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*** This review may contain spoilers ***
Film-making at its best is what describes THE LITTLE FOXES, directed by
William Wyler, shot by Gregg Toland -- he of deep focus fame -- adapted
from a Lillian Hellman play and with Bette Davis playing a ruthless
matriarch with a velvet glove.
How far can greed take a person? This seems to be the question lingering over anyone who witnesses the story of the Hubbard's plot to secure money for a cotton mill they plan to run to expand their wealth even more. It's certainly a question that doesn't faze any of the Hubbard siblings -- they need 75,000 dollars to complete it and will get it one way or another --, certainly not Regina Giddens, who also intends to use her estranged husband's bonds for this purpose. That she effectively manipulates her daughter Alexandra into bringing him back to the house proves just what she can do to get what she wants, and an easy proof is the way she lazily relaxes over the sofa, regarding everything with semi-droopy eyes, knowing full well the extent of what she owns, and that it won't take long for her to own even more. That even when he shows signs of failing health she doesn't back down -- she will hound him for every penny he's got, even if it means letting him die without his medication, as she calmly does after a scene of verbal recriminations.
A cruel story that never feels preachy, THE LITTLE FOXES translates better on the screen than on the page: much like THE CHILDREN'S HOUR, much to the respect of those who admire Lillian Hellman's plays, there are many flaws throughout that seem a little forced in either resolution or non-resolution. The film version goes much deeper in establishing the moral decay of a family while adding another -- that of David Hewitt, played by Richard Carlson -- to give some contrast to the amount of unlikeable characters that populate Hellman's view of 1900's America. Having Toland take full charge of his particular way of composition in service of the story as opposed to style over substance is the key to making this movie and its performances work; otherwise it would be just another chamber drama in three acts. His and Wyler's direction allow for every minute detail in Davis' top-notch performance to come through: the chilling scene with her sitting in the sofa, looking dead ahead, as her husband crawls to his death up the stairs, is one of remarkable power -- more so due to its restraint of emotion, as is the final scene when she watches Alexandra leave and retreats from the windows into shadows.
There's an interesting similarity in this film and Ingmar Bergman's CRIES AND WHISPERS. Both films had a virtuous person who was near death, both films had characters who were essentially monsters flaunting their ugliness to each other, each movie had one sympathetic female who walks away from the claustrophobic household and into a better future. Obviously the similarity is thematic; siblings as monsters have been seen since Shakespeare, but in a time where period dramas relied more on romance and less on the underlying yet savage cruelty people inflict on each other, THE LITTLE FOXES is definitely one who has dated well. The only scene which lacks a little punch is the final scene in which Alexandra confronts Regina. It diminishes Alexandra's character somewhat, makes her weak, but I think also it's the choice Teresa Wright took when applying herself to this role; plus, it was her first film appearance against none other than Bette Davis in full command of Who she was. Aside from that, this is a somewhat difficult yet absorbing drama to watch, and after seeing Davis as Regina Giddens, it would be hard to see Tallulah conveying Regina's cold cruelty. A great film.
As the greedy, conniving Regina Giddons, Bette Davis gives a fascinating performance which ranks with her very finest. Tallulah Bankhead had her greatest stage success playing Regina on Broadway in 1939. Wyler wanted Davis to portray Regina with a more sympathetic "hot house" flavour, but Bette was adamant that the character was a witch in spades: the resulting performance is striking. Regina Giddons is a classic example of a character movie viewers love to hate. Carl Benton Reid is great as the equally greedy brother and Dan Duryea is fine as Leo the crumb. As Alexandra, Teresa Wright is almost annoyingly innocent in the beginning, but she wisens up considerably towards the end of the film: "Why, Alexandra, you have spirit after all. I used to think you were all sugar-water" says a frankly impressed Regina. As the alcoholic flibbertigibbet Birdie, Patricia Collinge is perfection personified: a truly memorable portrait brilliantly enacted. Herbert Marshall is fine as the tragically deceived Horace who shouldn't depend on his "lovely" wife to fetch his heart medicine for him. A magnificent example of a great play transferred to film, Wyler's guiding hand is patent throughout: they definitely don't make films like this anymore - no matter what the cost.
One of the several masterpieces made by master William Wyler, and definetely
one of the best movies of all times. As he did in The Letter, Mr. Wyler
counted on Bette Davis and Herbert Marshall to play the leading roles in
Little Foxes; and the choice worked out perfectly again.
I'm sure that some of the others reviewers will have written about the story of Little Foxes (greed, betrayal, hate... against honesty and loyalty), so I won't. I'll talk about some other things:
-Bette Davis: for me there're no more than 5 actresses which would deserve the title of "best actress ever": Katharine Hepburn, Ingrid Bergman, Audrey Hepburn, Barbra Stanwyck, and of course Bette. She was the best playing evil women, heartless, unmerciful ones. And there's no doubt that the character of Reggina Gibbens gathers all those characteristics together. The performing of Bette Davis is memorable (as expected), and the way she says things such as "I don't hate you, I just feel contempt for you"... that are just like a punch in your face. There should be a picture of Mrs. Davis in the dictionaries next to that sentence that says "look that kills". Bette Davis was the look that killed.
-The Film: "Millimetric" it would be a nice word to define the script. Some of the dialogues of Little Foxes are part of the history of cinema, especially the ones between Reggina and her husband. The scene in which she watches him have a heartattack is simply devastating. There are lots of long shot-sequences that intensify the tension, and Wyler's sense of rhythm is something to be shown in Cinema School even nowadays (especially nowadays).
We got the Gioconda, the Basílica of San Pedro in Vatican, the Guernica... and we got movies such as The Little Foxes.
My rate: 10/10
This film fully deserves its reputation as one of the most scorching dramas
of greed and corruption ever placed on celluloid. A deceptively slow start
soon draws into the machinations of the Hubbard clan whose brazen
backstabbings and betrayals even today make our jaws drop. Davis' stunning
portrayal of the supremely grasping Regina Giddens leads a stellar cast
which does a superb job of delineating a finely drawn group of characters.
Charles Dingle's deceptively warm smile masks the cooly intelligent
deviousness of Ben Hubbard. Carl Reid's Oscar Hubbard is just as malicious
but his inferior intelligence makes him yield to his brother's and sister's
lead. Dan Duryea nicely portrays the imbecilic and immature Leo Hubbard, a
characterization which borders on but never crosses over into comedy.
Patricia Collinge breaks our hearts as the broken-spirited and alcoholic
Birdie, Oscar's wife. Herbert Marshall's performance as the doomed Horace,
Regina's husband, delineates the pain, anger, and sense of betrayal burning
beneath his deathly illness. The star of the proceedings, however, is
clearly Davis. Wyler's superb direction blends all these characters into a
Hellman's skill as a dramatist must be credited for much of this, but her Marxist inclinations clearly peep through the seams of the dialogue.
I'm glad I finally had a chance to see this undoubted classic. Thanks again to that great channel, American Movie Classics.
Bette is an absolute knockout in this adaptation of Lilliam Hellman's play
about greed and corruption in the old south, at the turn of the century.
Bette plays Regina Giddens, the formidable matriarch of a powerful southern
clan, who will stop at nothing in order to secure wealth and social status.
Director William Wyler and cinematographer Gregg Toland succeeded in
creating a visually exciting film instead of just a filmed stage play.
Nominated for ten Academy Awards, this is an unforgettable and still
timeless film. A must!
The Little Foxes is as entertaining today as it was in 1941. Lillian
Hellman's theatrical hit with Tallulah Bankhead is magnificently
brought to the screen by William Wyler with Bette Davis in the TB role.
Davis received her fourth straight Oscar nomination (her sixth over all
at that point in her career) for portraying Regina Giddons. It is a
performance that rates among the best ever created by Davis, or any
other actress for that matter.
Greg Toland's deep focus photography rivals that of his work on Citizen Kane.
It's nine Oscar nominations include Teresa Wright's for best supporting actress.
This was the third and last time Davis and Wyler worked together. During the shoot the two did not get along -- Davis even walked off the set and was almost replaced by Goldwyn. She was loaned to Goldwyn as part of a trade out for Warner Bros to have Gary Cooper for Sgt. York -- he took home the Oscar for best actor.
Dorothy Parker translated the theatrical script for the screen adding more location scenes for Wright.
This was a surprisingly good movie - for me, not people who like Bette
Davis and melodramas. They got what they hoped for, another solid film
with her starring in it. I don't particularly care for Davis or
"soaps," but I liked this film and see it more of a straight drama,
anyway, especially because of the crisp dialog.
It's a story about money and how to use it or how to acquire more of it through deceit and greed. Davis, as "Regina Gidden," is the most greedy of the Gidden clan, vying for more money with her brothers who aren't exactly trustworthy people themselves. Among the three, there wasn't anyone to root for since the family shared in their lust for money. Davis does her normal excellent acting job but I enjoyed Charles Dingle as "(Uncle) Ben Hubbard" best. I liked his lines more than anyone's and the way he delivered them. Carl Benton Reid played the other greedy Hubbard brother, "Oscar" and Dan Duryea was interesting as Oscar's dumb son, 'Leo."
Herbert Marshall was good, too, as Regina's husband "Horace." He was an honest, principled man and thus, the black sheep in that household. Unfortunately, he was dying and his death played a big part in this story.
The sub-plot in this tale is the coming-of-age of Hubbard daughter "Alexandra" played by Teresa Wright. Her "coming of age" translates to finally standing up to her domineering mother. Richard Carlson plays her reluctant boyfriend "David Hewitt" who, in the end, is won over when "Alexandra" grows up.
So, this excellent cast, complemented by an outstanding director in William Wyler and world-class cinematographer Gregg Toland all adds up to a solid, memorable film.
The Little Foxes is a very good movie that stands up well today. I
it very much.
As someone else noted, the director wanted Regina played more sympathetically but Bette Davis insisted on making her a total witch. The movie is fine but I think the director was right. Regina isn't a total witch, witness the cook giving food to children who showed up at the house and the cook saying "Miss Regina" wasn't one to count everything. She wasn't stingy. That was a telling comment that the film didn't follow up.
Regina wasn't hardhearted towards her daughter, either. She had a view of her daughter's opportunities in life; she wasn't going to allow her daughter to marry the ne'er do well cousin. She felt disappointed, even deceived, by her husband and she has a point. Why would her husband have thought she should want to hang around Podunk all her life and be happy? Regina wanted to travel; she wanted to live in Chicago; she wanted her daughter to have more choices. When the husband falls, Regina is not so much calculating as she is frozen. She thought he was selfish and sanctimonious but she didn't plot his death.
Regina was written as a complex character but Bette Davis made her a simple character.
The only other film I can think of that matches this one for its study of
greed is TREASURE OF THE SIERRA MADRE. Both have a rather downbeat and
moralistic ending, but here the sudden end to the story comes as a bit of a
disappointment. Too bad that William Wyler didn't stress the "loneliness"
theme of Bette's character to give more strength to the ending that merely
shows her watching her daughter walking away from her in the rain with a
But aside from the abrupt and rather weak ending, this is a magnificent version of the Lillian Hellman stage play. I saw Elizabeth Taylor in a Broadway revival of the show years ago and she left none of the impact that BETTE DAVIS does here. Davis had the benefit of William Wyler's direction, as did all other members of the cast.
HERBERT MARSHALL is excellent as the only truly decent main character in the story. His performance here is reminiscent of the work he did as Bette's weak husband in THE LETTER--but the scene where she denies him his medicine is as brilliantly played and filmed as any scene in the entire film.
TERESA WRIGHT is a bit sugary as the sweet daughter but rises to the final moments--although I thought her last confrontation with her mother could have been even more harsh than Wyler permitted it to be. She and Davis were both Oscar nominated but lost to others. This scene loses some of its vitality due to Wright's low-key playing.
All the other performers are more than equal to their tasks and the beautiful deep focus B&W photography of Gregg Toland is remarkable and deepens the tone of the story. Charles Dingle stands out particularly in the supporting cast, as Bette's conniving brother who is left, in the end, with nothing but a "sense of humor" about the outcome. Dan Duryea is convincing as the dumb Leo and Richard Carlson does nicely as Wright's boyfriend who realizes that she has a lot of learning to do about the household before she grows up.
Most chilling aspect of the whole film is Bette Davis' towering performance as Regina--perhaps the most realistic of all of her "bad" roles.
But for an even more powerful study of greed, I suggest you watch TREASURE OF THE SIERRA MADRE.
*** This review may contain spoilers ***
"I hope you die.... I hope you die soon... I'll be waiting for you to die...." La Davis could have been invented to deliver Hellmans vicious lines as they pour forth venomously from her over-made up face. However, upon close scrutiny of Lillan Hellman's original stage-play Regina has a stage direction to "smile" as she delivers these lines to her husband Horace. And, later on, in the movie, big brother Ben (Charles Dingle) reminds Regina (Bette Davis) to smile as "mama always said a good looking woman should never frown". And this smile, coupled with Reginas evil chuckle throughout the movie makes me wonder just why the Davis Diva didn't deliver the 'money moment' accompanied by this deliciously evil smile. Wyler and Davis' fights over the interpretation of the character of Regina Giddens are legendary, and indeed the reason they never worked together again. Could this be a result of one such spate? And if so, just who won out? But I'm being pedantic. I'm also digressing and off on a tangent, which I shall come back from now. Lillian Hellman and her writings have come under much scrutiny, and too often for her outspoken political comment and left-of-centre lifestyle. But two academic comparisons of her dramatic (and subsequent film) scripts that spring to mind are those of parallels to that master of morals and realism, Henrik Ibsen; another with Classic Greek Tragedy. Both Mr Ibsen and Mr Aristophanes were concerned with the greater common good and of mans inhumanity to man. And Hellman does not let us down on this one. Davis and cast deliver one of the most spectacular ensemble performances in cinematic history with a tale of avarice and greed that can apply to any of the so called "Globalized" corporations of today. Davis and her colleagues can be seen as early prophets of todays greed and selfishness in society, and we could easily lose the period costumes and transpose this story into modern times. Hellman could easily have been predicting the horrors and terrors of the current global drug companies and their willingness to let millions of Africans die of AIDS due to lack of much needed medicines....just as Regina Giddens sits quietly by and watches her husband Horace die of a heart attack rather than climb the stairs to get his drugs for him. I wonder how much, if at all, Davis, Wyler and Hellman knew that this masterpiece was to represent a portent of the global doom of corporate greed that our world has become today? CGJOB 30th August 2006
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