The little foxes that spoil the vines.

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!

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39 thoughts on “The little foxes that spoil the vines.

    • As I mentioned on Twitter yesterday, “Every time I watch THE LITTLE FOXES, I feel better about my own family. The Hubbards put the ‘holy-freaking-shit’ in ‘dysfunctional.'”

  1. Brandie, you have posted a magnificent entry in the Wyler blogothon, much as you were a cinch to do so. I share your affinity for this penetrating drama, a further example of how the ‘persnickety’ Wyler was a perfect fit for cinematic transcriptions of stage dramas, a fact we knew after his direction of DODSWORTH a few years earlier. I much enjoyed your fascinating discussion of the inevitable Davis and Wyler skirmishes and of how the film can be seen as one of the most provocative treatments of greed on screen. Talluhah Bankhead was indeed an actress who proved she was perfect for Regina on stage, but the Davis-Wyler chemistry was in place after JEZEBEL and THE LETTER. I’d say it’s safe to assume that Davis, delivering one of her greatest screen performances, was at least the equal of Bankhead. I concur that Toland’s work here is extraordinary, and that the Hubbard family are dysfunction incarnate. The film boasts number of buffo supporting turns, and all in all is a riveting watch that holds up beautifully on re-visits.

    • Thanks, Sam! I’ve always loved THE LITTLE FOXES–both the play (which I read in high school before I ever saw the film) and this glorious movie. I think in many ways Bankhead was an underrated actress, so I’m glad to see your acknowledgement of her talent (she’s also a fellow Alabama girl, so I have quite the soft spot for her), but it’s undeniable that Bette Davis made Regina her own. I agree that this was one of the actress’ best performances–she just sunk her teeth into this role with a fervor that is rarely seen onscreen, then or now. I never get tired of watching this film, because everything comes together so beautifully. It’s truly a mark of Wyler’s talent and vision and ability as a director that he pulled together a truly spectacular picture despite the reported misery of everyone on that set!

  2. Brandie, just reading about the first scene you describe involving the Hubbard family immediately brought to mind a quote from NORTH BY NORTHWEST: “Now there’s a picture only Charles Addams could draw.” However, I daresay those playfully ghoulish Addamses were no doubt a heck of a lot nicer to their kinfolk! 🙂 Your post about THE LITTLE FOXES really brought the film, Wyler, and its performers to life for me! While it would have been fascinating to see Tallulah Bankhead onscreen in the role that made her a stage star, I’m confident that Bette Davis and that amazing cast and crew (DP Gregg Toland rocks!) were spot-on in their performances. Having seen and enjoyed Hitchcock’s SHADOW OF A DOUBT and knowing Patricia Collinge and Teresa Wright are also in THE LITTLE FOXES, I’ll have to watch both films back-to-back (been a long time since I saw SHADOW OF A DOUBT) to compare and contrast! 🙂 Superb post, Brandie, as always!

    • Thank you very much, Dorian! I love that you mentioned SHADOW OF A DOUBT–I wanted so much to work a mention of that into this review, because it is my favorite Hitch film of all time, but I couldn’t fit it into the flow. So thank you for doing it for me! 😀

  3. Fantastic piece here Brandie! This and DODSWORTH are two Wyler’s I have not seen in many years and need a refresher course on both. The background info in Davis versus Wyler is fascinating. Both were so strong minded, I would have loved to have been a fly on the wall soaking it in.

    • Thanks, John! I have little doubt that when Davis and Wyler got going, it was just as interesting to watch as the film itself. 🙂

      I’m looking forward to reading your post on THE BEST YEARS OF OUR LIVES later this week!

  4. Brandie, that opening paragraph in which you do a deep analysis of one scene, presenting it as a microcosm of the Hubbards’ family dynamics, was just brilliant! You certainly show how skilled Wyler was at conveying situational dynamics and character psychology in such a succinct way. Wyler was known as a great director of actors and Davis is my favorite actress. It’s hard to imagine two more strong-willed people doing battle on the set over character interpretation. I know that in their previous two films together, Wyler prevailed and Davis admitted later that he was right. But I think that by getting her way in this one, Davis gave one of her very best performances after “All About Eve,” maybe her best performance after her iconic Margo Channing. Regina’s unflagging icy self-control is certainly something to behold. I think she suggests that in addition to an inborn wilfullness and self-concern in Regina, this ruthless persona was the only way a female could get and hold power in such a male-dominated society. After seeing her in “The Little Foxes,” I can only imagine how awesome she might have been as the destructive, nihilistic Hedda Gabler.

    • RD, thank you very much! You make an excellent point about Regina’s “persona”–in many ways, she’s like a Southern soul sister to Scarlett O’Hara, another woman who had to be ruthless in order to get not only what she wanted, but what she *needed* to survive. I think we film fans truly missed out on a potentially epic film when Wyler and Davis couldn’t work out their schedules to do HEDDA GABLER together.

      I’m really glad you enjoyed this! I was thrilled to be invited to contribute–you have lined up some truly fantastic bloggers for this event, and I thank you once again for allowing me to throw in my two cents about one of my favorite films.

  5. I know the plot of this movie creaks a little with age, but this is one of my favorite Wyler films (and maybe my favorite of Davis’ performances). The film still works for me because practically all of the performances are superlative, an example of why Wyler was damn good at his job. And that first paragraph is perfection, Brandie–first-rate job!

  6. What can I add? Like others have said, it’s a great essay on an interesting film with a fabulous Bette Davis performance. You mentioned “Another Part of the Forest.” In the film version, Dan Duryea played the father of the character he played in “The Little Foxes.” Guess that’s why the son looked so much like his dad!

    • Thanks, Rick. I haven’t yet seen ANOTHER PART OF THE FOREST, but the cast list for it looks almost as impressive as that of its predecessor: Fredric March, Edmond O’Brien, Ann Blyth, Betsy Blair … I guess I need to move APOTF higher up on my must-see list! Looking forward to your own contribution this week. 🙂

  7. Brandie – a great post about an endlessly fascinating film (both on and off screen). Davis & Wyler are 2 towering artists, but I am not surprised to learn that Bette had the bigger set! She was a tigress and if any of Regina got into her blood, well, poor Willie didn’t have a chance!

  8. Wonderful post on a film I’ve seen many times and enjoy more and more with every viewing. Your opening paragraph describes why Wyler was so good. He could convey so much at the beginning of a film and do so with precision and conciseness.

    • Thank you so much! I noticed you are posting on THESE THREE and THE CHILDREN’S HOUR later this week–our new contributor, Sarah, wrote about those films last week for the Queer Blogathon, and I know she’ll be really interested to read your thoughts (as will I). I’ll make sure to send her your way!

  9. Excellent post! In spite of Wyler and Davis’ wrangling (or maybe because of it?), I feel like Regina comes off a very charismatic and intriguing character onscreen. She may be a viperous greedy bitch, but she’s far more intelligent than anyone else in her family and she knows it.

    Have I mentioned how much love I have for Dan Duryea in this movie? The scene with him and his father shaving and thinking about the locked box is just this wonderful moment of pure villainy.

    • Thanks, Rachel! I always enjoy reading your insights. Speaking of Duryea, you wouldn’t know this was the first time he had ever stepped from in front of a camera from his performance in this film. He came straight from Broadway, but he doesn’t have that overly theatrical style that some stage transplants would show in their early roles. His facial expressions alone crack me up–he is SO GOOD at telegraphing Leo’s callowness!

  10. Although I’ve seen the film many times, I had no idea of the behind-the-scenes rancor between Wyler & Davis! I daresay without the small snatches of vulnerability accorded Regina, “The Little Foxes” would be a kind of brutish experience to endure (even with my love of movie “bitches”). Thoroughly enjoyed your post and reading new info about a film I thought I knew very well. Thanks!

    • Thank you very much! From what I understand, Wyler didn’t think even those “small snatches” added enough sympathy to the character, and that was a big part of the issue between him and Davis. I would venture that Wyler may have envisioned Regina as a kind of updated Julie from JEZEBEL, who had enough charm to sink an ocean liner despite her selfish qualities. But that really wouldn’t have worked for this story, and Davis knew it. And I think that’s the thing that made Davis such an effective performer: her utter lack of fear of her directors. For the most part (with a couple of notable exceptions), she knew her roles inside and out, and woe betide the man who tried to tell her to play it otherwise! 🙂

  11. Like so many classic movies, this film isn’t available on DVD in the UK, but luckily I recorded it from TV a while ago and have just watched it today – a wonderful film which I look forward to seeing again in future, Great review, Brandie, and I agree with you that the early scene you describe does a lot to sum up the family, with Herbert Marshall being the only important one who isn’t there. Must say I think he gives a wonderful performance in this – just the weary way he moves his eyes does so much, expressing how ill he is, and his quietness is a great counterpoint to the icy raging of Bette Davis. Marshall was only six years older in this than when he played lawyer Max in Wyler’s ‘The Good Fairy’, but you would hardly know it was the same actor. I also loved Duryea and Wright, and the house and the way they all keep walking up and down the stairs – just a great film, which I’m so glad to have finally seen!

    • Thank you! As you say, Marshall was great in this, and regarding that parlor scene–ultimately, it’s appropriate that he’s not present, because he really doesn’t belong with the rest of them, does he? Horace is the only one who is self-aware, and the only one able to step outside the family and understand the dynamics of the group in a way no one else in the film really can or does (at least until the end, when Zan leaves for good).

  12. Brandie,

    I love your blog on The Little Foxes. What an excellent cast! For a film directed by the great William Wyler means to me the best director during the films in the golden age. I love everything that Mr. Wyler was involved with. But my all-time favorite is The Best Years of Our Lives. It was the best during the 1940’s or any era.

    • Thank you kindly! THE BEST YEARS OF OUR LIVES really is wonderful–John Greco is writing about that one over at his blog, Twenty Four Frames, on Friday, so I hope you get the chance to check that out.

  13. The Little Foxes is a supreme example of the fascination that dysfunctional families have for us – no matter how rotten the behavior, we can’t tear our eyes away. I enjoyed your great dissection of family dynamics in the scene where they’re trying to impress the Chicago visitor – it gives a sense of how multi-layered Wyler’s direction could be. What a same he and Davis never got together for a filming of Hedda Gabler; that seems a role that Davis was born to play.

    • Thank you very much! It’s strange how fascinating the “bad family” dynamic can be. Some of the best dramas I can think of involve highly dysfunctional families–hell, some of the comedies, too! 🙂

  14. A great post on a great movie. The scene where Marshall reaches out of reach for his medicine while Davis sits dispassionately by is one of the greatest scenes in movies, ever. I really need to see “Another Part of the Forest” one of these days. It may be hard to pick one, but if I had a gun to my head, I would select this as Bette Davis’ greatest performance.

    • I love that scene, too. It’s a brilliant shot, and Regina is so unfailingly cold in that moment. It’s hard for me to choose a single “best” performance for Davis–I generally go with ALL ABOUT EVE because she is pure dynamite as Margo, but I also really love her as Regina, as Leslie Crosbie, as Charlotte Vale, as Mildred Rogers, as Julie Marsden … too, too many great roles to choose from!

  15. Regina was such a vile character and Davis played her well. I can just imagine the “conversation” she and Wyler had about that rice powder. Great post.

  16. Hey Brandie….Thanks for providing lots of great background here especially about Davis and Wyler. I have not seen this in probably 15 years. I need to have a refresh on this as I’ve been watching some other Wyler films, but hadn’t gone back to this one. I know many consider this one of this best. Nice work!

  17. Congrats on a first-rate post, Brandie. You know, the performance in Foxes that has always stood out to me is Charles Dingle’s as Ben; as a friend of mine once said of a famous politician: Satan should be so charming.

    It’s a pity that the 1948 movie of Another Part of the Forest isn’t available on video. I have it on 16mm, and while it’s not on a par with Wyler’s picture, it’s a fascinating look at the rotten Hubbards and the father who made them that way. And what a cast! Fredric March as Marcus, the father and fountainhead of the family’s rot; Florence Eldridge as Lavinia, the helpless mother; Edmond O’Brien as Ben; Dan Duryea as “his own father” Oscar; and, most remarkably, Ann Blyth as the young vixen Regina. (And there is a startling degree of innuendo about the, ahem, relationship between father and daughter; amazing that it skated past the Breen Office in 1948.)

  18. Exquisite post, Brandie, you brilliantly illuminate both the onscreen story and the backstory of “The Little Foxes.” I haven’t seen the film for a few years – much as it is a great classic, spending time with the thoroughly unpleasant and predatory Hubbards can be an exhausting experience. Regina Hubbard is one of Bette’s great performances and yet I wish the Regina Wyler envisioned could also have been captured on film, if only for the sake of comparison. More than this, I wish Wyler and Davis had gone on to work together again and again – theirs was one of the greatest of director/actress collaborations.

    In one of her memoirs, Lillian Hellman wrote that the Hubbard clan was based on members of her mother’s wealthy Southern family, in particular a great-aunt and two great-uncles. Hellman claimed that the family made its money by taking advantage of poor blacks (and others) and this influenced her own later political views. If Hellman’s family was anything at all like the Hubbards, it’s no surprise to me that she was attracted to Communism in the 1930s.

  19. Your review was simply outstanding — both your insights and your writing — and I thoroughly enjoyed reading about what is one of my favorite Bette Davis films (and that’s saying a lot, as she’s my favorite actress!) I loved your description of the scene where Zan and Birdie are playing the piano — despite countless viewings, when Regina kicks Ben, I laugh out loud every time! That was so interesting about the disagreements Wyler and Davis had — I think she was right on both count. How fascinating that Bette Davis got her way!

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