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The Little Foxes (1941)

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Article 3

Mildly Unpleasant:

Samuel Goldwyn's 'The Little Foxes' Raises the Question of Ugliness on the Screen

By Bosley Crowther

The New York Times  August 24, 1941 page IX 3

This may seem like an odd sort of subject for a critic just back from vacation to attack, and certainly it violates the conventions of the craft.  At this point the customary thing would be to whip out a sheaf of breezy notes on the thoughts which occurred to us anent the screen while wallowing in indolence, or discourse in a casual, pastoral vein on the perils of theatregoing in the sticks.  At least, we should dutifully remark upon the films which dropped in while we were out, and perhaps say a whimsical word about the tiny slice of cake which was waiting here on our desk, a transcontinental crumb from Cecil B. De Mille's birthday feast.  Those are a few of the things about which we should presently write.  But the week of our return was marked but an event -- the arrival of Samuel Goldwyn's sleek production of "The Little Foxes" at the Music Hall.  After months of suspenseful preparation, during which the moods of the star, Bette Davis, were reported in almost daily communiqués, Lillian Hellman's stinging melodrama about a family of very nasty Southern folk has now reached the screen.  And our mind, at this moment, is charged with thoughts quite far from casual as a result.

Lady Into Fox

Here is a picture which tells, in a tight and concentrated little plot, of a family of Southern opportunists at the turn of the century whose favorite indoor sport is the figurative knifing of one another in the back.  The Hubbards, for all their fine houses and their respectable positions in the town, are as slick and greedy a lot of cutthroats as ever snatched a bulging purse.  There is nothing they wouldn't do, either together or each for himself, to grab a dishonest dime.  And overdressed Sister Regina, who unfortunately married an honorable man, is obviously the most cunning and rapacious of the lot.  For she is the one who drives the hardest bargain while conjoining with her brothers to build a mill.  She is the one who permits her own husband to flop about in a fatal heart attack without lifting a helping hand because she wants to gain control of his wealth.  And she is the one who sticks her treacherous brothers for three-quarters of the deal when she gets the upper hand by virtue (ambiguous word!) of her deceit.  Sister Regina is certainly some pumpkin of a wretch.  About the only things she loses in the end is her disillusioned daughter, who runs away with the honest suitor when she discovers what a monster mama is.  But Sister Regina is such a bad one that you can't even feel sure she cares.

Nicely Bad

In other words, Miss Hellman's "Little Foxes" (who spoil, in the biblical verse, the vines and grapes) are just a pack of snarling jackals without a single redeeming grace.  And this story of them possesses nothing of respectable quality save a certain ironic commentary upon the hollowness of deceit, plus a trenchant theatricalism which is expertly displayed.  It is a sordid tale of wickedness, a study of vicious character, with only a mildly retributive fadeout to suggest that crime doesn't pay.  Yet upon it have been lavished some of the finest talents in Hollywood.  Mr. Goldwyn, who knows his business, paid a handsome price for the successful play and employed the author, Miss Hellman, to adapt it almost straight to the screen.  Miss Davis, who seems to prefer those roles most deeply dyed in villainy, has acted Sister Regina with the somber sweep of a Lady Macbeth.  William Wyler has directed it for a perfect comprehension of its harsh incongruities and its cold, cumulative suspense.  Gregg Toland has put it through his camera in a sharply realistic way.  And a perfectly brilliant cast of actors unfamiliar to the screen -- Charles Dingle, Patricia Collinge, Carl Benton Reid, Teresa Wright and Dan Duryea -- have played it with compelling force.  It will probably turn out to be one of the most successful pictures of the year.

Crime Does Pay

And that is the point on which we would like to hang a question.  What is the strange fascination which films of ugliness, brutality and arch deceit have for audiences? Why does the public go for the coldest sort of crooks? (Being fresh back form vacation, we can wonder in wide-eyed innocence.) One of the most successful cycles of films the screen has ever had was that glorifying the gangster, before the G-man got the upper hand.  Erich von Stroheim had a rich career as "the man you love to hate." It is a secretly acknowledged fact that the recent film "A Woman's Face" did not draw so markedly until Joan Crawford's horribly disfigured phiz was displayed prominently in the ads.

Naturally, we wouldn't ask this question unless we had a speculative answer at hand.  And our suspicion would be that the public simply likes raw, red meat.  A primitive psychological factor -- sadism -- is also brought into play.  Cruel and ugly realism generally works for melodramatic effects.  And melodrama -- good melodrama -- draws the customers thick as flies.  But one man's raw, red meat may be another man's sickening poison.  Taste rears its fastidious head when ugliness is exposed, and it is very hard to predict how an individual will react.  For instance, this critic must confess that "The Little Foxes," for all its excellence, is not our meat.  We simply can't get interested in a dame who is so obviously -- and theatrically -- depraved.  And it isn't a matter of virtue.  It is purely an esthetic choice.  We don't like to watch dog fights either.

But this is not to imply that Mr. Goldwyn wasn't perfectly wise when he brought "The Little Foxes" to the screen.  Some of the most notable films -- "The Informer," "Citizen Kane," "M" -- have been about the most disagreeable characters.  "Tobacco Road" might have been a great picture if it had been a lot uglier -- or true to life.  Too many movies are composed out of sweet banalities.  A little touch of wormwood is an unpleasant relief now and then.

© 1941 The New York Times

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