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The Little Foxes (1941)

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A poster from THE LITTLE FOXES.

"Take us the foxes,
The little foxes that spoil the vines.
For our vines have tender grapes."
       -- Song of Solomon 2:15

Little Foxes have lived in all times, in all places. This family happened to live in the deep south in the year 1900.
    -- Prologue to THE LITTLE FOXES

One of the most caustic, and yet, exceptionally engaging films ever made, THE LITTLE FOXES (1941) is the story of a family torn apart by greed.  It features Bette Davis in one of the most villainous roles of her career, and exceptional performances by a host of first-rate supporting actors.  But besides featuring an engrossing story and complex characters, THE LITTLE FOXES is also a masterpiece of cinematic craftsmanship.  The photography, shot composition, set design, costumes, music and editing all work together to contribute to the mood of a particular scene or the emphasis of a particular shot.  For this reason, though the story is an unpleasant one, THE LITTLE FOXES is a film I find myself watching over and over again.

Regina applies her make-up.

As matriarch of the Hubbard family, Regina Hubbard Giddens is one of the most malevolent characters in the history of cinema -- the personification of selfishness and greed. Throughout the production, leading lady Bette Davis (left) fought bitterly with director William Wyler over details related to Regina's appearance and demeanor. 

Wyler felt that despite the character's flaws, Regina should still be portrayed as a handsome, charming woman.  Davis however, never bashful about appearing unattractive on film when necessary, insisted she needed to look older for the role -- at 33, she felt she looked too young to play a 41-year-old mother with a seventeen-year-old daughter --, and she whitened her face with calcimine, much to Wyler's chagrin.(*1 Davis also projected more venom in her interpretation of the role than Wyler desired, and their artistic differences of opinion eventually led Davis to take a sixteen-day hiatus from the set before she finally came around to complete the film.(*2)  Tensions between Wyler and Davis aside however, the mood on the set of THE LITTLE FOXES was generally cordial and friendly, and the veteran cast members (including Davis) got along well with the film's many Hollywood newcomers.
Regina confronts Ben and Oscar.

To play Regina's brothers, Ben and Oscar Hubbard, producer Samuel Goldwyn imported Charles Dingle and Carl Benton Reid (with Davis at right) from the Broadway production of Lillian Hellman's play which had starred Tallulah Bankhead in the role of Regina.  Dingle had made a few prior films, but THE LITTLE FOXES marked Benton Reid's screen debut.

Cut from the same cloth as their sister, Ben and Oscar devise an investment scheme to build a cotton mill in their small Southern town and exploit the poverty and cheap labor in the area.  But in need of $75,000, they ask Regina to talk her estranged husband Horace into becoming a partner on the deal.  Regina invites Horace to return home, and the conspiring, villainy and back-stabbing begin.

Memorable Quotations:

  • "Oscar, you should know me well enough by now to know I don't ask for things I don't think I can get." --Regina Giddens.
  • "Why, Alexandra.  You have spirit after all.  I used to think you were all sugar water." --Regina Giddens.
Leo catches a fly.

Oscar's son Leo Hubbard (played by Dan Duryea), represents the rising generation of the Hubbard family.  He is unscrupulous, uncouth, sneaky, restless and confused.  In the scene at left -- a defining moment in the establishment of his character -- Leo catches a fly in his hand while sitting in the living room, listening to his cousin Alexandra play the piano.

Footnotes:

  1. Jan Herman, A Talent for Trouble: The Life of Hollywood's Most Acclaimed Director, William Wyler (Da Capo Press, 1997) 224.
  2. Herman 225.

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Last updated: March 10, 2011.
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