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Close-Up on William Wyler’s "The Little Foxes": Family Drama Down South

Exploring William Wyler and Bette Davis’ Oscar-nominated classic, now playing in the US.
Jeremy Carr
Close-Up is a feature that spotlights films now playing on MUBI. The Little Foxes is playing on MUBI in the US February 15 through March 15, 2016.

William Wyler and Bette Davis had a good thing going by the time of The Little Foxes (1941). Wyler had three (of his eventually 12) Academy Award nominations and he had directed the star in two Oscar-worthy performances of her own: Jezebel (1938), for which she won, and The Letter (1940), for which she didn’t. Though it would grow increasingly contentious, their association was nonetheless mutually productive, and while Davis may have been reluctant to take on the role played to great acclaim by Tallulah Bankhead in Lillian Hellman’s stage version of The Little Foxes, the resulting feature film trumped the trepidation. 
Set in the indistinct though suitably decrepit “Deep South” circa 1900, the backdrop is just vague enough to be regionally collective but just specific enough to be wholly unique. Thirty-five years removed from America’s Civil War, The Little Foxes picks up as the South precariously steps into the new century, still reeling from its past with much disturbance yet to come. In its depiction of a singular time and place during a period of transition, The Little Foxes quickly hits every cotton-pickin’ cliché in the book, from pillars of mossy oak trees to the thick accents giving many actors a linguistic twang with which to fiddle. In this locale that hums to the tune of characters speaking from porches, shouting out windows, and yelling up from the street below, there is from top to bottom, left to right, an easily breached open line of communication, one that betrays the confined secrets lurking behind closed doors (where, thanks to Gregg Toland’s extraordinary deep-focus photography, the vastness of space is similarly amplified). The film instantly establishes the familiarity of a tight-knit small town, with all the sincere frankness and private gossiping that goes along with it. In other words, it is home sweet home for the Hubbard family.
The queen bee matriarch is Regina Giddens (Davis), married to sickly banker Horace (Herbert Marshall, in his second straight film with Davis and Wyler), who is away at a Baltimore hospital. In his absence, and with the instigation of a Chicago mill-building industrialist, Regina and brothers Oscar and Ben (Carl Benton Reid and Charles Dingle) begin to contemplate a potentially profitable enterprise, but one that would negatively impact the poorer class. As part of the scheme, the wealthy aristocrat Horace would need to invest in the mill, with Regina subsequently demanding a larger share of the endeavor and, rather perversely, Oscar insisting on the marriage of his son, Leo (a dim and daffy Dan Duryea in his first credited film role), to Regina’s pleasantly innocent daughter, Alexandra (Teresa Wright, also her screen debut). Alexandra, meanwhile, has her romantic sights set on the charming David Hewitt, played by Richard Carlson, a character apparently created by Hellman just for the film, mostly in order to offset the rancor of the other appalling men in the picture. And finally, on the inebriated sidelines, is Birdie (Patricia Collinge, who with Duryea, Dingle, and Reid reprise their roles from the Broadway show), the neglected and abused wife of stern Oscar. Once Horace is coerced back home and shows his reticence at the business proposal, the gloves come off. Leo, who works at Horace’s bank, steals $90,000 in negotiable bonds and in the Giddens house, and Regina, impatient with playing the part of the dutiful wife to expedite the venture, reveals the true state of her relationship with her husband; the tumultuous nature of their marriage is intensified to the point that she hurls verbal daggers hoping he soon dies. 
These are not very pleasant people, and the world created by Hellman and realized by Wyler is one of hypocrisy and cruelty. In his 1941 New York Times review, Bosley Crowther notes the film, “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.” As expected in a period-piece of the era, there is an emphasis on genteel mores and estimable social standing (“A good name is always useful,” says Oscar). Alexandra is learning to play classical piano, lending the household some superficial culture, and the newspaperman David has recently spent cultivated time up north gleaning worldly ideals. But the acerbic reality is that most of these people are primarily ruled by selfish prosperity. Most, but not all. The prevailing sense of disparagement and avarice is countered by not only David, as Hellman intended, but by the docile yet drunkenly verbose Birdie, who elicits a fair amount of sympathy for her mistreatment, by Horace, who though restrained by his illness is affably decent, and by, most of all, Alexandra. The Little Foxes elicits its emotional strength from the devastating realizations of this young lady. On the precipice of womanhood, Alexandra is sweetly confounded by her feelings for David, is bewildered by the familial squabbles, and is clearly disturbed by the harsh realities of human nature, hitherto kept from her view. The events of the story serve as an awakening for Alexandra, who ultimately manages to find her own spirit and truly becomes her mother’s daughter, in the best possible sense.
Still, even with these few exceptions, this is a desperate, deplorable lot. For all their financial finagling, though, Oscar and Ben, and to an even greater extent, Leo, are essentially inept, their hasty wheeling and dealing inevitably coming up short. Heading the disturbed family affair, however, is Regina. Initially deferential to her brothers, she slyly assumes her more appropriately domineering role by the film’s conclusion. The degree of her spitefulness and the full magnitude of just how distressingly far these people may be willing to go becomes clear toward the end of the picture, in a terrifying scene of passive malice. Not one to go down without a fight, Regina lies in wait like a coiled snake (or a stealthy fox set to pounce). Though it appears she has met her match three times over—David stands up to her, Horace despises her, her brothers have moved on without her—Regina is the one upon whom much of the drama depends, and for that reason, and of course for her star stature, when the luminous Hollywood legend Davis becomes the firm star of the show, the film irrevocably becomes all about Bette. 
The Little Foxes opens with a passage from the “Song of Solomon,” from which the work gets its name and its thematic significance: “Take us the foxes, the little foxes, that spoil the vines: for our vines have tender grapes.” This story is a classic case of deceptively tranquil surroundings breeding long-gestating hatred, where greed affronts the purity of the land and those who inhabit the territory. This concept is made abundantly evident as the film transpires, but just to hammer home the ethical crux of the picture (in what is an overt, and admittedly heavy-handed literal voicing of the idea), maid Addie (Jessica Grayson) talks about “people who eat the earth like locusts,” to which Horace again cites the Biblical passage. 
After the financial failure of Citizen Kane, released a few weeks before the more successful The Little Foxes, RKO began distributing the two films on a double bill in 1942, hoping the popularity of Wyler’s picture would help alleviate the loss from Welles’. This is not the only connection these two films—and filmmakers—share. Thematically, The Little Foxes resembles a Magnificent Ambersons-esque family dynamic, but stylistically, the picture most recalls Kane, or vice versa. Surely much of this has to do with Toland, who was already widely lauded for his work with John Ford and would take his photographic inventiveness to the extreme with Welles. Wyler and the esteemed cinematographer craft some fabulously arresting compositions, staging in great depth and detail, making the most of the Louisiana locations and the Goldwyn Studio sets, which were decorated by nine-time Oscar nominee Howard Bristol, with art direction by Stephen Goosson. Certain views, such as an over-the-table medium shot of David having breakfast, which visually extends through the window and out into the street, all in notable clarity, are remarkable for their sharp balance of foreground intimacy and background activity.
The same holds for the many scenes taking place in the Giddens’ home. Fittingly, as the house is such a vibrant stage upon which the players perform, the domestically lavish structure is itself stunningly depicted with extravagant vertical and horizontal planes of furniture, ornamentation, and character placement and interaction (if these walls could talk, the film probably wouldn't pass the Production Code). Most prominent in the house, and the resulting pictorial design of the film as a whole, is the wide variety of Kane-style reflections and distinct camera angles. Mirrors in particular are everywhere, and oftentimes serve to create striking, formally audacious arrangements. A suggestive portrait of the characters as they see themselves—or fail to truly see themselves—via detached mediation? A moment for literal reflection and self/viewer judgement? An image that simply looks fantastic? The significance is open to interpretation, but the pronounced presence is irrefutable.
Wyler and Davis would never work together again, with their collaborative disputes reaching peak petulance over the course of The Little Foxes’ production. Yet the film put both back at the Academy Awards ceremony, where they were each nominated as well as Samuel Goldwyn Productions for best picture, screenplay (also by Hellman), editing (Daniel Mandell), score (Meredith Willson), two supporting actress nods (Wright and Collinge), and art direction. While the film may have gone 0-9 that night at the Oscars, it certainly made an impression. And it still does.


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