'The Little Foxes,' Full of Evil, Reaches the Screen
of the Music Hall
By Bosley Crowther
The New York Times August 22, 1941 page 19
Lillian Hellman's grim and malignant melodrama, "The Little
Foxes," which had the National Theatre's stage running knee-deep in
gall and wormwood the season before last, has now been translated to the
screen with all its original viciousness intact and with such extra-added
virulence as the relentless camera of Director William
Wyler and the tensile acting of Bette
Davis could impart. As presented at the Music Hall yesterday, under
the trade-mark of Samuel
Goldwyn, "The Little Foxes" 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.
No one who saw the play need be reminded that Miss Hellman was dipping
acid straight when she penned this fearful fable of second-generation carpet-baggers
in a small Southern town around 1900. Henrik Ibsen and William Faulkner
could not together have designed a more morbid account of inter-family
treachery and revoltingly ugly greed than was contained in Miss Hellman's
purple drama of deadly intrigue in the Hubbard clan. And with a perfect
knowledge of the camera's flexibility, the author and Mr. Wyler
have derived out of the play a taut and cumulative screen story which exhales
the creepy odor of decay and freezes charitable blood with the deliberation
of a Frigidaire.
Frankly, there is nothing pretty nor inspiring about this almost
fustian tale of Regina Giddens's foxiness in planting figurative knives
in her own deceitful brothers' backs, of her callous neglect of her good
husband when he is dying of a heart attack, all because she wants to grab
the bulk of the family's rising fortune for herself. The whole suspense
of the picture lies in the question of who's going to sink the last knife. Even the final elopement of Regina's appalled daughter, for whom the film
conveniently provides a nice romance, adds little more than a touch of
leavening irony. Regina is too hard a woman to mourn much for anything.
Thus the test of the picture is the effectiveness with which it exposes
a family of evil people poisoning everything they touch. And this it does
spectacularly. Mr. Wyler,
with the aid of Gregg Toland,
has used the camera to sweep in the myriad small details of a mauve decadent
household and the more indicative facets of the many characters. The focus
is sharp, the texture of the images hard and realistic. Individual scenes
are extraordinarily vivid and compelling, such as that in which the Hubbard
brothers plot a way to outdo their sister, or the almost unbearable
scene in which Regina permits her husband to struggle unassisted with death. Only when Mr. Wyler plays
obvious tricks with mirrors does a bit of pretension creep in.
And Miss Davis' performance
in the role which Tallulah
Bankhead played so brassily on the stage is abundant with color and
mood. True, she does occasionally drop an unmistakable imitation of her
predecessor; she performs queer contortions with her arms like a nautch-dancer
in a Hindu temple, and generally she comports herself as though she were
balancing an Academy "Oscar" on her high-coiffed head. But the
role calls for heavy theatrics; it is just a cut above ten-twent'-thirt'
Miss Davis is all right.
Better than that, however are the other members of the cast. Charles
Dingle as Brother Ben Hubbard, the oldest and sharpest of the rattlesnake
clan, is the perfect villain in respectable garb. Carl Benton Reid as Brother
Oscar is magnificently dark, sullen and undependable. Patricia
Collinge repeats her excellent stage performance as the faded flower
of the Old South who tips the jug. Teresa
Wright is fragile and pathetic as the harassed daughter of Regina.
Dan Duryea is a shade too
ungainly as Oscar's chicken-livered son, and Herbert
Marshall is surprisingly British for a Southerner born and bred, but
both fill difficult roles well.
"The Little Foxes" will not increase your admiration for
mankind. It is cold and cynical. But it is a very exciting picture to watch
in a comfortably objective way, especially if you enjoy expert stabbing-in-the-back.
© 1941 The New York Times