THE HANDS THAT BILKED AMERICA
To not choose the revolutionary Citizen Kane as the Best Motion Picture of 1941 is to commit an unforgivable act of cinematic sacrilege. Courageously (or perhaps madly), I dare to choose another film: William Wyler's retelling of Lillian Hellman's scathing attack on American Family Values and Valuables, The Little Foxes.
Originally staged on Broadway in 1939, The Little Foxes offers a deceptively simple plot line: in a Southern town at the turn of the 20th century, the aristocratic Regina Giddens, whose husband is a semi-invalid, concocts a scheme that should make her independently wealthy. Within that framework, Hellman keenly depicts an array of the most despicable elements of human nature. Also on display are the putrefying corpses lying hidden in the closets and cellars of clean, respectable families, in addition to the festering rot found in the sewers underneath the streets of prosperous, civilized nations.
Admittedly, the great-looking Hollywood version produced by Samuel Goldwyn – cinematography by Citizen Kane's Gregg Toland, art direction by Lost Horizon's Stephen Goosson – had some sugar added to the plot in the form of a juvenile romance involving journalist Richard Carlson and film newcomer Teresa Wright as Regina's daughter, Alexandra. Even so, The Little Foxes remains as potent an indictment against greed and powerlust as the original play, partly because Hellman herself penned the screenplay (with the uncredited assistance of Dorothy Parker, Alan Campbell, and Arthur Kober) and partly because Goldwyn gathered a superb cast that, under Wyler's unflinching hand, delivers an onslaught of mesmerizing performances.
Bette Davis, for instance, an actress hardly known for her underplaying, is a model of self-control as The Little Foxes' Southern matriarch Regina Giddens. Needless to say, I never got to see Tallulah Bankhead's stage Regina, but I doubt it that Bankhead, no matter how good, could have been more effective than Davis.
Just like her unrepentant murderess Leslie Crosbie in the 1940 version of W. Somerset Maugham's The Letter (also directed by Wyler), Davis' Regina is a woman who knows what she wants and is out to get it – no matter the costs. In order to succeed, she is fully aware that her emotions must be kept in check. Watching Davis' cool, smart, calculating, and unashamedly ruthless villainesses in The Letter and The Little Foxes, I found myself at their mercy. In fact, in the hands of Bette Davis, those two monstrous women had my total sympathy, and went on to gain both my respect and my admiration.
Equally fascinating are businesscrooks Charles Dingle and Carl Benton Reid, both perfect reprising their Broadway roles as Regina's rapacious brothers. Patricia Collinge, also reprising her stage role as Regina's long-suffering sister-in-law; Herbert Marshall, as Regina's upright but ailing husband; and Teresa Wright's mellow but fast-maturing Alexandra miraculously hold their own against the film's brilliant heavies. (Curiously, according to some reports it was initially suggested that Davis play both Regina and Alexandra.)
But in all fairness, the villains are The Little Foxes' true (anti-)heroes. They are the ones who propel the plot forward, and whose goal-oriented characters display steely strength and determination.
When Regina proudly asserts that people like her and her kin have made America – a statement surely uttered by other Reginas in every other country throughout history – all one can do is resignedly nod in agreement.
Note: A version of this The Little Foxes review was initially posted in May 2005.
It's also worth noting that Lillian Hellman created for the stage an equally powerful prequel, Another Part of the Forest, the story of the young Regina and her family, which was filmed in 1948 at Universal. The film version, however, was considerably less well-regarded than The Little Foxes. Perhaps the problem lay in the fact that Hellman didn't adapt her own work the second time around. Vladimir Pozner undertook that task.
Directed by Michael Gordon, Another Part of the Forest stars Fredric March as the patriarch Marcus Hubbard, Ann Blyth as the young Regina, Dan Duryea as Oscar Hubbard (his father in The Little Foxes, played by Carl Benton Reid), Edmond O'Brien as Ben Hubbard (Charles Dingle in The Little Foxes), and Florence Eldridge (Fredric March's wife and frequent stage partner) as the long-suffering matriarch Lavinia Hubbard. Betsy Blair plays the young Birdie (Patricia Collinge in The Little Foxes).
And I'd be very curious to watch the 1956 made-for-television version of The Little Foxes, starring Greer Garson.
The Little Foxes (1941).
Dir.: William Wyler.
Scr.: Lillian Hellman. From her own play.
Cast: Bette Davis. Herbert Marshall. Teresa Wright. Richard Carlson. Dan Duryea. Patricia Collinge. Charles Dingle. Carl Benton Reid. John Marriott. Jessie Grayson. Russell Hicks.
9 Academy Award Nominations
Best Direction: William Wyler
Best Actress: Bette Davis
Best Supporting Actress: Teresa Wright
Best Supporting Actress: Patricia Collinge
Best Scr.: Lillian Hellman
Best Film Editing: Daniel Mandell
Best Music - Dramatic Film: Meredith Willson
Best Art Direction, Black and White: Stephen Goosson and Howard Bristol