Early in the 1941 film The Little Foxes, there is a brief, exquisitely-crafted scene that tells us everything we need to know about these characters. The Hubbard family, having just finished dinner with a wealthy guest and potential business partner, has gathered in the parlor for a musical performance. But this is no pleasant interlude; the entire scene is fraught with tension, with multiple characters precariously balanced on tenterhooks–albeit for different reasons. Alexandra, or “Zan” (Teresa Wright), the young daughter of Regina Hubbard Giddens (Bette Davis), sits at the piano with her Aunt Birdie (Patricia Collinge). Alexandra, miserable at being put on display, is overly nervous and misses the final notes of the tune. For her part, Birdie, already tipsy from the wine that accompanied dinner, just wants to get through the piece so she can have another drink. Regina sits on the sofa with William Marshall (Russell Hicks), the Chicago industrialist whom the family is trying to convince to partner with them in starting up a cotton mill. She reclines back with seeming ease, languidly waving a black fan in front of her face as if she hadn’t a care in the world. But Regina’s ease is superficial–her eyes dart around the room constantly, telegraphing her disapproval at any perceived misstep that might ruin the deal. Regina’s brother, Oscar (Carl Benton Reid), having just snapped at his wife, Birdie, for her liquid overindulgence at dinner, leans against the mantel, stern and unrelenting. His son, Leo (Dan Duryea), is in his own little world, and can barely hide his boredom. And Regina’s other brother, Ben (Charles Dingle), reluctant to pause his “hard sell” of Marshall for a little chamber music, fidgets and tries to start up the conversation once more in the middle of the song … only to close his mouth when Regina reaches out and kicks him in the shin. And thus, in the course of a mere three minutes of brilliant staging, director William Wyler manages to reveal the personality and motivations of every person sitting in that room, with barely a word spoken between them.
Over the course of a career that spanned five decades, William Wyler directed some of the most popular and enduring films to come of out the classic Hollywood period. To this day, he remains the most nominated director in the history of the Academy Awards, having been nominated twelve times, and winning three awards: for Mrs. Miniver (1942), The Best Years of Our Lives (1946), and Ben-Hur (1959). Wyler was known–to put it politely–as a persnickety director (let’s just say, they didn’t call the man “Once-More Wyler” for nothing). He was sometimes demanding and exacting, challenging his actors to put aside mere pretense and bring more to their performances. And while he may have pushed his cast and crew hard during filming, the results cannot be denied. Even a quick glance at his impressive filmography indicates that whatever Wyler did, it was entirely effective–some of the additional noteworthy films that can be found on his resume are 1936’s Dodsworth (for which he received his first Oscar nomination), The Heiress (1949), Roman Holiday (1953), and Funny Girl (1968), among more than three dozen others.
In filming The Little Foxes, Wyler got more behind-the-scenes drama than he likely could have ever anticipated. The movie is adapted from the same-titled 1939 play by Lillian Hellman, who also worked on the screenplay for the film before handing writing duties over to Arthur Kober (Hellman’s ex-husband) and Dorothy Parker and her husband, Alan Campbell (still, credit for the screenplay–and an Academy Award nomination–were given solely to Hellman, despite her having to bow out of the production of the movie to prepare for the debut of her next play). Several members of the Broadway cast reprise their original Broadway roles in the film, including Collinge, Duryea, Reid, and Dingle. But the main roles were recast, with newcomer Wright cast as Zan (for which she would receive her first of three consecutive Oscar nominations); Herbert Marshall taking on the part of Regina’s sickly husband, Horace; and Davis replacing the play’s star, Tallulah Bankhead, in the lead role.
Bankhead, a native of Alabama (like the character of Regina), was by all accounts a natural fit for the role. But Bankhead had two strikes against her that cost her the part: first, for all her stage acclaim, she had not proven herself to be a bankable film actress; and second, Wyler, who had worked with Davis previously on the films Jezebel (1938) and The Letter (1940), wanted Davis for the role. Despite the difficulties between Davis and Wyler on the set of The Letter (they are pictured above during the making of that film)–and the memories of a heated love affair that had begun and ended during the filming of Jezebel–each looked forward to working with the other again … at least initially. But when star and director began to clash over the portrayal of Regina, the production of the film reportedly went to hell.
The Little Foxes tells the tale of perhaps one of the most dysfunctional fictional families ever devised. The Hubbard clan reveres one thing above all else–money. In the end, the family is completely torn apart by their greed–particularly Regina, whose ambition leaves her incredibly wealthy, and incredibly alone, by the end of the film. The Hubbard brothers are far from princely, but Regina is in a class all her own. She is an utterly fascinating character, all harsh angles and pettiness under a charming facade, and yet there is a slight (at times almost minuscule) vulnerability to her that blunts her edges somewhat by the end of the film. As the daughter in the family, Regina was not included as part of her father’s will; she was forced to marry into money in order to have any at all, and her scheming could be viewed as simply a survival technique, taken to unforgivable extremes when she essentially sits by and watches her husband die, all so she can have the leverage she needs to blackmail her brothers for a bigger share of the mill. (However, if you have read Hellman’s prequel to The Little Foxes, 1946’s Another Part of the Forest, you know that pretty much any sympathetic view of Regina in this film is called into question by her somewhat harsh characterization in that play. The Hubbard clan was rotten to the core, from the very start.)
Davis and Wyler each had their own ideas about how Regina should be depicted onscreen. Davis found Regina to be cold and calculating, and wanted to play her in full-out “bitch” mode. Wyler, on the other hand, thought there was more to the character than bad behavior; he wanted Davis to inject sexier elements into her portrayal, giving Regina a more saucy and appealing air and a sly sense of humor in an attempt to make her more relatable to the audience. On stage, Bankhead had played up Regina’s heartlessness and frigid countenance, and Davis took this as her cue in taking on the role. Ultimately, Wyler lost that particular battle, and Davis played Regina the way she had envisioned. But this would not be the first skirmish to which the director would fall prey. Not long into filming, another big blow-up occurred over, of all things, Davis’ makeup. To try to make herself look older than her thirty-three years, Davis wore rice powder on her face, making her appear so white that Wyler derisively told her to take it off because it made her look too old. Davis refused. Two weeks later, she took an unscheduled “vacation” from filming, claiming to be a “nervous wreck” as a result of the ongoing tension with Wyler, and there was speculation that she would be replaced by another actress.
Eventually Davis returned to the set, and though the remainder of filming was far from pleasant, The Little Foxes was finally completed and released to much acclaim for everyone involved. Still, after the combative experience filming this movie, Davis and Wyler never worked together again (though according to Davis, the two of them had discussed the possibility of doing yet another picture together in the late 1940s, possibly an adaptation of the 1890 Ibsen drama Hedda Gabbler). But for all the trouble during filming, the final result was worth it. Davis is her typically impressive self; the supporting cast, most notably Collinge and Wright, match Davis note-for-note (not something that can be said about many co-stars the actress had over the years), and the movie–marked by Gregg Toland’s incomparable cinematography–is just plain lovely to look at. The Little Foxes is a consistently entertaining movie, populated with nasty folks whose dirty dealings are somehow infinitely enjoyable to watch, and it remains one of Wyler’s more indelible dramas.
This post is our entry for the William Wyler blogathon, hosted this week by the incomparable R.D. Finch of The Movie Projector. There is an excellent lineup of contributors for this event, so make sure to check out the list throughout the week and peruse all of the submissions!