three siblings, or, rather, two of the siblings and the third’s husband. The problem is, Horace Giddens is dying and he does not wish his last act on Earth to be the welcoming to his hometown of an industry built on the broken backs of poorly paid laborers. Reaching an impasse due to Horace’s literal and figurative soft heart, the Hubbard brothers discover a way to get Horace’s money without Horace’s finding out about it. Horace does find out about it and realizes that he has underestimated the greed of the Hubbards as they have underestimated Horace’s intelligence. By the end, however, they all realize, quite painfully, that they have grossly underestimated the shrewdness of Regina.
The Little Foxes, directed by William Wyler from the play by Lillian Hellman, makes for an excellent companion piece to Orson Welles’ The Magnificent Ambersons. Set around the same time period, each details the implosion of a once great family due to the hubris and decadence of family members who take their privilege for granted. Despite this similarity, however, there are key differences in the films that make them more than just twins to each other. The Ambersons and the Minifers of Welles’ film are unable to adapt to the modern world. It is a noble fall from greatness. The Hubbards and the Giddens of Wyler’s film embrace too quickly the modern world and forsake old world values. The families in The Magnificent Ambersons crumble apart gracefully. The families in The Little Foxes eat each other alive. Still, both films are masterworks by great directors working with mythic archetypes of American history and are as complementary and as different as the Northern and Southern families they, respectively, depict.
While Welles made his film in 1943 from Booth Tarkington’s 1918 novel and was thus adapting a source written essentially as a comment on Tarkington’s own times, Wyler’s 1941 film is based on Hellman’s play produced on the stage for the first time only two years prior, and thus has the dubious benefit of being able to look back on the era and to criticize its attitudes in light of modern thinking. This literary distance may account for the more savage tone of Hellman’s play and for its lack of truly likeable characters in comparison to the more elegiac tone of Tarkington’s novel and its abundance of sympathetic yet tragically out-of-touch characters. Hellman is also credited with adapting her own play for the screen, but significant contributions were made by the former Mr. Lillian Hellman, Arthur Kober, as well as by Alan Campbell and Mrs. Campbell, more famously known as Dorothy Parker. While much of the film script takes whole chunks of dialogue from Hellman’s play intact, several of the more Southern-fried scenes of chatter (including several referring to the problem of “niggers”) were, thankfully, excised, and the characters who were merely innocents caught in the web of the Hubbards’ deceit in Hellman’s play had their roles expanded and were made much more sympathetic. The character of David Hewitt, young Alexandra Giddens’ sweetheart, was also added to provide a contrasting note of liberalism and to give the audience someone to identify with who was not part of this avaricious, cannibalistic family. Hellman approved of all of these changes, stating, “Most of The Little Foxes, a good fifty percent, is done better in the picture than it ever was in the play.” As I am of the opinion that Hellman was one of the least talented playwrights whose works ever graced the professional stage (though I won’t go so far as Mary McCarthy to say that every word that Hellman wrote was “a lie, including ‘and’ and ‘the’”) and one who owed her whole career to exploiting the then taboo subject of lesbianism, I’m inclined to agree with her to the fullest extent and to infer that any improvements were probably made by one of the three other screenwriters.
In comparison, the film is a far richer text than the play. It is subtler, more nuanced, clearer, and rings more true. The play, comprised of three acts of nearly equal length, all of which take place in the living room of the Giddens house, feels schematic, at times more like a thesis on the evils of greed than a psychological portrait of a family at the end of its prominence. For the most part, the scenes in the film that take place in and around the Giddens house are taken almost verbatim from the play. The scenes of Alexandra traveling with her father, of David and Alexandra, of Horace in the bank, and of Leo’s climactic and well-earned smackdown were all invented for the film and are among the best moments in it as well. While the changes made during the adaptation from play to screenplay are significant in improving the basic material, the true excellence of the film comes from the unvaryingly prodigious performances by the cast and from the unparalleled vision of William Wyler and cinematographer Gregg Toland.
The marketing for the film seemed to imply that it was a Bette Davis star vehicle. Her face was featured prominently on the poster and her name was billed above the title and in a larger typeface. In reality, the film is much more of an ensemble piece. Many members of the cast reprised their roles from the Broadway production, some making their film debuts. Charles Dingle and Carl Benton Reid, playing the Hubbard brothers; Dan Duryea, playing Leo Hubbard; and Patricia Collinge, playing Birdie, are some of the actors brought over from the stage production who went on to successful film careers following The Little Foxes. Herbert Marshall and, of course, Bette Davis were new to the material but already had significant film careers before the film. Teresa Wright made her first film appearance in the role of Alexandra Giddens but went on to appear in films as late as Francis Ford Coppola’s The Rainmaker in 1997. The marvelous cast notwithstanding, it is still the presence of Bette Davis and her powerful performance that perhaps keeps the film from falling into total obscurity.
Davis, on loan from Warner Bros., took the role originated on Broadway by Tallulah Bankhead. Never one to shy away from unflattering or unsympathetic roles, Davis jumped at the chance to play Regina Giddens, even though she was nearly a full decade younger than the character. To compensate, Davis played up Regina’s aging vanity by whitening her face with makeup and by developing a mannerism in which she persistently swept a stray strand of hair up over her massive hairdo. Davis and William Wyler had many battles over her interpretation of the character. Davis wanted her to be icy and unfeeling; Wyler wanted her to be warmer and more sympathetic. Davis eventually got her way, but not before walking off the project for sixteen days. Watching the film more than fifty years later, Davis does not appear to have made any wrong or false choices regarding her performance as Regina. She was correct not to make her character sympathetic to the audience (we already have numerous characters with whom to identify), and yet her Regina does not seem invulnerable. In any other year, it would have been an Academy Award winning role and Davis was indeed nominated. 1941 having been a banner year for Hollywood, however, Davis was competing against no less than Olivia de Havilland and her sister Joan Fontaine, Barbara Stanwyck, and Greer Garson — all actresses working at the peak of their talent. Fontaine won for Suspicion, but Davis was never expected to win that year because of her recent win for Jezebel in 1939 (also directed by Wyler) and her nomination every year since.
The film was nominated for eight other Academy Awards that year, including William Wyler for director (his fourth nomination), but not cinematographer Gregg Toland. (He was nominated instead for Citizen Kane.) I mentioned in a previous review for How Green Was My Valley Toland’s loss of the award that year to Arthur C. Miller, but a comparison of Toland’s techniques in Citizen Kane and The Little Foxes proves interesting in that his work on the latter film might be better (although less innovative) than on the former.
Though Wyler and Toland had worked together on the Frances Farmer lumber epic, Come and Get It, after Samuel Goldwyn fired original director Howard Hawks, they officially inaugurated their six-film collaboration with 1936’s These Three, a toned-down version of Hellman’s first play, The Children’s Hour, which Wyler would remake in 1961. It was not a terribly auspicious beginning for the duo. The material is very weak and the performances all seem to be imported from other movies. The only really decent things about the movie are the direction and the cinematography. Toland had yet to begin his experiments with deep focus cinematography, but even in this film, it is clear to see that Wyler was already pushing him in that direction. Wyler had been using long takes in his films for several years and loved to play out scenes in single takes. The studio brass did not always cotton to this as they wanted to see nice big close-ups of their expensive stars, but Wyler got away with it as much as he could. He also loved to stage important scenes on staircases and one can see this technique employed in a great number of his films, including the climactic moments of The Little Foxes. The lens technology for shooting in deep focus was not available to Toland in 1936, but one can see the stirrings of it in Toland’s early collaborations with Wyler.
From June to October 1940, Toland worked on Citizen Kane with Orson Welles. It is a fair guess to make that Welles picked Toland based on his work with John Ford, particularly the stunning cinematography of The Grapes of Wrath. Welles gave Toland carte blanche on the film, which allowed Toland to experiment with deep focus in ways that had never been done before. The film was an artistic success, even though at the time it was not a popular success. From May to July 1941, Toland shot The Little Foxes. Although none of the shots in that film possess the “look-at-me“ quality of many in Kane, Toland uses deep focus in a perhaps more mature way in the service of the story. By composing shots that feature characters in the foreground and background and in all corners of the frame, all in focus, Toland emphasizes the volatile dynamics between the characters, never giving one character more prominence over another. Although it would have been interesting to see what Toland might have done with the similar material of The Magnificent Ambersons, Toland had his hands more than full with Howard Hughes’ The Outlaw and was unavailable for Welles’ second picture. Welles instead had to make do with the relatively unheralded Stanley Cortez and a handful of other uncredited cinematographers. Though Welles and Toland never worked together again, Wyler and Toland did reunite to make The Best Years of Our Lives, an unqualified masterpiece on all counts. It is perhaps the height of deep focus as a cinematographic device and a fitting tribute to its greatest practitioner. Toland died two years after shooting the film at age 44. Wyler went on to make movies for decades more, but the artistic excellence of their collaboration was never quite matched, though Leo Tover’s work on The Heiress (1949) comes pretty damn close.
The Little Foxes might not be the greatest film ever made. It might not even be the greatest film of 1941. It is, however, a film worth seeing for a number of reasons from its beautiful and innovative cinematography to its masterful direction, from the excellence of the performances by every member of the cast to the striking and mordantly witty screenplay by the cream of the Algonquin crowd. It is, in every possible manner, a Hollywood classic.